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China says it can’t end North Korea nuke program on its own

Critics say Beijing hasn’t done enough to tighten economic pressure on Pyongyang as punishment for its nuclear tests

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China responded on Monday to calls that it needs to do more to rein in North Korea’ nuclear program by saying that American officials were truly to blame for inciting conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

The detection on Friday of North Korea’s fifth nuclear test brought new pressure on China, Pyongyang’s economic lifeline and the closest thing it has to a political ally. USDefense Secretary Ash Carter said China had an “important responsibility” in North Korea.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Monday that Carter was “being too modest.” She cited a Chinese saying - “Whoever started the trouble should end it” - in calling on the US to “take on its due responsibility.”

“I think the US should go over the process of the development of the nuclear issue and earnestly work on a tangible and effective resolution,” Hua said.

China has agreed to allow sanctions at the UN Security Council after previous tests by Pyongyang, and says it has restricted shipments of jet fuel and imports of certain minerals from North Korea, which otherwise remains in almost total isolation from the world. Critics, however, say China hasn’t done enough to tighten economic pressure on North Korea as punishment for its nuclear tests, which the Chinese government has publicly opposed.

Since Friday, Chinese state media have repeatedly linked North Korea's latest nuclear test to the American deployment of a high-altitude missile defense system in South Korea, which China has long opposed.

Hua did not mention the missile defense system, known as THAAD, on Monday. But she said all sides needed to resolve their concerns in a “balanced way.”

Even if China wanted to rein in North Korea, analysts say it's not clear that it could.

North Korea has repeatedly rejected China’s entreaties not to test nuclear warheads, and Pyongyang officials appear to be exploiting tensions between China and South Korea over THAAD, said Tong Zhao, an associate at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center think tank.

“Beijing apparently has very little real leverage,” Zhao said in an email.

One possibility is that China could try to broker a deal to freeze North Korea’s development of new missiles and warheads as part of the US and South Korea suspending joint military exercises, Tong said.

But Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said China has more leverage, and more reason to act, than its officials sometimes make it seem publicly.

“More and more, China treats North Korea as a threat to its national security and regional stability,” Mount said.
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“Encouraging this transition should be at the top of the next (American) president’s agenda with China.”

Another test 'soon'

Meanwhile, South Korean officials said on Monday that North Korea is capable of the next nuclear test anytime it chooses, even as the United States reportedly planned to send two nuclear-capable supersonic bombers to the South in a show of force against Pyongyang.

The speculation came after Friday's test - the North's most powerful test to date, and its claim to have used “standardized” warheads has sparked worries it was making headway in its push to develop small and sophisticated warheads to be topped on missiles.

After the test, the North’s nuclear weapons institute said it will take unspecified measures to further boost its nuclear capability, which analysts said hinted at a possible sixth nuclear test.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said on Monday that South Korea and US intelligence authorities believe North Korea has the ability to detonate another atomic device anytime at one of its tunnels at its main Punggye-ri nuclear test site, where the five previous atomic explosions took place.

Moon refused to say what specific evidence pointed to another possible nuclear test. But Yonhap news agency, citing unidentified Seoul government sources, reported on Monday there were signs the North had finished test preparations at one tunnel that has never been used. Yonhap did not elaborate.