Hoping that China will keep North Korea's nuclear ambitions in check? Think again

The DPRK has insulted China with its latest test. But the timing means that there could be little reprisal

September 07, 2017
China has threatened sanctions should North Korea continue testing—but in reality, it's unlikely they'll be implemented. Photo: Roman Harak
China has threatened sanctions should North Korea continue testing—but in reality, it's unlikely they'll be implemented. Photo: Roman Harak

It is not just the USA that is angry at North Korea’s nuclear test. China, too, is furious but is unlikely to take strong action. Other countries, though also concerned, will have little say in resolving the situation.

China has been insulted. North Korea, a country for which many Chinese sacrificed their lives in the Korean War, has repeatedly ignored Chinese warnings not to proceed with its nuclear programmes. On 27 April Secretary Tillerson told Fox News that the Chinese had confirmed they would take sanctions action of their own in the case of another test.

At earlier stages of its internal debates China may have been contemplating even more radical action. On 5 April Global Times, a tabloid linked to the Communist Party, published an article claiming that if the security and stability of north-east China were threatened the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would launch attacks on DPRK nuclear facilities. The article was quickly withdrawn, but its appearance was significant.

Nevertheless, not only did North Korea proceed with the test but did so just as President Xi Jinping was welcoming his BRICS colleagues to a meeting in Xiamen—and just six weeks before the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party at which the next generation of China’s leadership will be selected.

This was a calculated slap in the face. Pyongyang knew very well that China would be deeply embarrassed by a test during the BRICS summit but would be anxious to avoid any instability on the Korean Peninsula in the run up to the congress. Since China is always concerned that stiffer sanctions might plunge North Korea into chaos, Pyongyang will have reckoned that a test just now would minimise the chances of China’s following through on its sanctions threat.

Had the North Koreans tested a few months ago, it is just possible that China would have decided that this crossed a red line and reacted sharply. Now, it is likely that any radical proposals have been set aside. There are no signs of unilateral Chinese sanctions—let alone of military action—against North Korea, and although there have been media reports that the Security Council is considering an oil embargo, China will be deeply reluctant to agree to this.

Firstly, as the great bulk of North Korea’s oil supplies pass through China, North Korea would probably blame China for the new sanction. Secondly, there is a risk that an oil embargo might finally break the North Korean economy, causing chaos and possibly conflict on the Korean Peninsula which, as China’s ambassador to the United Nations has made clear, China is not prepared to countenance.

Thirdly, it might not work. It seems that North Korea’s military has stockpiled oil, sending the domestic price of petrol in North Korea soaring earlier this year. Indeed, an embargo might have perverse consequences. Pyongyang might conclude that it had to perfect its nuclear-tipped ICBM before its army’s oil ran out, so accelerating rather than slowing its progress towards that goal.

So what will China actually do? Perhaps not a great deal. The joint Chinese-Russian proposal for a halt in North Korean tests (in which Pyongyang has shown no interest) in exchange for a halt to US-South Korean joint military exercises (“insulting,” said the US Ambassador to the UN) is a smokescreen for inaction. China will know very well that it has no chance of success, but it has the merit of giving its spokespeople something to say and of pointing to a solution that neither risks chaos nor requires China actually to do anything.

Other than the US and China—and, of course, North Korea—other countries have very little influence over the outcome of these tensions. Even South Korea, with more at stake than most, is struggling to get its voice heard, especially as the North Korean threat is now aimed directly at the USA rather than at South Korea. Japan has some influence, largely because Shinzo Abe has developed a cordial relationship with President Trump and because it is at present on the Security Council. Russia’s views seem to be broadly similar to China’s, but it probably would not affect matters much if they were not.

And the Europeans? Both Germany and the UK maintain embassies in Pyongyang that give them some access to the DPRK regime, although it is unlikely that, determined as it is to complete its nuclear programme, North Korea is paying much attention to representations from either just now. Theresa May’s and Angela Merkel’s calls for tougher sanctions will have pleased the White House—a welcome Greek chorus of support. But outside the magic circles of Washington, Beijing and Pyongyang most of us are simple onlookers, transfixed with horror by a situation that might go so badly wrong.