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(LEAD) (News Focus) All eyes on China for tougher sanctions against nuclear N. Korea

All Headlines 17:41 February 18, 2013

(ATTN: ADDS China's foreign ministry spokesman's comment in paras 6-8)

SEOUL, Feb. 18 (Yonhap) -- China has so far stayed quiet in the ongoing debate over how to punish North Korea for its latest underground nuclear test, with the international community waiting to see whether, and if so how, Beijing will rein in its troublesome ally.

Despite repeated international warnings, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test by detonating what it called a miniaturized atomic device on Feb. 12, drawing a chorus of worldwide condemnations and prompting the United Nations Security Council to begin devising "appropriate measures" against it. The North also conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

China, the North's only ally, had expressed clear opposition to the nuclear test, but it has yet to share its stance on possible stronger sanctions against Pyongyang. In the past, Beijing has been reluctant to back tougher measures against the North, often using its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Seoul and Washington, on the other hand, have agreed to push forward tougher measures to penalize the country at the "earliest possible date."

"China still appears to be mulling what position it will take," said a senior official of Seoul's foreign ministry. He declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the issue. "So as of now, there is no way we can anticipate when the U.N. resolution will be adopted and how severe it will be."

During a briefing in Beijing on Monday, the first after the North's third nuclear test, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei stopped short of reiterating the country's earlier opposition to the North's nuclear test, while calling on the international community to stay calm.

"The Chinese foreign ministry has already issued a stern statement about the North's nuclear test," Hong said. "China opposes North Korea's nuclear test."

Stressing that Beijing is communicating with the countries concerned about how to deal with the provocation, Hong said the discussions at the Security Council should help "the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, non-proliferation, and securing peace and stability of the peninsula," and Beijing hopes "relevant parties will deal with it calmly and not take actions to inflame the situation."

Experts say the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is unlikely to move quickly to change his country's long-held policy of supporting its next-door neighbor. North Korea has long served as a buffer zone between China and South Korea, which is a key ally of the United States.

"China prioritizes the North Korean regime's stability in its Korean Peninsula policy to secure its border, and thinks that the North's holding of nuclear weapons does not necessarily mean the regime's destabilization, a big difference from the view held by South Korea and the U.S.," said Shin Chang-hoon, director of Nuclear Policy and Technology Center at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"If China sees that tougher sanctions to denuclearize North Korea could pose a threat to the North's regime, it would not join the international move to punish Pyongyang more severely," he added.

China's delay in voicing a clear position is, at least ostensibly, because the country has been celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday season. But it is also likely China needs more time to weigh the complicated security dynamics such as relations with the Obama administration in its second term and leadership changes in South Korea and Japan, according to experts.

"It remains to be seen to what degree China and its new leader will agree with Pyongyang. But one thing is clear: Beijing is in a very difficult position now if we also take into account its domestic politics," said another official at Seoul's foreign ministry.

There are, in fact, signs that Chinese people are growing discontent with the so-called ally, especially after the North ignored Beijing's repeated calls for restraint and conducted the test near the Chinese border while the country was on holiday.

Chinese Internet users have posted complaints about the third nuclear test, and a left-wing Chinese professor drew fire for his posting on China's microblogging platform, Weibo, taking Pyongyang's side and claiming that "antagonizing North Korea means China commits suicide," according to local media on Sunday.

A series of protests against North Korea's nuclear weapons program, albeit small in scale, also took place in China, including a group of Internet users gathering in front of the North Korean diplomatic missing in Shenyang on Saturday calling for stronger economic and military sanctions and cutting aid to the North.

"China will make a strategic choice factoring in both domestic and international circumstances," said a high-level South Korean foreign ministry official, requesting anonymity.

"Things are murky now, and the discussions on a more severe resolution could take longer than before. But if China decides to go down the path of trying to tame North Korea, that will expedite the U.N. process," he added.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution five days after the North's first nuclear test in 2006 and 18 days after the second detonation in 2009.


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