China Export Ban Targets N. Korean Nuclear Effort

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China has produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it has banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of a nuclear-armed missile.

During the George W. Bush era, North Korea and Iran were joined together in the Axis of Evil, but with President Obama's phone call to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran last week, that pairing -- already out of favor in some quarters in Washington -- was no longer so tight. It is virtually impossible, analysts say, to imagine Mr. Obama's reaching out anytime soon to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who has already tested a nuclear bomb and has threatened to stage a nuclear attack against the United States.

North Korea became even more of an outlier last week. China, its longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead.

The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China's longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and grant the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.

Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development -- if it is fully carried out -- especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo or its seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.

The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China's nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would bolster United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North's increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.

The release of the list came after new signs of the North's continued nuclear buildup. Recent satellite photography showed steam emerging from a newly reconstructed nuclear reactor, suggesting that the North might be making good on its promise to resume the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Last week, two American arms-control experts said that a wide-ranging analysis suggested that the North had learned to produce crucial components for uranium enrichment without obvious foreign help.

Roger Cavazos, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who specialized in China's military, said an initial reading of the long list of banned items suggested that China was targeting important aspects of North Korean nuclear programs, including the ceramics needed to protect a warhead as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere atop a missile.

Despite the North's underground tests of crude nuclear devices, experts say Pyongyang has not yet tested a vehicle that can withstand the heat of re-entry, an important step in building a deliverable nuclear bomb. Experts also say that North Korea has most likely not yet mastered the difficult task of miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to fit atop a missile.

Since China's new leader, Xi Jinping, came to power this year, Beijing has been tougher toward North Korea on its nuclear program, even as it has continued business investment there in a bid to help stabilize the impoverished country.

China analysts say Beijing is increasingly frustrated at Mr. Kim's unpredictable behavior since he ascended to the leadership of his country after the death of his father two years ago, including his decision to proceed with a nuclear test this year despite China's disapproval. …