After North Korea's nuclear test, what is China ready to do?

China holds all the cards with North Korea. Relations between the two have soured since Kim Jong-un took power in 2012. 

Andy Wong/AP
A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard outside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. North Korea said it conducted a powerful hydrogen bomb test Wednesday, a defiant and surprising move that, if confirmed, would be a huge jump in Pyongyang's quest to improve its still-limited nuclear arsenal.

One day after North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test, President Barack Obama pledged to work with Japan and South Korea on intensifying sanctions against Pyongyang, creating a “united and strong international response to North Korea’s latest reckless behavior.”

Yet without the cooperation of China, it is unlikely this “united” response will tame North Korea any more than past sanctions. While Chinese President Xi Jinping is clearly irritated with North Korea, and while he may agree to a new set of limited measures against Pyongyang, he is unlikely to support anything that will destabilize the current North Korean regime that relies on China for aid and energy. 

Why? According to analysts, Beijing’s nightmare scenario is a collapse of the North, or a reunified Korea, that could see US troops eventually traveling to China’s border with the North. For that reason, China almost assuredly would oppose sanctions that might seriously undercut the regime led by Kim Jong-un.

“In the past, China has talked big on sanctions but hasn’t done much to enforce them,” says Charles Armstrong, a North Korea expert and historian at Columbia University in New York.  “Beijing fears instability in North Korea and a potential collapse of the regime … more than it does North Korea’s nuclear program.”

China the linchpin

For years, Pyongyang counted on both the Soviet Union and China for help. But after the cold war, China became the linchpin in efforts to influence North Korea. China supported the North during the Korean War, fighting against US troops. It remains North Korea’s largest trading partner. It also has a seat on the United Nations Security Council, allowing it to veto measures against Pyongyang it finds objectionable.

In 2013, following North Korea’s previous nuclear test, China surprised many observers by supporting new sanctions against North Korea. UN Resolution 2094 condemned the nuclear test “in the strongest terms.” It applied sanctions to North Korean financial institutions and imposed travel restrictions on some of Pyongyang’s leaders.

Since then, relations between the two countries have become increasingly strained. In late 2013, Mr. Kim denounced and executed his powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, the No. 2 in North Korea, and considered the key conduit between Pyongyang and Beijing.

President Xi has declined to meet with Kim, who turns 33 on Friday, and has focused more on improving relations and commercial ties with South Korea. 

At the same time, Beijing has shown no sign of completely cutting ties with Pyongyang. Last year, China invited North Korean Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae to attend its lavish military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A month later, a Chinese politician, Liu Yunshan, attended Pyongyang’s military parade, becoming the first member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee to visit North Korea since 2011.

Kim Jong-un's birthday present?

Beijing first noticed Wednesday’s nuclear test when residents in northeast China, near the border with North Korea, felt tremors from the underground explosion. Pyongyang then announced it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb for the first time, prompting Beijing to send environmental inspectors to its border region to check for possible radioactive fallout.

While most analysts have dismissed North Korea’s claims of an H-bomb detonation, it seems clear Pyongyang conducted some kind of nuclear test, its fourth since 2006. International condemnation came quickly, including from China’s Foreign Ministry, although the tone of the comments was not particularly harsh. 

Why Kim chose the start of 2016 to explode another nuclear device is unclear. Although he likely knew it would prompt international reaction and worsen relations with China, he may have felt compelled to perform a show of force.

“Much if not most of this is for domestic consumption,” says Mr. Armstrong, the Columbia professor. “Kim is proving he is even more formidable than his father, giving his country more powerful weapons. This is part of his consolidation of power and the build-up to the 7th Party Congress announced for May, which will presumably put the final imprimatur on Kim’s leadership.”

It probably wasn’t a coincidence, Armstrong adds, that the test came two days before Kim’s birthday. “A big birthday present to himself, as it were,” he says.

In a blog post, Bonnie Glaser, a China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington D.C., wrote that it is possible Beijing will support some form of limited sanctions in the wake of North Korea’s latest nuclear test. 

“China may be more willing than in the past to strictly enforce existing and new U.N. sanctions, for example by conducting more rigorous inspections of vehicles crossing the border,” Ms. Glaser wrote. “China may also be prepared to take unilateral steps to put pressure on North Korea, including delaying delivery of oil and other forms of assistance.”

But like other analysts, Glaser doubts China will take actions that could “lead to economic or political collapse” in Pyongyang. As a result, Beijing will likely oppose UN sanctions that could affect China’s banking sector, ensuring a continued economic lifeline for the North Korean regime.

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