Widespread condemnation; China ‘opposes’ the move
North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test on Tuesday — its’ third since 2006 — had been long expected by Chinese and Western officials. The only surprise, according to officials and analysts here, was that the test was reported four days earlier than many expected.
Saturday was seen as the most likely date for the North’s young, new ruler, Kim Jong-un, to give the green light for the test — February 16 was the birthday of his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011.
While Tuesday’s test was hailed by the official media as a resounding success that even surpassed the country’s previous two tests in 2006 and 2009 in terms of its yield — a feat seen as boosting the younger Kim’s legitimacy at home — the North’s move has heightened regional tensions with South Korea and Japan and further diminished the likelihood of the stalled Six Party Talks, aimed at moving the Korean Peninsula towards denuclearisation, resuming in the near future.
“North Korea won’t be able to avoid grave responsibility,” the South Korean government said in a statement issued shortly after President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency National Security Council meeting.
In a departure from the previous test in 2009, the North had notified the United States and China about its plans a day earlier, according to South Korean officials quoted by the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency. The last test had reportedly even caught Beijing — the North’s only ally — by surprise.
China, which is the North’s biggest source of financial and food aid, reacted cautiously to the test, saying that it was “firmly opposed” to the move and “strongly urge[d] the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to honour its commitment to denuclearisation and refrain from any move that may further worsen the situation”.
No further sanctions: China
Hinting that despite its opposition to the test China might not favour the strong sanctions the U.S. and South Korea are likely to push for, the Foreign Ministry said it “calls on all parties to respond in a cool-headed manner and persist in resolving the issue of denuclearisation of the Peninsula through dialogue and consultation within the context of the Six-Party Talks”.
The North quit the Six Party Talks, which also involves South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S. and Russia, after carrying out missile tests in 2009.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials have said they had cautioned the North against going ahead with the test. While Beijing has continued to support the Kim regime as it fears instability on its northeastern borders, Chinese analysts and State media have increasingly called on the government to take a tougher approach in dealing with the North.
The Communist Party-run The Global Times said in an editorial last week, “if North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price”. “The assistance it will be able to receive from China should be reduced”, the newspaper said.
“The Chinese government should make this clear beforehand to shatter any illusions Pyongyang may have.”
The test is likely to pose new Chinese leader Xi Jinping — set to replace Hu Jintao as President at the Parliament session that opens on March 5 — a difficult balancing act.
While Mr. Xi has spoken of building “a new type” of relations and working more closely with the U.S., any reluctance from Beijing to take a firm position against the North is likely to strain ties with Washington.
For China, however, the North has historically been seen as a long-standing ally and crucial strategic buffer against the U.S. and its allies in the region, and Beijing had shown no signs of rethinking its close strategic ties following the earlier nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.