In rush of tests, North Korea’s timing chafes China – and its US relations

Stability is key for Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of a major leadership conference next month. Pyongyang may be attempting to turn up the pressure on China-US relations this fall before Beijing considers harsher options, analysts say.

Korean Central News Agency/ Korea News Service via AP
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un holds a meeting of the ruling party's presidium on Sept. 3, 2017. This image was distributed by the North Korean government and cannot be independently verified.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to enjoy overshadowing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meticulously choreographed appearances in the global spotlight.

On April 4, a missile was launched one day before Mr. Xi’s high-stakes first meeting with President Trump, who welcomed his Chinese counterpart to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. In May, he launched a ballistic missile hours before Xi delivered a keynote speech to dozens of world leaders who had gathered in Beijing for a two-day forum on China’s signature One Belt, One Road initiative, a $900 billion infrastructure and trade project expanding the country’s influence across three continents.

Then, on Sunday, he detonated North Korea’s sixth nuclear bomb hours before Xi was scheduled to speak at the start of the BRICS summit of five large emerging economies in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen. The summit was the latest opportunity for Xi to position himself as a champion of globalization.

But perhaps most importantly, the underground blast – by far North Korea’s most powerful ever – comes weeks before the Chinese Communist Party will hold its once-every-five-years leadership conference. South Korea has warned that more launches may be ahead.

It can be all too easy to see Mr. Kim as a nuclear-armed nuisance desperate for attention. But as is often the case with the belligerent North Korean leader, analysts say there is a perverse logic to his carefully timed provocations aimed at China and the United States.

“Right now China’s most urgent task for the government is to make sure the 19th Party congress goes as smoothly as it can,” says Zhao Hai, a research fellow at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “North Korea knows that before the congress there is a window of opportunity to press China, because it’s hard for Xi to maneuver at this time.”

Xi, already one of China’s most influential leaders in decades, is likely to further consolidate his power at the meeting in mid-October. Even so, now is an especially sensitive time for him as he looks to project an aura of stability and calm. Calculating that China is unlikely to push North Korea much harder than it already has to give up its nuclear program – at least not until after October – Kim is doing everything he can to stoke tensions between China and the US before Beijing considers harsher options, Mr. Zhao says.

Ahead of the the party congress this fall, Xi is focused on installing his allies in the Politburo, the Communist Party’s main decision-making body. The North Korean nuclear test poses an untimely distraction from that work. It also brings unwanted attention to how little sway Xi holds over the much younger Kim. The Chinese state media often portrays Xi as decisive and bold strongman, but North Korea presents a glaring weak point that’s hard to gloss over.

If the North continues its nuclear and missile testing in the coming weeks, Zhao says, it could force a showdown between the US and China that the two countries have long tried to avoid. Each accuses the other of failing to de-escalate the crisis. Washington blames Beijing for not doing more to rein in its rogue neighbor, while Beijing blames Washington for its unwillingness to negotiate with Pyongyang.

Analysts say Kim’s goal is to force the US into talks that would leave him with nuclear weapons and ultimately lead to the lifting of economic sanctions on his country. But he needs China’s help in pressuring the US. Although Beijing has stayed consistent in proclaiming its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it has also called for a “freeze for a freeze.” The proposal, also backed by Russia, entails North Korea freezing the development of its nuclear and missile program in exchange for the US and South Korea freezing major joint military exercises as a starting point for negotiations and a long-term solution. 

“For a long time, we have made enormous efforts and done a lot to promote the peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue and negotiation,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said Monday at a daily press briefing in Beijing. He dutifully condemned Sunday’s nuclear test but gave no indication that the government has any intentions of changing track, nor has any other Chinese official.

For Xi, the basic calculus remains the same: a nuclear-armed North Korea is less dangerous to China than the possibility of destabilizing the country through severe tactics such as cutting off its fuel supply. (China supplies more than 80 percent of the North's crude oil.) The collapse of North Korea would likely lead to a refugee crisis on China’s doorstep and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the American security umbrella, two highly undesirable outcomes for China.

For now, China appears stuck reiterating its calls for negotiations and going along with the latest round of United Nations sanctions. Yet international pressure is mounting on it to do more, and the calls aren’t just coming from the Trump administration. British Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters last Wednesday, the day after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan, that “We see China as being the key.”

On Monday, it was Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s turn. He told reporters in Canberra that although China will be enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea, “there will be more that needs to be done.”

“China has by far the greatest leverage,” Mr. Turnbull said on a radio program in Sydney last Thursday. “China really has to step up now and bring this regime to its senses.”

Still, the question remains: what is China’s red line for its ally? Wu Riqiang, an associate professor of international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, says that after North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4 he didn’t think the launch was as pressing for China as another nuclear test. Now that one has occurred, Dr. Wu says, it will be difficult for Xi to remain above the fray. 

“It’s getting harder for Xi not to do something,” he says. “You can’t just let other countries provoke you with no reaction.”

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