Our analysis of the international response to North Korea’s test of a hydrogen bomb directs our attention to China’s position and US-China debates about “what to do and who to blame.”
First, let’s look to the statement by Xinhua news agency on January 8. On the one hand, North Korea’s actions have been condemned, on the other hand, it was pointed out that “it was Washington’s antagonistic approach that pushed Pyongyang to carry on the development of nuclear weapons.” “The US military approach put Pyongyang in an acutely insecure position and encouraged the country to ignore the restrictions on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. The DPRK, balancing on the brink of a nuclear war, really deserves international condemnation, as it seriously undermines the regional stability and peace in the world, might resort to desperate attempts of the country to improve its position in the fight against the USA.“
At the same time, according to anonymous sources of Yonhap news agency in diplomatic circles, Beijing is said to be very angry with the nuclear test, which came unexpectedly, especially given Pyongyang’s active attempts to improve bilateral relations. Official Spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying came up with a sharp condemnation of the tests and virtually admitted that Beijing had not been informed of the planned tests.
A number of statements from US diplomats and politicians are of interest, stating that the main villain of the place is the PRC and that China should have applied maximum efforts to “solve the problem.” Its policy and intention to continue the course to the six-party negotiations are said to have resulted in appeasement of Pyongyang. As US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “China had a particular approach to the DPRK, and Beijing partners in the six-party negotiations – Russia, the USA, South Korea and Japan – agreed to abide by this policy. The idea was to “give space” to China for cooperation with Pyongyang for the purpose of denuclearization of the Korean space… But now it is clear it did not work.”
In other words, since 2003 China has been promoting the idea of six-party talks as the solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear problem with political and diplomatic means, but its actions did not lead to denuclearization. And it is necessary to increase pressure on North Korea and expand sanctions. Or actualize them so that they have the desired effect, whereas much depends on China, its main cross-border trade partner.
Donald Trump, a controversial US presidential candidate, also stated on January 10 that China should solve the problem; otherwise it will suffer from loosening its trade connections with the USA. China is believed to have total control over Pyongyang, so the USA must find a way to force Beijing to address this issue using as much economic pressure as possible. Some westerners even expressed the idea of a “Chinese-sponsored DPRK nuclear project.”
However, we can also note the fact that both experts on bilateral relations and representatives of the PRC disagree. The Chinese often mention that they have no special relations with North Korea, but “no special relations” may mean a lot depending on the situation: “we have no favorable attitude”, “we do not have the leverage”, and “our capabilities to put pressure on North Korea are limited.” It is partly so, because the ideological influence is gradually reduced, however it should be noted that even before Pyongyang listened to Beijing only formally, especially on the nuclear issue. China’s weakening influence is due to the fact that North Korea is building relationships with other countries, primarily with Russia.
China clearly sees how America and its allies use the pretext of the North Korean threat to accumulate force aimed not against North Korea and in this situation try to blame China, although it is well known, whose non-constructive position blocked the negotiation process at least in the same degree as the intransigence of the DPRK. There are many examples here (enough for a series of articles on the emergence of the Korean Peninsula nuclear problem and ways to resolve it), as the joint draft solution dated 2005 developed by the parties, and the USA and Japan having done everything in their power to stall it.
Moreover, China’s military preparations are quite obvious. On January 13, in his address to the people of the South Korea, President Park Geun-hye did not exclude the possibility of considering placing American THAAD anti-missile complexes in South Korea. This provoked a sharp reaction from Beijing, which objected the deployment of THAAD, considering that the radars can be aimed at China.
Therefore, The Global Times responded to Kerry’s accusations possibly even tougher than Xinhua : “The origins and causes of the North Korean nuclear issue are very complicated. On the one hand, the North Korean regime has taken the wrong way to ensure its security, and on the other, the USA consistently chose a hostile approach to North Korea.” And “until the USA, South Korea and Japan change their approach to Pyongyang, there can be no hope to solve the DPRK nuclear issue.” It also implies that the hope for Beijing to solve everything for everyone and make the North abandon its nuclear ambitions is “an illusion.”
Commenting on Seoul’s propaganda resumption and the raid of the US strategic bomber to South Korea, the PCR Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed that “ALL parties should make joint efforts to avoid further escalation. We hope that the parties will take careful steps to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia.” In short, “we did everything we could, but what have YOU done to ease up the problem except for sharpening it?”
However, displeasure towards the North also is demonstrated. According to the South Korean media (or rather the memorable Chosun Ilbo) with reference to its sources in the area of China-North Korean border, the Chinese authorities have tightened border controsl with Korea. As well as the passage through the bridge over the Tumen River is said to be closed, some cooperation projects canceled, and goods at customs and border points inspected by the Chinese more carefully. There is no information on the full-fledged sanctions from the authorities of China, but at least they started to do everything “strictly according to the rules” that previously were not always respected.
What does this mean? From the viewpoint of the author (as repeatedly mentioned) the PCR policy on the Korean Peninsula is slowly beginning to resemble the Russian one in terms of its so-called “multidirectional character.” At the same time, China is making use of the differences between the two Koreas and the balance of power. The North Korean issue is considered in the context of having a system of loyal regimes across the border (in this context, unauthorized DPRK actions are annoying) and in the context of potentially growing confrontation with the USA (whereas the DPRK is an ally, albeit difficult). The balance of these factors will determine ensuing actions.