North Korea Nuclear Explosion Tests China’s Patience

China expresses its dissatisfaction but drags its heels on concrete action.

The headquarters of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, July 28, 2007
The headquarters of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, July 28, 2007 (Fljckr)

North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on Tuesday in defiance of the international community which had urged it not to. It was the communist regime’s third such test in seven years and the first under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.

The United States Geological Survey registered a 4.9 tremor in the northeast of the Asian country at the time of the suspected test. North Korea’s state news agency reported that a test had been conducted with a “lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force” than during the previous two in 2006 and 2009.

The United States described the test as a “highly provocative act” and called on the international community to take “credible action” against the government in Pyongyang.

China reportedly summoned North Korea’s ambassador in Beijing to register its displeasure with the test. China, North Korea’s only ally, supplies the regime with much needed fuel and food. Its statement, typically more restrained when it comes to the neighboring communist state, said that it was in “staunch opposition” and “strongly dissatisfied” with the test and urged all sides to respond calmly.

The United Nations Security Council, in a hastily called meeting in New York, strongly condemned the test as well. However, there were no indications that any more sanctions on the North were forthcoming.

The test was not entirely unexpected as South Korean government sources reported days before that its satellites had picked up signs of workers and materials moving away from the suspected nuclear testing site. When such activity is monitored it is often an indication that a test is imminent.

North Korea, for its part, announced that it would move forward with “stronger, second and third responses in consecutive steps” should the United States and its allies remain hostile. It often levels such threats at its neighbors and their American allies while privately pushing for direct talks and more aid to the impoverished country.

China’s interest continues to be for stability on the Korean Peninsula because it values the role that the North plays as a buffer state between China and democratic South Korea where American troops are stationed. It therefore treads softly, not wanting to push Pyongyang too hard lest the regime there collapse. It also fears a massive flow of North Korean refugees seeking shelter in China should the North Korean regime collapse which would destabilize the border region.

The North apparently continues to believe that China will not agree to stricter sanctions which, as a permanent Security Council member, it can veto. As such, the solution to the crisis continues to reside in Beijing. The question remains, will China go along with more sanctions as well as cut off its fuel supplies to the regime? Or will it remain opposed such measures for its own geopolitical interests?

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