A month after North Korea’s failed attempt to launch a satellite, and there are further signs that the country is continuing to make preparations for what would be its third nuclear test. This comes despite repeated warnings against any further provocative actions from the United States, Japan and South Korea. The problem is that, rightly or wrongly, Pyongyang appears to assume that it can count on the support of its traditional ally China. It’s a mindset that means the Kim Jong-un regime is unlikely to be deterred from its current course.
It’s true that China went along with the United States last month in adopting a U.N. Security Council resolution censuring North Korea over its violation of an earlier resolution prohibiting the country from testing long-range missiles. Yet many remain doubtful whether Beijing would ever actually take the kind of substantive action that might hurt its client state.
Why? Essentially because China’s strategic priorities on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia are simply very different from those of the United States, Japan and South Korea. This was evident at a meeting of the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea in Beijing this month. The three countries agreed during talks that they couldn’t accept North Korean provocations. However, reportedly at China’s request, the joint declaration on “Enhancement of Trilateral Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership” omitted any explicit reference to Pyongyang’s actions.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This omission came despite the clear calls of the Japanese and South Korean leaders on North Korea to rein in its behavior. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, for example, reportedly argued that “the international community must unite to show North Korea its firm commitment” to preventing Pyongyang’s further provocations. Similarly, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak insisted the joint declaration should urge Pyongyang to exercise self-restraint and not to carry out a nuclear test or other provocative actions. The Chinese leadership, though, nixed such language from the declaration.
The summit made clear that although China pays lip service to stability on the Korean Peninsula, repeating as it did its commitment to “realizing a peaceful, stable and prosperous East Asia” and “enhancing mutual political trust,” the reality is that China’s words are sounding increasingly hollow.
But it’s not just the Japanese and South Korean leaderships that have been destined to be disappointed by Beijing’s stance. Back in March, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Hu in Seoul when world leaders gathered for the nuclear summit. During a 90-minute talk, Obama is said to have pressed Hu to use all instruments of power to rein in Pyongyang and encourage it to scrap its plan to launch a satellite the following month.