Beijing's reaction to the recent North Korean nuclear test may not seem
significantly harsher than its response to the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea (DPRK's) October 2006 detonation of a similar device.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration is still calling on concerned
countries to conduct "negotiations and dialogue" with the Kim Jong-il
government to settle the issue. Yet there is evidence galore that the Chinese
leadership under President Hu Jintao is considering tougher tactics against
Pyongyang due to new perceptions within China that the DPRK is intent on
becoming a "nuclear state" - not merely playing poker with the United States or
South Korea so as to extract concessions such as economic or energy aid - and
that a nuclearized DPRK could
threaten China as much as it does South Korea, Japan or the United States.
Immediately after the May 25 nuclear test, Beijing's Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (MOFA) expressed the Chinese government's "resolute opposition", adding
that Pyongyang had failed to heed the "international community's general
opposition" to nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Yet, the MOFA also called on all parties to use "cool-headed and appropriate
means" such as "consultation and dialogue" with the DPRK so as to resolve the
question in a peaceful manner. Moreover, Beijing did not employ the highly
charged word hanran, or "brazen", that it had used in October 2006 to
condemn Pyongyang's first nuclear test after the start of the six-party talks.
In a statement on June 2, MOFA spokesman Qin Gang further appealed to relevant
countries to "remain calm and restrained, and not to take actions that will
further escalate the situation".
Yet it is evident that the Hu leadership is undertaking a thorough revaluation
of China's relationship with its "ally". This sea-change in Chinese opinion has
apparently been brought about by Beijing's realization that Pyongyang is really
serious about building a full-fledged nuclear arsenal.
Beijing's harsher stance on the Kim dynasty has been expressed by one of
China's foremost North Korean experts, Zhang Liangui, a Central Party School
(CPS) professor who advises the leadership on Korean issues. In interviews that
Zhang has given to foreign as well as domestic media such as CCTV, China Daily
and the Global Times newspaper, the Korea specialist said Beijing knew that the
Kim regime was genuinely committed to "turning the DPRK into a truly nuclear
state" - and is not just playing games with the United States, Japan or South
"The DPRK was not simply bluffing; it has actually been developing nuclear
weapons," Zhang said. He added that producing nuclear-tipped long-range
missiles was "part of the current leadership's effort to fulfill its historic
mission" of constructing a strong Korea that could withstand the threats of
For the first time, China's Korea experts are publicly warning that Pyongyang's
nuclear gambit constitutes a grave national security threat to China. Professor
Zhang indicated that Pyongyang's nuclear program would endanger China's
industrialized northeastern provinces. Referring to the fact that the nuclear
test site was a mere 85 kilometers from the Chinese border and 150 kilometers
from the city of Dandong, home to an estimated 2.4 million people, Zhang
disclosed that a number of schools near the China-DPRK border had taken
emergency measures to shelter their students because of the tremor caused by
The CPS professor said a nuclear mishap could mean that "China's reviving
northeast will burst like a bubble". He warned that "this is an unprecedented
threat that China has never faced in thousands of years".
Equally significantly, several prominent academics have advocated punitive
measures against China's former "lips-and-teeth ally". Global Times published
on May 26 a rare survey of 20 top Chinese foreign policy experts: 10 advocated
heavy punishment for North Korea, 10 opposed. "There is no need for China to
maintain its past policy toward its trouble-making neighbor any longer," Sun
Zhe, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University, was quoted as
telling the paper. "The Chinese government should teach [the DPRK] a lesson."
Some experts think Beijing should issue a warning to Pyongyang by cutting aid
and trade. "If the situation continues to deteriorate, I think China should
reduce trade with North Korea," said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University, a
liberal scholar who, a few years ago, called on Beijing to abrogate the
mutual-defense treaty between China and the DPRK. Zhan Debin, a Korea
specialist at Fudan University, also indicated that Beijing could soon lose its
patience with Pyongyang. If Pyongyang were to continue its provocative
behavior, Zhan added, war could not be ruled out, and North Korea would "either
continue trapped in a Cold War or will swiftly disappear".
Reactions from China's increasingly vocal netizens have also been clearly
anti-North Korean. One posting in a popular military chatroom said simply that
"the North Koreans have gone mad". "Since North Korea is no longer giving face
to China, Beijing has no need to cover up the differences and contradictions
between the two countries," the posting added.
