Tuesday, October 1, 2013

China Ban On Items For Nuclear Use To North Korea May Stall Arms Bid

New York Times
September 30, 2013
Pg. 4


By Jane Perlez
BEIJING — During the George W. Bush era, North Korea and Iran were joined together as the Axis of Evil, but with President Obama’s phone call to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran last week, that pairing — already out of favor in some quarters in Washington — was no longer so tight. It is virtually impossible, analysts say, to imagine Mr. Obama reaching out anytime soon to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who has already tested a nuclear bomb and threatened to stage a nuclear attack against the United States.
North Korea became even more of an outlier last week. China, its longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb on top.
The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.
Both Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development — if it is implemented fully — especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo, or the group’s seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.
The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China’s nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would give a boost to United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.
The release of the list came after new signs of the North’s continued nuclear buildup. Recent satellite photography showed steam emerging from a newly reconstructed nuclear reactor, suggesting that the North might be making good on its promise to resume the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Last week, two American arms-control experts said that a wide-ranging analysis suggested that the North had learned to produce crucial components for uranium enrichment without obvious foreign help.
Roger Cavazos, a former United States Army intelligence officer who specialized in China’s military, said an initial reading of the long list of banned items suggested that China was targeting important aspects of North Korean nuclear programs, including the ceramics needed to protect a warhead as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere atop a missile.
Despite the North’s underground tests of crude nuclear devices, experts say it has not yet tested a vehicle that can withstand the heat of re-entry, an important step in building a deliverable nuclear bomb. Experts also say that North Korea has most likely not yet mastered the difficult task of miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to fit atop a missile.
Since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, came to power earlier this year, Beijing has been tougher toward North Korea on its nuclear abilities, even as it has continued business investment there in a bid to help stabilize the impoverished country.
Chinese analysts say Beijing is increasingly frustrated at Mr. Kim’s unpredictable behavior since he ascended to the leadership after the death of his father two years ago, including his decision to proceed with a nuclear test this year despite China’s disapproval.
The publication of the banned items for export was described by these experts as a sign of further exasperation, and a desire for China to fall in line with the United Nations sanctions that it voted for earlier this year.
The diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran on Friday would give China another opportunity to “put the squeeze” on North Korea, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. “Now Beijing can say to North Korea: ‘If you want to breach your isolation, you should do more.’ ”
A senior official in the Obama administration said American analysts would be poring over the list to determine if China was implementing the sanctions it approved or was rattled enough about North Korea’s nuclear progress to go even further.
The timing of the export controls helped China to show a “balanced” public policy toward North Korea, the official said.
Earlier this month, in a “good cop” move, China invited several senior North Korean officials to a public event run by the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. The conference was designed to foster the restarting of talks to get North Korea to give up its weapons, and to give a polite gloss to the testy relations between the two countries.
The “bad cop” move came with the release of the list of banned items, the administration official suggested.
The publication of the list comes with an added benefit for North Korea watchers, who are always struggling to ascertain the highly secretive country’s nuclear abilities.
“The list gives a good insight into what China knows about the missile and bomb development of North Korea,” said Mr. Cavazos, the former Army intelligence officer who now works as an analyst at the Nautilus Institute, which studies international security issues. “From what I can tell, it lays out almost all China knows about North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.”
Among the banned items he mentioned as important were metal alloys needed in the enrichment of uranium; North Korea’s metallurgical skills are thought to be poor. Red fuming nitric acid, the substance that some American experts said fueled a North Korean rocket launched last December, also figured prominently on the list, he said.
Still, no matter how definitive the export controls, they would have little impact unless the Chinese authorities enforced them, said Siegfried S. Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now at Stanford University.
“Now they have to make sure their companies are committed to the export control list,” said Mr. Hecker, who was the first American to be shown North Korea’s uranium enrichment plant. “Putting out the regulations itself is not going to slow down the North Koreans.”
Mr. Cavazos also said enforcement would be critical. “I have no idea if a Chinese customs official on the border with North Korea has any idea what most of the things in the 236 pages look like,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Hecker said China had taken a useful step in potentially slowing North Korean advances. If the contact between the United States and Iran developed into full-fledged negotiations, the North Korean nuclear program could be even further pressed.
“One of the most significant benefits of a U.S.-Iran deal could be termination, or at least a curtailment, of nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran,” Mr. Hecker said.

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