Will China Match Words with Actions?

Experts wonder how far Beijing will go in reining in North Korea if it fires another nuclear device.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Kim Jong Un (R) shares smiles with military officers as he reviews a military parade in Pyongyang, April 15, 2012.
Kim Jong Un (R) shares smiles with military officers as he reviews a military parade in Pyongyang, April 15, 2012.

China may have signed on to a tough U.N. Security Council warning to North Korea against testing another atomic bomb but will it match words with actions?

If history is any yardstick, it will not.

But some experts think China, which has enough internal problems of its own ahead of this fall's once-in-a-decade leadership transition, is beginning to flex its muscle on its wayward neighbor, especially after Pyongyang's botched rocket launch last week.

Others feel China is putting on a show ahead of an expected North Korean nuclear test, saying Beijing cannot afford to destabilize a regime that it supports, and in which it has much at stake. 

What is evident however is that communications between Pyongyang and Beijing under North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un have not been as intense as those under his late dictator father Kim Jong Il, the experts said.

The rocket launch particularly has angered Chinese leader Hu Jintao who chastised North Korea for splurging on the costly mission instead of feeding its impoverished people.

China has also suspended a bilateral refugee deal, stopping any repatriation of North Korean refugees against their will, in an apparent snub to Pyongyang for blasting the rocket in defiance of Beijing.    


At the Security Council on Monday, China joined the United States, Russia and others in strongly condemning North Korea for the rocket launch and warning Pyongyang of further action if it carries out a third nuclear weapons test.

The Chinese rebuke to North Korea at the council may have been designed in a way to criticize North Korea but not to draw any further provocations from Pyongyang.

"We will need to see whether China's involvement really makes a difference," Jonathan Pollack, an East Asian specialist at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told RFA.

"What is interesting is that the Chinese are trying to find a way to criticize the North, object to their behavior, and yet do it in a way that China believes it will not prompt a sharp reaction from the North, specifically that it would not provoke the North to say they will test another nuclear device," he said.
"It doesn't mean that the Chinese are walking away from their relationship with North Korea but it does mean that they are taking strong exception to North Korea's behavior and they are leaving open the possibility that there would be additional steps that might be taken in coming weeks," Pollack said.

According to recent South Korean intelligence, North Korea is excavating a new tunnel at its Punggye-ri test site, in the northeast of the country, where the two previous nuclear tests were carried out in October 2006 and May 2009.

The information shows what looks like preparations for a third nuclear test.


Although many were baffled by the speed with which China agreed to the Security Council statement against North Korea, this is not the first time Beijing had joined international condemnation against its errant ally.

"They had criticized North Korea in the past, sometimes quite sharply, but they have tended over a period of time to pull back from that criticism and somehow not to burn bridges with the North," Pollack said.

China had strongly rebuked North Korea when it fired nuclear devices twice to make up for embarrassing missile launch failures but Beijing dragged its feet in implementing sanctions drawn up against Pyongyang for illicit atomic tests.

The appearance of a Chinese made chassis under the newest medium range ballistic missile launcher in a parade in Pyongyang last week is the latest proof that Beijing has looked the other way as the Security Council chalks up international sanctions against the North over its illicit missile and nuclear programs, experts said.

This is "a particular black eye for Beijing," said Mike Green, who served as senior director for Asian affairs in the National Security Council under U.S. President George W. Bush.

Another recent example of Beijing turning a blind eye to U.N. sanctions is photographic evidence by the Japanese media of a North Korean trading company on the Security Council sanctions blacklist openly operating in China.

North Korea has made handsome gains from the sanctions loophole. While it gets items from China that have been internationally barred from North Korea, its trade with China has also blossomed in recent years.

"The major diplomatic problem is that China continues to resist any steps that might destabilize North Korea or—in Beijing’s view—give the North an excuse for another nuclear test," said Green, now an Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Instead, he said, Beijing continues emphasizing a resumption of talks between the United States and North Korea over "coercive steps" to deter the North from further escalations.


Among China's concerns is that any regime collapse in North Korea will lead to an influx of refugees into its territory and a disruption of Chinese economic growth. Beijing also regards the North as a critical cushion between China and U.S.-backed democratic South Korea.

"From China's point of view, a nuclear but stable North is better than a denuclearized, but collapsing and unstable North [and, arguably, better than a Korea unified under the auspices of Seoul]," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

"Therefore, China is likely to block all measures that seriously threaten the internal stability of the North. In other words, China will accept sanctions, but will make sure they will not bite too harsh."

Relations between China and North Korea had been mostly smooth under Kim Jong Il with regular high-level contacts at the state, party, and military level but it is still unclear how the relationship will develop under his son's watch.

The satellite launch and the subsequent China-backed Security Council action on North Korea may complicate the re-establishment of high-level talks, including consultations between the new leader Kim Jong Un and Beijing, said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"So, in a way you could make an argument that China is more free at this moment to take a tougher stance because the relationship hasn't been consolidated yet," Snyder told RFA.

"On the other hand, I think China would do whatever it could to not rock the boat. I think what we are seeing in the response [by Beijing to the rocket launch] is concrete evidence that China is not satisfied with the current relationship."

"They still have their strategic goals for stability, but they are not satisfied."

Personality cult

North Korea's propaganda machine has portrayed much of the chubby Kim Jong Un's physical likeness to his revered grandfather Kim Il Sung, the first leader and "eternal president."

Unlike his father, the Swiss-educated Kim Jong Un made a rare admission to his citizens about the unsuccessful rocket launch in stark contrast to a claim of success in 2009 when the launch clearly failed.

He also smiled and joked with top generals on a podium after delivering his first major public speech during a military parade last Sunday.

His speech and other actions indicate that Pyongyang may be "desperately scrambling to create a new image and a new personality cult for the new leader," said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

"He has obviously been coached. He seems to follow his father's speech patterns, but doesn't speak with a very heavy North Korean accent. While the speech abounds in expressions specific to North Korea, I somehow get the sense that words involving stark contrast in pronunciation between the two Koreas were avoided," he said.

The Chinese rebuke to North Korea at the Security Council "clearly indicates that the Kim Jong Un regime did not run the rocket launch plan by the Chinese, which may be a foolish move," Scarlatoiu said.

"Sometimes you wonder whether the internal controls are collapsing in North Korea," he said.





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