China Gets Serious About Ending N. Korea's Nuclear Program

China’s top leadership has banned the export to N. Korea of a long list of items thought to be essential to the pursuit of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions, according to a New York Times report.

The list of banned items, which comes to 236 pages, was published last week by the central government. The report is significant because it reveals both the extent of China’s knowledge about the details of N. Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its seriousness about denying its longtime ally the materials needed to build nuclear bombs and missiles capable of delivering them.

The list is thought to have taken months to create because it describes the banned items down to their precise measurements in inches and milimeters. That suggests that China’s new leadership had intended from the outset to support the UN sanctions imposed on N. Korea and not merely to put on a show of going along with negative international sentiment against the Pyongyang regime.

Yet it’s also possible that the leadership may have held off on releasing the list until it felt there was no longer any realistic prospect of restraining its old ally from pursuing its nuclear weapons ambitions. The list was released just days after new satellite imagery showed steam emitted from a nuclear reactor that had recently been rebuilt. This activity was seen by experts as an indication that Pyongyang had learned to produce key components for enriching weapons-grade uranium without foreign help.

But nuclear weapons experts also know that Pyongyang doesn’t have the metallurgical or ceramic technology to produce a missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead atop a ballistic missile without having it melt from the heat of reentry. China’s list of items banned from export to N. Korea includes components that would be crucial to shielding a nuclear warhead during reentry.

The timing of the publication of the list may also have been prompted by Friday’s announcement that Tehran would be willing to renounce military use of its nuclear program in order to have economic sanctions lifted. Beijing would not want to appear to be supporting Pyongyang’s ambition to become the world’s sole rogue nuclear state.