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North Korea rocket launch: Why China only 'expresses regret' (+video)

Beijing's restrained response to a widely condemned rocket launch is based on its concern about North Korea's stability – and its view that a tough UN resolution could worsen regional security.

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China went along with these resolutions, but only because they were imposed as a response to nuclear tests, says Prof. Cai. “Beijing is more tolerant of missile tests, because the missiles have not yet been put to military use,” he adds.

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“China cannot do much at the moment because, although it opposes North Korea’s challenges, it is more concerned with the country’s domestic political stability,” Cai believes. Beijing sees North Korea as a strategic counterweight to US-backed South Korea, “so it wants the current government in Pyongyang to survive.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took over from his father last December, is young and leads a government that has recently shown signs of divisions. “There are still a lot of risks and uncertainties,” says Cai. “If the international community applies too much pressure, the regime might collapse.”

Beijing also fears that a tough UN resolution might make the regional security situation worse, suggests Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, an international think tank.

“North Korea could take additional steps that could cascade into further reactions,” says Mr. Pinkston. In the past, Pyongyang has launched an artillery assault across its border with South Korea, sunk a South Korean naval vessel, tested nuclear devices, and launched missiles near its neighbors’ territory.

“There are a lot of things they could do … to express their displeasure with anything the UN might do,” Pinkston points out.

And while China is North Korea’s only major ally, supplying fuel, food, and aid on which the Pyongyang government depends, “we cannot impose our will” on the independent-minded government, says Liu Xuecheng, an analyst at the China Institute for International Studies, a Beijing think tank associated with the Foreign Ministry.

Limited US options as well

US options appear limited, as officials ponder fresh ways of pressuring North Korea into abandoning its nuclear and missile ambitions. Six-party talks chaired by China and aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula broke down four years ago after achieving very little, and sanctions have not deterred Kim Jong-un from testing his country’s missile technology.

When Washington sought to tighten the UN sanctions regime in the wake of a failed missile test last April, by adding North Korean banks, businesses, and institutions to the financial sanctions list, China vetoed all but three of the 40 entities that the US proposed.

As President Obama begins his second term of office, and new leaders take over in Japan and South Korea, where elections are due later this month, Wednesday’s rocket launch “poses a challenge to them,” says Pinkston. “They are going to have to come up with new policy responses.” 

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