North Korea’s fourth underground nuclear test last week set off more than seismic tremors that reached the northeastern Chinese border.
A test of what US intelligence believes was a partial blast of a developmental thermonuclear bomb has sharpened political differences between China and its fraternal communist ally.
For the first time since North Korea began nuclear testing 10 years ago, Pyongyang failed to notify Chinese leaders in advance of the Dec. 6 test, catching China by surprise and prompting a harsher than usual response from Beijing.
China issued a Foreign Ministry statement, meant to be signal strong displeasure, as it did for tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. But the latest statement included harsher language than those issued after earlier tests. The statement specifically said China would “firmly push forward the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”
Initial US intelligence analysis of North Korea’s two official announcements praising what were called a successful “test-use hydrogen bomb,” revealed that Pyongyang’s latest test was intended to send the exact opposite message to China and that relations between the two states remain “tense.”
Although claims of hostile American policies toward Pyongyang were openly referenced, the North Korean nuclear test statements included indirect signals that Chinese opposition to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal was a significant reason for the latest test. Additionally, the North Koreans were signaling China by making clear that Pyongyang will not surrender its nuclear weapons “under any circumstances” until “US hostility” ceases.
Diplomatic talks are undermining the country’s interests and therefore North Korea must rely on its “own strength” for national defenses, the statement said.
The surprise test was also followed by threats by North Korea to adopt even more hostile policies and deeper resistance to international pressure to denuclearize. Previously, North Korea had suggested it might adopt a testing moratorium. But the new statement rejected any halt in the program.
Washington reacted with veiled criticism of China. “We agreed that there cannot be business as usual,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after talking to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Jan. 7.
“China is not the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue, nor is it the key to resolving the problem,” a defensive Chinese foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said after Kerry’s critique.
The Chinese calculus toward North Korea is based on its rulers near-obsession with internal stability and analysts say that is unlikely to change. China remains North Korea’s closest ally and trading partner, providing most of the country’s food and oil. Yet China has failed to use its significant leverage from those supplies to force significant changes in the regime’s behavior, whether on nuclear and missile development, or regarding North Korea’s dismal human rights record.
Ties between the two states began declining in 2013 after leader Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Sang-taek, ostensibly on corruption charges. Jang was viewed as a key pro-China figure within the ruling clique in Pyongyang.
China then began developing closer economic ties to South Korea under President Park Geun-hye
A Chinese dissident website reported after the test that China was considering terminating its Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, something that would end the defense ties between the two communist states cemented after PLA troops came to the aid of North Korea during the Korean War.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, blames China for the growing North Korean threat. Pyongyang watched as the West offered Iran major concessions on its nuclear program – like the freeing up $100 billion in frozen assets – and wants similar concessions.
“China is engaged in a game of good cop, bad cop,” Rubin says. “North Korea is China’s client. North Korea wouldn’t have gotten this far if China didn’t want them to.”
Over the past 20 years, the United States has sought to give China a leading role in trying to rein in North Korea, but those efforts have proved unsuccessful.
“Perhaps what we have to do is get out of this dynamic with China,” Rubin said. “We’ve got to work with Japan more. Perhaps encourage Japan to go that final mile and actually become a nuclear power. They’ve been revising their constitution anyway. That’s the only type of thing China would recognize.”
China’s party-affiliated Global Times newspaper signaled official Chinese rejection of the criticism and instead blamed North Korea and the United States.
“The fact is the tensions have to do with both Pyongyang’s wrong choices and Washington’s persistently hostile policy towards Pyongyang,” the paper editorialized.
The trio of the United States, South Korea and Japan must solve the problem, Global Times asserts.
“It would be juvenile for Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo to attempt to force [North Korea] to denuclearize simply by pushing Beijing to pressure Pyongyang,” the editorial says. “It is impossible for China to take the trio’s responsibilities. Nor is Beijing able to turn hostile to Pyongyang—the Chinese public will not allow it to happen.”
North Korea also boasted of conducting a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test two days after the nuclear test.
The Chinese failure to prevent a growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat is benefiting the US policy shift to Asia. Washington plans to strengthen its alliances with South Korea and Japan in the aftermath of last week’s test. A next step is expected to be a new, US-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution to tighten North Korean sanctions, and hoping an angered China will not seek to soften them as it has done in the past.
In South Korea, the Pentagon is considering whether to deploy nuclear weapons there as a counterweight to the growing North Korean arsenal. And an added step is likely to be the deployment to South Korea of highly effective Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile systems that China has opposed as threatening its growing regional missile forces.