North Korea’s Nuclear Test: Regional Reactions and the Chinese Responsibility

Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director and Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since 2006, [1] the world led by the UN Security Council has condemned Pyongyang’s action.[2] The DPRK for its part blamed South Korea’s propaganda broadcasts in the Demilitarised Zone – which includes K-pop songs, by the way – and deployment of military assets, saying these were pushing the two countries to the ‘brink of war’.[3]

The UNSC’s resolutions since 2006 imposing and strengthening sanctions on North Korea for continuing to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have however not been very effective, even if they have slowed down the pace of development of these programmes. This is because Pyongyang views nuclear weapons as a guarantor of its regime security. Given American efforts at regime change in West Asia, Pyongyang clearly sees nuclear weapons as the ace in its pack. The Americans reminded Kim Jong-un’s regime of that threat by flying a B-52 over South Korea in a joint response to the North Korean test. The bomber that took off from far-away Guam, can carry precision guided conventional ordnance as well as nuclear weapons.

Give this context, and as Russian analyst Andrei Lankov says, ‘there is nothing “irrational” or “unpredictable”’ in North Korea’s actions. DPRK officials have themselves talked of tests for over a year. And yet, North Korea had also spent considerable effort last year trying to repair relations with the rest of the world.[4] China, for one was impressed enough to re-start some long-frozen assistance projects towards the end of 2015. And so the timing of the test still requires some explanation.

Both from a regional perspective and from a regime perspective, South Korea’s growing international clout must be a concern for Kim Jong-un and his advisers. It is notable that Xi Jinping, has not met Kim till now. Xi has only deputed other members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party to visit North Korea or to deal with visitors from that country. By contrast, Xi has met his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye well over a dozen times and the two countries signed a landmark FTA in mid-2015.[5]

Some dramatic shake-ups, including purges and executions of close advisers, at home also suggest that Kim Jong-un’s position might not be entirely a settled affair and hence the resort to such dramatic and seemingly counter-productive behaviour as nuclear tests.

The consequences of the North Korean action are many. The South Korean military  now believes the DPRK may be able to deploy a submarine-launched ballistic missile in four years time, at least a year earlier than initially estimated.[6] The test also portends greater dynamism in South Korea-Japan defence ties.[7] The two Koreas have hitherto been united in the opposition to Japan’s political rise in the region owing to that country’s reluctance to acknowledge its colonial excesses, but Tokyo has moved to repair the situation somewhat at least with Seoul. The latest North Korean test was possibly the first time that the hotline between the South Korean and Japanese defense ministers was used.[8]

Japan had, in fact, established its National Security Council in 2013, citing ‘North Korea’s rising nuclear ambitions.’ Indeed, in addition to the perceived threat from China, Pyongyang’s actions too have allowed Tokyo to justify much of the changes in its defence postures in recent years. Following the test, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in parliament that Japan would take ‘undaunted but firm action’.[9]

This is another reason why the Chinese too, over the same period have, been displeased with their ally. Without the lifeline extended by China through food and fuel supplies as well as banking services, Pyongyang could not possibly carry through with any of its plans. The Chinese are constrained by the reality that a Korean re-unification would most likely bring the Americans to their borders.

China-North Korea ties have not been easy either. The decline in total China-DPRK trade volume between in January to November 2015 by about 15% over the same period in 2014 to US$4.9 billion probably owes much to the deterioration of bilateral ties.[10] Some 120 Chinese businesses function in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone on the China-DPRK border and following the test, China has called a halt to some of this activity.[11] Meanwhile, given that on the other side, South Korea has said that it was not considering shutting down even temporarily, the Mt. Kaesong joint industrial park in North Korea[12] – a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation – it is likely that business on the border with China too will soon return to normal.

Thus, other than express frustration or embarrassment at Pyongyang’s actions, it would seem that there is little that China can do to reform its prodigal neighbour and ally. Relations between China and North Korea are expected to remain more or less unchanged at least in the near term, despite Pyongyang’s statement of a ‘successful H bomb nuclear test’.[13]

However, to believe that Beijing has little control over North Korea’s actions is wrong. Beijing certainly can tighten the financial screws on the North Korean elite while refraining from restrictions on fuel and food supplies that affect ordinary North Koreans the most. Similarly, the portrayal of the North Korean regime as simply a ‘rogue’ one, helps deflect attention from China’s responsibility and indirect support for North Korean nuclear proliferation. This proliferation and development of nuclear weapons is no random, irrational activity but a carefully considered exercise in obtaining both strategic and pecuniary benefits that depends to a large extent on access to China’s territorial space and resources as well as its turning a blind eye in many instances as in the case of Pakistan-DPRK ties.

A shorter version was originally published as ‘North Korea hasn’t gone rogue. Nukes are its geo-political trump card’, Catch News, 16 January 2016.















One thought on “North Korea’s Nuclear Test: Regional Reactions and the Chinese Responsibility

  1. Fine survey. A key Q is the extent and depth of China’s influence over DPRK. A few thoughts: 1. This has been shifting, and today Beijing perhaps has less influence than even 3 or 4 years back. This is visible in China’s open expression of criticism of Pyongyang. 2. Clout of this kind is not fixed. A protector or ally may flex muscle depending on the issue and its self-interest. At one end is a threshold that a dependent state (no longer a client), beyond which it will not go. There may also be a threshold beyond which the protector will not push. 3. Russia remains in the equation, with looser ties with DPRK, but an option for the latter, which neither side will foreclose. In sum, complexity, as always in international affairs.

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