Officials in Pyongyang have threatened to conduct a new missile test in the next few weeks, and China would surely react strongly.
Should North Korea launch a rocket into space or carry out a nuclear test, it would certainly anger Beijing, writes Christopher Bodeen for The Associated Press. China could even reduce economic aid to its neighbor as a result, but would that be enough to dissuade North Korea?
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China-North Korea relationship continues to evolve
Although China is North Korea’s most important ally, it appears to be growing increasingly exasperated with Pyongyang’s antics. China fought alongside North Korea in the Korean War, and is still its biggest trading partner, affording it considerable leverage over the Kim regime.
However in recent years that influence has increasingly been called into question, particularly after Kim Jong-un took power following the death of Kim Jong II. The latter made repeated visits to China and made an effort to maintain a good relationship with Beijing, in contrast to his son.
Kim Jong-un has not yet made a trip to China, neither has he received any high-ranking Chinese officials in North Korea. He also snubbed an invitation to a huge military parade in Beijing earlier this month, sending the secretary of the Korean Workers Party, Choe Ryong Hae, in his place.
Further tests could worsen relationship
North Korean officials have since hinted that the 70th anniversary of the Workers Party on October 10 could be marked with a satellite launch, while also announcing that its plutonium nuclear reactor at Yongbyon is now back online. Both a satellite launch and a nuclear test would violate United Nations resolutions which ban North Korea from undertaking such activities.
Following the last nuclear test in 2013, China took an unexpectedly hard line with North Korea. Beijing condemned the test, protested to the North Korean ambassador and reduced trade. It is thought that a future test could provoke a harsher response.
“China will strongly oppose (a test or launch) and will be sure to implement future United Nations resolutions even more resolutely,” said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert with the Communist Party’s research and training institute in Beijing.
Chinese experts believe that Beijing may reduce cross-border trade, with particular focus on industrial commodities and luxury goods that Kim uses to ensure the loyalty of his supporters.
Aid could be further reduced if test goes ahead
Statistics on North Korean trade are hard to come by, although South Korea believes that trade with Pyongang rose to $7.61 billion in 2014, $6.8 billion of which came from China. Another possible response from Beijing could involve greater security along its 880-mile border with North Korea.
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are already strained, and a test would worsen the situation even further. Evidence suggests that public opinion in China has turned against North Korea as China’s role in the world continues to evolve.
“Most importantly, relations between the two parties and people will be greatly harmed if North Korea insists on acting while being clearly aware of China’s stance,” said Lu Chao, an expert on the North at the Academy of Social Sciences.
Should relations continue to deteriorate North Korea would become “even more isolated on the international stage,” as Beijing ceases to support its neighbor in international forums such as the UN. That said, China is not yet prepared to push for the downfall of the Kim regime.
Strategic interest in maintaining Kim regime
In addition to a shared history, Beijing sees North Korea as a buffer against U.S. armed forces in South Korea and Japan. Regime change in North Korea could also see a surge of refugees heading over the border into China.
As a result it seems unlikely that Beijing will significantly cut back on supplies of daily essentials such as food and fuel oil. However Jingdong Yuan, a specialist on Asia-Pacific security at the University of Sydney, says that such aid has been declining steadily.
“It’s hard to anticipate drastic policy changes such as a complete cutoff of aid because limiting the impacts of uncertain developments in North Korea remains a key consideration for Beijing,” Yuan said.
It is incredibly hard to gauge what effect China’s changing position is having on the Kim regime, but experts do not believe that Chinese influence is as great as in times past. “The general conclusion is that Beijing’s impact on the nuclear development has been moderate to negligible. The horse is already out of the barn, so to speak,” Yuan said.
There is also a possibility that North Korean leaders may feel secure enough to endure a period of colder relations with China. “It’s obvious that sanctions haven’t affected the lives and decision-making of their leaders. They think that not even a tough stance from China can affect their system’s stability, so they just don’t care,” Zhang said.
If the international community loses a source of major influence over North Korea, the situation could become even more dangerous.