Well, this might put a damper on North Korean-Chinese relations.
According to the South Korean government, on Tuesday a South China Airlines plane carrying 220 civilians narrowly missed being hit by a North Korean missile after it flew into the missile’s trajectory. The missile and plane crossed the same path just seven short minutes apart. No one was harmed. The plane had been flying to Shenyang, China from Narita airport in Japan.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson told Bloomberg News: “The rocket could have hit the plane on its way down. North Korea had not given any warning [of the missile launch]. It was an unexpected and immoral act that goes against international norms.” The same spokesperson confirmed that Seoul had passed along information about the near miss to its allies in Beijing. Neither the airline nor China has responded to inquiries or acknowledged the near collision yet.
China and North Korea are regularly portrayed as close allies in the West and domestically, although the bilateral relationship has been filled with tension since its inception at the beginning of the Cold War. China has also taken a stronger stance against North Korea over the past year or so. Still, Beijing provides substantial aid and economic assistance to prop up the Kim regime in Pyongyang.
On Tuesday, the same day as the near miss, North Korea’s Premier Pak Pong-Ju sent sympathies to his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, over the recent terrorist attack in China, according to a North Korean state media outlet.
North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests over the past week to express its opposition to ongoing bilateral ROK-U.S. military drills in South Korea. The drills—Foal Eagle and Key Resolve—are conducted every year, which has done nothing to lessen North Korea’s condemnation of them. Pyongyang claims the military drills are a pretext for an invasion of North Korea.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that North Korea had fired seven separate missiles that day.
According to Yonhap News Agency, which cited the ROK Defense Ministry: “The North fired off three short-range projectiles using a 240 mm multiple rocket launchers at around 6 a.m from Wonsan on its southeastern coast…. It launched four more beginning at 4:17 p.m. using a longer-range rocket launcher from the same region, with the range of about 155 km.” One of the latter missiles was apparently the projectile that almost blew up the Chinese civilian plane.
It’s unclear how China will respond to news of North Korea almost shooting down one of its civilian airplanes. It may reduce its cooperation with North Korea in restarting the Six-Party-Talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. As my colleague Ankit noted last week, and we further discussed in our latest podcast, China has recently conducted shuttle diplomacy between the two Koreas over restarting the talks.
China could also respond by reducing its economic aid and trade with North Korea, although any moves on this front will likely be limited as Beijing is perpetually concerned about the North Korean government collapsing.