While so far, officials with ministerial status or higher have refrained from
making statements on North Korea, it is all but certain that such
"anti-Pyongyang" views cannot be expressed in China's tightly controlled media
without approval from the top. Until recently, the CCP leaderships had given
standing orders to the media to steer clear of controversial stories or
articles on the DPRK. In late 2004, the respected journal Strategy and
Management was closed down after having published an article critical of North
Despite the apparent reticence of senior Chinese officials, Beijing has sent
unmistakable signals to the Kim regime about its disapproval of Pyongyang's
nuclear and missile game plans. A day after the nuclear test, top cadres
including Vice President Xi Jinping and Defense Minister Liang Guanglie
received visiting South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee.
Xi, who is tipped to succeed Hu in 2012, told Lee that Beijing looked forward
to "boosting friendship and cooperation [with Seoul], which will be beneficial
to peace, stability and development in this region". Even more significant is
the telephone conversation between President Hu and President Barack Obama on
June 3. In a brief dispatch, Xinhua News Agency disclosed that both leaders had
"exchanged views on the current situation of the Korean Peninsula".
The not-so-subtle message that Beijing is sending to Pyongyang through
consultations with a host of the latter's "enemies" seems to be that the CCP
leadership is fed up with Kim's waywardness. Indeed, in the MOFA's press
briefing on June 2, spokesman Qin Gang referred to North Korea as a mere
"neighbor", and China-DPRK ties as "normal relations between states". This
despite the fact that 2009 was designated "China-DPRK Friendship Year" and
Chinese officials had usually talked about their close ally in much more
Apart from anger at Pyongyang's disobedience - and fears that its nuke program
could endanger China - Beijing is worried that the latest development would
hand a pretext to countries including South Korea and Japan to procure or
produce more sophisticated weapons. Former senior director of the US National
Security Council Dennis Wilder pointed out that Kim's nuclearization gambit
could be "a game-changer in Northeast Asia security dynamics".
"Some South Korean politicians have already begun to question whether they
should continue to abide by restrictions on their missile capabilities agreed
to with the United States in 1999," Wilder indicated. "Pyongyang's actions
might also force others in Northeast Asia to consider their own nuclear
options." It is understood that Beijing is particularly anxious about the
"rearmament" of Japan, whose Liberal Democratic Party has been lobbying for a
constitutional revision to allow for a leap forward in the country's weapon
It is unclear, however, whether the CCP's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs -
China's highest-level diplomatic decision-making body headed by Hu - has made
the decision on what kind of penalties should be meted out to the North
Koreans. So far the only concrete action taken by Beijing is to postpone the
North Korean tour of vice chairman of the National People's Congress Chen
Zhili, which was originally scheduled for early June.
While the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, in addition to
Japan and South Korea, are still deliberating on the right response to the
North Korean challenge, it is not clear whether Beijing would recommend or
acquiesce to new forms of punishments. This is despite reports that soon after
Pyongyang's October 2006 nuclear test, Beijing did curtail its petroleum supply
to the DPRK.
Beijing's worries remain that excessively harsh measures would destabilize the
Kim regime at a time when Dear Leader Kim is making preparations to hand over
power to his third son, Kim Jong-un, in the near future. Indeed, one
interpretation of Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missiles tests is precisely
that Kim, who is in ill health, wants to give assurance to the generals that
the Kims will always support the military and underwrite an ambitious defense
In the final analysis, it is up to Beijing to use the "opportunity" provided by
North Korean intransigence to show the world that it is a responsible
stakeholder in the global community. The Hu leadership has to strike the right
balance between preventing utter chaos in the DPRK on the one hand, and taking
effective measures to halt Kim's nuclearlization gambit.
As Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department Korea expert put it, "Beijing
must recognize that North Korea's generals have pushed North Korea's 'defense'
policy to an extreme."
"Now that president [George W] Bush has left office, no nation is threatening
North Korea's sovereignty," Quinones added. "But North Korea's pursuit of an
arsenal of weapons of mass destruction does threaten the peace, sovereignty and
security of its neighbors, including China." Now a Japan-based professor,
Quinones called upon China to "make effective use of its considerable economic
leverage with Pyongyang" to plod Kim toward returning to the six-party talks
Beijing's decision could well determine the extent to which it is successful in
convincing the world that its readiness to play a constructive role in global
politics is commensurate with the country's fast-growing economic and military
1. Author's interview with Professor Kenneth Quinones.
Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He
has worked in senior editorial positions in international media including
Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China Morning Post, and the Asia-Pacific
Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on China, including the
recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders,
New Challenges. Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China studies at Akita
International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.