UNITED NATIONS—North Korea’s longtime ally, China, has said the secretive regime must face “punitive actions” over its claim to have tested a nuclear weapon, while relief workers predict tougher conditions for refugees fleeing starvation and political persecution as the winter approaches.
Sources in China say security along the Chinese-North Korean border has been tightened and military leave in the area has been cancelled.
"There are several things that need to be done. Things are likely to get bad this winter, and I am suspecting they will...We have to have a more relaxed policy by China at the border," Joel Charny, vice president of the non-government group Refugee International, told RFA's Korean service.
"China may arrest and deport people...who are fleeing North Korea simply to survive," he said.
"Part of it is a political dialogue that needs to take place with the Chinese to get them to stop arresting and deporting people. Now, if China does agree to accept N. Koreans on their territory, China may turn around and say that “this is an economic burden for us, can you assist us in meeting that economic burden?” If that’s what China says, I think donors should be willing to do that," he added.
I think that there has to be some punitive actions, but also I think that these actions have to be appropriate.
China on Tuesday threatened measures against the isolated Stalinist regime following its announcement that it had tested a nuclear weapon, but stopped short of threatening sanctions. China is a major ally and aid donor to Pyongyang.
“I think that there has to be some punitive actions, but also I think that these actions have to be appropriate,” China’s U.N. ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters.
Wang spoke before a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council, along with Japan, to discuss a U.S.-proposed draft Security Council resolution.
The resolution seeks to impose a range of sanctions, including a ban on imports of military goods and luxury items, and a crackdown on illegal financial dealings.
Wang said the council needed a “firm, constructive, appropriate but prudent response to North Korea’s nuclear threat.” He didn’t indicate which sanctions China would support among those proposed by the United States.
China has long acted as North Korea’s main ally and interlocutor, aiding it with food and energy supplies since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s longtime patron, in 1989.
This is the way North Korea typically negotiates by threat and intimidation. It’s worked for them before. It won’t work for them now.
Chinese officials confirmed to RFA’s Mandarin service that security along the Chinese-North Korean border had been increased and all military leave in the area had been cancelled, but they refused to provide details.
A woman in the Dandong border area who asked not to be named told reporter Ding Xiao that border crossings had been closed in the region since Oct.1, China’s national day.
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry sharply rebuked North Korea for a second day.
“The nuclear test will undoubtedly exert a negative impact on our relations,’’ the spokesman, Liu Jianchao, told a routine briefing, saying Pyongyang had conducted the test “flagrantly, and in disregard of the international community’s shared opposition.”
Liu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said “taking military action against North Korea would be unimaginable.”
The United States meanwhile rejected direct talks with North Korea and insisted it wouldn’t be intimidated.
“This is the way North Korea typically negotiates by threat and intimidation,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. “It’s worked for them before. It won’t work for them now.”
The White House cited a “remote possibility” that the world never will be able to fully determine whether North Korea succeeded in conducting a nuclear test Monday.
Washington also wants the sanctions to be mandatory and enforceable.
We have to take these measures so that we have a nuclear deterrent against the Americans.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggested Beijing may have reached a turning point but predicted the U.N. response would be “relatively weak,” since China, Russia, and South Korea would favor a softer set of penalties.
“China may have decided that they’ve given North Korea the benefit of the doubt too long,” he said. “My overall guess is that China will do something that’s, in their eyes, big enough to be seen as serious by most of the rest of the world and small enough not to really hurt North Korea, because they don’t want to see a collapse” of the regime, O’Hanlon said.
“I think the U.N. is going to [impose] a relatively weak set of responses because of the fact that China and Russia, backed up by South Korea, won’t want to do anything too strong,” he added.
South Korean media said the test occurred Monday in Gilju in Hamgyong province at 1036 (0136 GMT). The size of the weapon was unclear.
According to Agence France-Presse, Kim Seung-Gyu, head of South Korea’s spy agency, told legislators there had been “unusual movements” in a rugged area of North Korea some 20 miles (about 32 kms) from the site of the first test, suggesting a second test could be imminent.
Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and has for the last year boycotted talks aimed at ending its nuclear program.
In Brussels, a North Korean legislator on a rare visit to European Union headquarters said his government wouldn’t be influenced by the international outcry over its nuclear test.
Ri Jong Hyok, a member of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, also told EU parliamentarians that the U.S. financial sanctions against his country “suffocate our political system,’’ and asked the EU for development aid.
Ri said the nuclear test was a result of what he called severe pressure by the United States which he said threatened his country’s sovereignty.
“We have to take these measures so that we have a nuclear deterrent against the Americans,” Ri said through an interpreter to the European Parliament’s committee for relations with the Korean peninsula during a meeting billed as an “exchange of opinion” between EU lawmakers and a four-member North Korean delegation.
We are very concerned that the food security situation in North Korea today is so fragile and precarious that any disruptions to the food that is provided from South Korea or China could have very dangerous effects on the people in North Korea.
Paul Risely, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Programme in Bangok, said the WFP fears North Korea’s food situation could become “dangerous” in the event of tighter sanctions.
“We are very concerned that the food security situation in N. Korea today is so fragile and precarious that any disruptions to the food that is provided through bilateral assistance, meaning from South Korea or China, could have very dangerous effects on the people in North Korea,” Risely told RFA’s Korean service.
“As long as the WFP and others can demonstrate that their food can be given directly to the people of North Korea rather than being used in any way, then I think funding for the food assistance must continue,” Risely added.
The WFP has already scaled back its food aid program to a target of 75,000 tonnes of food aid annually, down from 500,000 tonnes. That followed a compromise after Pyongyang said it no longer wanted aid, and came amid disagreements over the conditions for supplying aid.
Experts say up to 2.5 million North Koreans died in the 1990s due to famines caused by drought, flooding, and economic mismanagement.
North Korea maintains “a kind of national siege mentality... compounded by the last 50 years of history,” said David Lampton, director of the China Studies Program at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.
“My guess is they’re not in the mood to be pushed around by any big power, whether it’s China or the United States. I’ve never thought that they look particularly more kindly on the Chinese than they do the Americans,” Lampton said.
China may have decided that they’ve given North Korea the benefit of the doubt too long.
On Monday, Hong Kong-based military analyst Ping Kefu said the test signalled “a complete break-up between China and North Korea.”
“Less than one hour after the nuclear test, Beijing issued a statement saying that it was resolutely opposed to it,” said Ping, an analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly , speaking to RFA’s Mandarin service. “This is unprecedented.”
North Korean defectors in South Korea said Pyongyang appeared to be making a strategic move and the North Korean people would bear the cost in diminished or suspended international aid.
Park Jiho, a defector who works as a reporter for an online Korean newspaper, said: “I, and my fellow defectors in Seoul, think that by conducting a nuclear test, North Korea has reached a point beyond which it can move no further.”
“It occurred to me that severe sanctions and isolation had made North Korea opt for a nuclear test. Secondly, I thought [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il might use the nuclear test to solidify internal unity and revive the determination of his own people, who are as disheartened and discontented as ever.”
“South Koreans may have been very shocked by the North Korean nuclear test, but this came as no surprise to North Koreans, who have been told by their regime all along that it would conduct nuclear tests, and that it would ensure its survival by doing so.”
“Most North Koreans believe that only a nuclear North Korea can rival the United States,” said Choi Hongdo, a defector and university student.
Original reporting by RFA’s Korean and Mandarin services. Translation by Greg Scarlatoiu, with additional reporting by Richard Finney and news agencies. Korean Service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Mandarin Service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by David Beasley, Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.