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(photo credit: AP [file])
China is weighing tough measures to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions, with government experts calling for the reduction of critical supplies of oil and food that have helped sustain its isolated, impoverished neighbor.
The options Beijing is considering mark a break from even the recent past in which China has preferred to use incentives rather than threats with North Korea. But the October 9 nuclear test further frayed already damaged ties and strengthened the hand of critics who believe Beijing should take a harder line against a North Korea they say has ignored Chinese interests.
Even before the nuclear tests, with its patience wearing thin, China reduced food aid to the chronically food-short North by two-thirds this year, according to the UN World Food Program. After voting last week for UN sanctions that ban trade in military and luxury goods, China stepped up inspections of trucks crossing into North Korea.
On Friday, all four major Chinese state-owned banks and British-owned HSBC Corp. said they have stopped financial transfers to the North - a step beyond what the UN sanctions require and a likely blow to a weak economy that relies on China as a link to the world financial system.
"There's no doubt that China is increasing pressure," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "If North Korea continues to behave in this way, go down this path, China will be forced to take more severe measures."
Chinese leaders aren't ready to fully cut off North Korea; the two were allies in the Korean War and the North remains a useful buffer state in Northeast Asia. In enforcing UN sanctions, China has balked at inspecting cargo ships, saying it could lead to armed conflict. And Beijing insists it wants North Korea to resume negotiations on disarmament, but that it doesn't want an end to Kim Jong Il's regime.
In trying to ease tensions, a Chinese envoy visited Kim this week, delivering a letter and an unspecified personal gift from Chinese President Hu Jintao.
But Beijing's growing exasperation with the North has made a once unthinkable harder line more likely, experts said.
"North Korea is China's biggest foreign policy failure of the past 50 years," said Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School, a training academy for China's Communist leadership. "China ought to cut off oil and food."
Kim's government has stubbornly refused for a year to return to the six-nation nuclear talks sponsored by Beijing. The nuclear test and the test-firings of missiles in July came despite Beijing's pleadings to stop. All the while China has been the North's economic lifeline, accounting for more than half its trade and almost all North Korea's oil.
In the wake of the nuclear test, the Chinese leadership and its intelligence apparatus have held several crisis management meetings to assess options. At one session, experts were asked for information on possible radiation leaks from the explosion and on whether North Koreans might flee over the border into China, a participant said.
Intelligence experts and scholars have said that in their own meetings to discuss the crisis, oil and food have emerged as potential pressure points.
In a commentary in the overseas edition of the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, Li Wen of Beijing's elite Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China is running out of choices.
In the face of another nuclear test or other North Korean provocations, "China might have to stop supplying oil and grain to North Korea," Li said. "If North Korea doesn't return to the six-party talks, what else could be done?"
Between January and August this year, China supplied North Korea with nearly 370,000 metric tons of crude oil - about 11,000 barrels a day - according to the General Administration of Customs.
"It would be a powerful avenue," said Victor Shum, a Singapore-based analyst at the oil and gas consultancy Purvin & Gertz.
The Chinese leadership has been typically tightlipped about the options debate.
When asked by reporters if China would reduce food and oil shipments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said: "China has been working for years to improve the livelihood of North Koreans. We believe this is the right policy."
Other experts have urged caution, saying that tough action might backfire on China.
"The more sanctions against North Korea, the more hostile North Korea would be toward China," said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
North Korea has its own leverage, experts said, by opening up its border and allowing poor North Koreans to swarm into China in search of food and jobs or by launching a missile at Japan and inciting a war.
Steven Knell, a London-based energy analyst for Global Insight, a private forecasting firm, said "it doesn't hurt China at all to remind the North Koreans of just how closely connected their basic social and economic fortunes are."
"It's an effective piece of leverage - but it's just that," he said.
Beijing will likely consider other options that would have less of "a destabilizing impact," Knell said, referring to North Korean refugees.
"China wouldn't want to ... foment greater unrest or social malaise" across the border, he said.
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