Under threat of military action from an unpredictable US President Donald Trump, China appears to be stepping up efforts to prevent North Korea from conducting a major military provocation.
According to a US official familiar with intelligence reports, it is believed behind-the-scenes efforts by Beijing have so far staved off North Korea’s planned sixth underground nuclear test. Any Chinese strategy and tactics used to avert the test are not known.
China was prepared for a test in mid-April. On April 14, the Environmental Protection Bureau for Dalian, a port city across the Yellow Sea from North Korea, published an internal government bulletin that warned of a coming nuclear test by Pyongyang. The bureau ordered a state of emergency over “the danger of a sudden North Korean nuclear or chemical emergency” affecting environmental safety or public health.
The nuclear test did not occur that weekend as expected and instead a short range missile test was conducted. Trump tweeted then that “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”
Washington believes Chinese leaders, including those in the People’s Liberation Army – which has traditional ties to the North Korean military – warned North Korea that a nuclear event would trigger some type of US military intervention, such as an air strike or cruise missile attack on North Korean nuclear facilities that might set off another Korean War.
North Korea has about 21 known or suspected nuclear facilities, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These include several nuclear facilities, a high-explosive test site and an underground facility in the Pyongyang area, a uranium enrichment plant in the northern part of the country, and the nuclear testing facility in the northeast.
Any US military operation against the facilities would be difficult because of the need for weapons capable of hitting the underground site. It is believed an attack could set back the nuclear arms program but would be unable to completely destroy it.
Preventing US military intervention in the region remains China’s top priority. In furtherance of that goal, Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping sought an understanding on North Korea during his meeting with Trump in Florida.
According to a White House official familiar with the meeting, Xi told Trump that China does not have the leverage over North Korea that the United States believes it has. The Chinese leader sought to assure Trump that Beijing would try to do more to prevent another nuclear test. In exchange, he pressed the American president to pursue diplomatic rather than military means to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula.
Trump made clear to Xi that the United States would act unilaterally if China failed in its effort to restrain Pyongyang.
He also indicated he would be willing to hold talks with North Korea in the future and that he would even be willing to meet North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un.
The summit at the president’s Mar a Lago resort did not produce any joint statement. However, Trump later revealed that he had softened his position regarding China’s ability to control North Korean behavior after Xi provided him with an explanation of the historical situation on the peninsula.
“Pyongyang faces a strategic choice between confrontation to the end at the risk of survival and coming back to the negotiation table by abandoning its nuclear program”
Later Trump declined to declare China a currency manipulator, despite an election campaign promise to do so. The Pentagon also has yet to conduct a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea: in the past such operations have angered China, which claims 90% of the sea as its maritime domain.
Trump and Xi then continued discussions on North Korea in a phone call on April 24, when Trump criticized Pyongyang’s continued belligerence and destabilizing regional activities. Xi urged US restraint – diplomatic code for opposition to military action – and insisted China opposes another nuclear test.
The military option would set off a North Korean counterattack, likely using both conventional artillery and missile strikes and possibly escalating to the attempted delivery of nuclear payloads on some of short and medium-range missiles.
However, the military option is considered the least favorable solution and as a result the Trump administration is stepping up diplomatic efforts, specifically better enforcement and tightening of sanctions.
Efforts to add new sanctions within the United Nations were stymied by opposition from China and Russia.
Asked if China has bolstered its forces along the border with North Korea, PLA Sr. Col. Yang Yujun, a spokesman, told journalists on April 27 that reports of a troop build-up were not true. As for the risk of conflict between the United States and North Korea if another nuclear test is conducted, Yang said, the question was hypothetical. “I’d rather not give any response,” he said.
One significant sign that China may be joining the US effort to increase pressure on North Korea came via Chinese state-run media reports indicating a nuclear test could lead to the abrogation of the 1961 China-North Korea defense treaty.
The Global Times, affiliated with the ruling Communist Party of China, editorialized on April 18 that with cooperation expanding between China and the United States, a nuclear test would lead Beijing to “further strengthen the sanctions” on North Korea.
As a result, China could adopt “severe means” of curbing economic activities, including a halt in the majority of oil exports to North Korea, the paper stated. “Pyongyang faces a strategic choice between confrontation to the end at the risk of survival and coming back to the negotiation table by abandoning its nuclear program,” the publication warned.
Another Global Times piece said North Korea’s actions had undermined the 1961 defense treaty that broadly states that China would respond militarily to any attack on North Korea. The article used a key Chinese propaganda theme of opposing North Korea’s nuclear arms program mainly due to environmental concerns. “China will not allow its northeastern region to be contaminated by North Korea’s nuclear activities,” it stated.
North Korea struck back in a rare state-media editorial on May 4 that said such “absurd and reckless remarks” from China’s state media were making the bad situation worse.
“China should no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK’s patience,” the Korean Central News Agency said. “China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations.”
North Korea may still conduct a test. But the absence of one so far is a clue not unlike the one in the case of the stolen horse in the Sherlock Holmes mystery “Silver Blaze” involving a dog that didn’t bark during the theft of a horse by its trainer.