North Korea rocket launch: Why China only 'expresses regret'

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.

Korea Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP
In this monitor screen image, the Unha-3 rocket lifts off from a launch site on the west coast, in the village of Tongchang-ri, about 35 miles from the Chinese border city of Dandong, North Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 12. North Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket on Wednesday.

As the United Nations Security Council prepared to debate North Korea’s satellite launch earlier today, China signaled that it would likely veto any bid to punish its maverick ally with stiffer sanctions.

“The Security Council reaction should be prudent and moderate, conducive to peace and stability, avoiding an escalation of the situation,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, told reporters.

“I do not think China will support any effort to strengthen sanctions for fear that this would contribute to political instability in North Korea,” explains Cai Jian, a North Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Beijing will not take any concrete action.”

Japan called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council today after the North Korean rocket passed over its territory. Japan’s government said it “cannot tolerate” the “extremely regrettable” launch, and Tokyo was reportedly seeking wider sanctions against North Korea in retaliation.

The successful launch of the rocket, which appears to have put a satellite into orbit as planned, marks a major advance in Pyongyang’s program to build an intercontinental ballistic missile that might one day carry a nuclear weapon. Today's launch followed the failure of North Korea’s four previous efforts to make a multistage rocket fly.

Though North Korean media celebrated the event as an example of its peaceful use of space, the US condemned it as a violation of previous UN resolutions that ban North Korea from staging “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”

“The international community must work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences,” the White House said in a statement.

Can China do much at the moment?

Beijing, however, was more restrained. Mr. Hong said that his government “expressed regret” and noted that North Korea is “obliged to abide by the relevant (UN) resolutions.” But he refused to answer a reporter’s question as to whether Beijing regarded the launch as a violation of UN resolutions.

The UN imposed two sets of sanctions on North Korea, in 2006 and 2009, banning the sale of heavy military equipment, dual use items, and luxury goods, imposing financial sanctions on individual leaders and North Korean institutions, and allowing states to stop and search North Korean vessels believed to be violating sanctions.

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.

“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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