Testing times for North Korea and China


SANCTIONS: Pyongyang blasts the Chinese government for supporting US proposal

 IN 1961, China and North Korea signed a treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance that provided for either country to go to the assistance of the other if attacked by a third country. It was a military alliance with a difference -- it had no termination date, an alliance that was meant to last forever.

Today, that alliance is badly strained. On Jan 22, China joined with other members of the United Nations Security Council to condemn North Korea for violating previous Council resolutions by launching a rocket. The council also expanded existing sanctions in its latest resolution.

Pyongyang responded by denouncing China -- without naming it -- for "abandoning without hesitation even elementary principle". The statement was issued in the name of the National Defence Commission, whose chairman is none other than Kim Jong-un, the country's young leader, who succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, a little over a year ago. The statement, alluding to China and Russia, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, said "those big countries, which are obliged to take the lead in building a fair world order", instead had fallen under "the influence of the United States arbitrary and high-handed practices, failing to come to their senses".

Since then, a defiant Pyongyang has vowed to conduct another, "higher level" nuclear test, following those held in 2006 and 2009. Although North Korea has held back from attacking the Chinese government by name, it has openly blasted China's state-run media.

The official Korean Central News Agency accused "some media of China" of "spreading misinformation in breach of objectivity, impartiality and accuracy".

North Korea considers the US primarily responsible for the imposition of sanctions. But it holds other council members responsible for supporting the American proposal.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry has said denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula cannot be realised "unless the denuclearisation of the world is realised". That would appear to render meaningless any attempt to revive the six-party talks, which have stalled since 2009.

Almost every day, North Korea churns out propaganda not only against the US but also the "marionettes" that also voted for sanctions.

North Korea, its state news agency said, "will have to take a measure stronger than a nuclear test", without further clarification, except that it will be "beyond imagination of hostile forces".

The Chinese government is responding to North Korean vilification by calling on "all concerned parties not to take actions to further escalate tension".

However, the official Chinese media is being more outspoken than ever in publishing articles critical of North Korea.

Last Wednesday, the Global Times, a Communist party newspaper, published a commentary promising continued Chinese friendship with North Korea and said the west should understand this. But then it said: "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 Chinese government should make this clear beforehand to shatter any illusions Pyongyang may have."

However, Beijing is concerned that Pyongyang may make an about-turn, spurning China for the US.

Such concern has been fuelled by Myanmar's recent cooling towards China and its improved relationship with the US, reflected in President Barack Obama's visit to that country in November.

Indeed, one Chinese scholar said in a private conversation said if Obama should one day turn up in Pyongyang, then "the whole Chinese empire would crumble". Interestingly, the Global Times commentary poured cold water on speculation that "Pyongyang would completely turn to the US if it fell out with China".

"Such concerns are unfounded," the commentary said. "The political gap between Washington and Pyongyang is impassable."

A more likely challenge would be if North Korea were to conduct another nuclear test and China again joined in an international condemnation. Even so, the commentary said, "if Pyongyang gets tough with China, China should strike back hard, even at the cost of deteriorating bilateral relations".

Sixty years after the Korean war, when Beijing and Pyongyang fought side by side against Washington, China is finding more in common with the US than with its erstwhile ally.

Still, China is thinking strategically. As the Global Times concluded: "China won't put its relations with Pyongyang above other strategic interests." China must not be a captive of North Korea's and "must not fear disputes with Pyongyang if it is to maintain the traditional bonds of friendship".

It is encouraging that China has a sense of perspective vis-à-vis its relations with the US and with North Korea.

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