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Fear of N. Korea nukes grows

by JANE PERLEZ New York Times News Service on September 25, 2013 10:40 AM

BEIJING — In a sign of growing concern about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China published a long list Tuesday that included military-like hardware and chemical substances to be banned from export to North Korea for fear they could be used in adding to its increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons programs.

If put into place, the export controls would be some of the strongest steps taken by China, the North’s closest ally, to try to limit the country’s nuclear programs. The announcement indicates that China is now following through on some U.N. Security Council sanctions it approved months ago, according to a noted American arms expert.

The list of banned items was released amid a flurry of reports suggesting that North Korea was accelerating its two nuclear weapons programs.

Two weeks ago, new satellite photographs showed that North Korea might be resuming production of plutonium at its newly reconstructed nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. And this week, two American arms experts reported that North Korea appeared to have learned to produce its own crucial components for uranium enrichment.

The move also comes less than a week after China made another unsuccessful attempt to revive talks aimed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear capabilities.

The United States continues to resist restarting the talks, which North Korea has used in the past to extract concessions without making long-term changes to its nuclear program.

“The release of the new export control list is a signal China is concerned about the speeding up of weaponization” of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University, who called the move “very important.” In particular, he said, the Chinese are concerned about resumption of plutonium production at the Yongbyon complex, the centerpiece of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Another Chinese expert on North Korea, who declined to be identified because of his position in the government hierarchy, said the publication of the list “says that China is increasingly unsatisfied with North Korea’s actions.”

“This is one of the practical actions to show it,” he said.

Both plutonium and highly enriched uranium can be used in nuclear bombs, but analysts say the North’s plutonium program is much further along.

At least two of the three bombs the country has tested used plutonium.

China has long resisted punishing North Korea for its nuclear programs, but has appeared increasingly frustrated as the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, has appeared to ignore Chinese pleas for moderation. China agreed to the U.N. sanctions after the North conducted a nuclear test this year over Chinese objections.

The North responded to the sanctions with months of nuclear threats against South Korea and the United States, which, analysts say, ended only after China exerted strong pressure, apparently fearful of instability that could harm its economic progress.

David Albright, the American expert who said China is now implementing the U.N. sanctions passed in March, added that the Chinese ban “will help, since North Korea procures so much from China.” Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, added that China could take additional measures to “dramatically increase the inspection of goods into North Korea by road and rail.”

China has moved before to stop the export of other technologies that could be used in nuclear programs, including missile technology, though it did not single out any countries when it did so.

The items on the list China released Tuesday were called “dual-use technologies” because they can be used for either civilian or military purposes, and they included items that could be used to build more chemical weapons and to make biological weapons.

Banned items include Ebola, a virus that can be used for medical research as well as a biological weapon; nickel powder; radium; flash X-ray generators; and microwave antennas designed to accelerate ions. China’s Commerce Ministry, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the General Administration of Customs, and the Atomic Energy Authority jointly published the list.

In a statement, the Ministry of Commerce said the items in the 236-page document were prohibited from being sent to North Korea because “the dual-use products and technologies delineated in this list have uses in weapons of mass destruction.”

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, who hosted the conference in Beijing last week on nuclear talks, said the time had come to resume the negotiations. And the first vice foreign minister of North Korea, Kim Kye-gwan, who attended the gathering, said North Korea was ready to talk without conditions, a standard phrase from the North Koreans for some time now.

But the Obama administration has said it sees no sign that the North Korean government is serious about reducing its nuclear program. Instead, the United States said North Korea appears to be increasing its nuclear activities.

On those grounds, the administration said it was not interested in participating in renewed talks unless North Korea first took concrete steps to dismantle its facilities. Washington declined to send a senior official to the conference here last week, instead sending a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy.

In remarks at the conference, a former senior State Department official and an expert on North Korea, Evans J.R. Revere, whose presence was approved by the administration, said that North Korea was “further away than ever from the goal of denuclearization.”

Revere said North Korea has “declared itself a nuclear power, revealed to the world that it has not just one, but two programs to produce fissile material, confirmed that it is developing strategic rocket forces for the delivery of nuclear weapons, and sworn that it will never give up its nuclear weapons ‘even in a dream.’”

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