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China tries to rein in North Korea

By Benjamin Kang Lim

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has briefly cut off crucial oil supplies to North Korea recently in an apparent bid to rein in its unpredictable neighbour after Pyongyang test-fired missiles, diplomats say.

It was the first sign of Beijing appearing willing to use its economic muscle to twist arms in Pyongyang after months of criticism from Washington for failing to do enough to pressure North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Talk of Chinese pressure on its longtime ally came as a South Korean envoy, national security adviser Ra Jong-yil, headed to Russia and China to restart stalled efforts on a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

China cited technical problems for the three-day shutdown in March of an oil pipeline running from its northeastern province of Liaoning to North Korea, but the message was clear: behave, a Western diplomat said.

"It was cut for three days after the second missile," the diplomat quoted Chinese sources as saying, referring to North Korea firing a cruise missile into the Sea of Japan on March 10, Pyongyang's second missile test in two weeks.

"The tough message was: get straight," the diplomat told Reuters on Monday.

One Asian diplomat gave a different time frame, February, for the urgent need to repair the pipeline.

"Many Chinese are talking about it, but it's not 100 percent confirmed," the diplomat said. China said the disruption of oil supply was "unintentional", but North Korea lodged a strong protest, he added.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment and state oil firm China National Petroleum Corp and trader Sinochem denied any suspension of oil supply to North Korea -- estimated at one million tonnes a year -- in the past two months.

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China, which fought alongside North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War, remains the main supplier of food and oil to the isolated Communist state despite establishing ties with South Korea in 1992.

Diplomatic sources said Chinese officials have met their North Korean counterparts in public and in private up to 60 times since tensions began last October when Washington said North Korea had admitted covertly working to develop nuclear arms in violation of a 1994 accord.

Tensions escalated further after Pyongyang withdrew from a nuclear non-proliferation pact, expelled weapons inspectors and test-fired two missiles.

Beijing does not want a nuclear armed Pyongyang. The prospect, China's worst nightmare, creates visions of Japan, South Korea and even its longtime rival Taiwan going nuclear.

Nor does it want sanctions, at least publicly, fearing more brinksmanship from North Korea, or even a collapse that would send millions of hungry refugees pouring into China.

It was unclear, however, how much could be gained from talks while the United States wages war on Iraq.

North Korea, Iraq and Iran were labelled by U.S. President George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil", and Pyongyang fears it may be next on Washington's hit list.

"The Chinese are trying hard, but it's not working," the Western diplomat said. "The Chinese are tremendously worried about the course. This is not exactly headed in the direction of negotiation,"

"North Korea doesn't believe the United States will negotiate in good faith," he said. "It's about regime survival."

Watching the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion unfold, Pyongyang has speculated openly that it could be next on Bush's hit list.

"North Korea is convinced it's next after Iraq," said Gao Heng, a senior reseach fellow at the Institute of World Economic and Politics.

Pyongyang insists any nuclear programme it may have would be purely defensive in face of what it perceives as an American military threat to its very existence.

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