Expectations grow that Pyongyang may soon test a nuclear weapon — and its relations with its closest ally.
When North Korea carried out its last nuclear test on September 3, 2017, China’s President Xi Jinping was preparing to host the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa at a summit meant to burnish his image as a global statesperson ahead of a critical Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress.
The explosion from the underground detonation — Pyongyang’s sixth such test — triggered an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 that shook homes along the North Korea-China border and revived fears of nuclear contamination in the area. It also shifted the slopes of the mountain where North Korea’s underground test sites were located by up to 3.5 metres (11.5 feet).
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The test, which Pyongyang declared a “perfect success” and said involved a hydrogen bomb, capped months of accelerating weapons launches, including that of long-range missiles capable of hitting the continental United States.
Analysts in China and the US immediately condemned the atomic test as an “insult” to Beijing, which has long been North Korea’s chief ally and its primary trade partner, as well as a “diplomatic embarrassment” for Xi, who at the time was set to be confirmed for a second term as the Communist Party’s leader.
China responded by joining US-led United Nations Security Council sanctions that choked off North Korea’s fuel supplies and ordered the return home of some 100,000 North Korean workers whose labour overseas was funding their government’s weapons programme.
But five years on, North Korea’s military ambitions have only grown.
Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, has accelerated the pace of his country’s nuclear and missiles weapons development after denuclearisation talks with former US President Donald Trump ended in 2019 in a spectacular failure. This year, Kim has personally overseen the launch of hypersonic and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and enacted a new law that allows for preemptive atomic strikes if an imminent attack against North Korean strategic assets and its leadership is detected.
Among North Korea watchers, there is now a sense of déjà vu as warnings of a seventh North Korean nuclear test intensify just as China’s ruling Communist Party prepares for its five-yearly congress this month, where Xi is expected to be appointed to an unprecedented third term. Last week, South Korea’s spy agency told the country’s legislators that the window for the new atomic test may be between October 16 — the first day some 2,300 Communist Party delegates meet in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People — and November 7, when the US holds its midterm elections.
That assessment initially prompted incredulity among some analysts.
“If Kim Jong Un were to carry out this test during the Communist Party Congress, it would be considered a real slap against China,” said Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based analyst who noted that it was only last week that the two countries had resumed freight train services following a five-month suspension due to North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak. “To the extent that they do it, it would be more around the US elections because, North Korea is more concerned about a US response at this moment,” he said, referring to Kim’s longstanding demands on Washington to lift punishing international sanctions.
Others, however, say Kim has no regard for China’s concerns and that his only consideration is achieving his objective of an operational nuclear missile, which he claims is the only deterrent against “hostile forces”.
Turning a blind eye
This view gained further credence on Tuesday when North Korea carried out its longest-range missile test yet, sending a projectile soaring over Japan and triggering warning sirens in northern parts of the neighbouring country. The last time Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan was also in 2017, about a week before it tested its hydrogen bomb.
On Thursday, it launched two short-range missiles in a response, it said, to US and South Korean military drills.
“It has been expected that North Korea will try to refrain from provocations until the CCP Congress ends. That expectation has been shattered now with North Korea’s Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile test,” said Ellen Kim, senior fellow at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the missile over Japan. “North Korea does not appear to care about China’s most important political event this year any more, demonstrating Pyongyang’s unpredictability again.”
But unlike China’s strong response to North Korea’s last nuclear test, it is not clear how it would act in the event of a new launch.
Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at the Sogang University in Seoul, noted Beijing was opposed to North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons because it could “destabilise the security situation in Northeast Asia” and provide a reason for the US to move strategic military assets to the region, including returning tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, where it has had military bases and troops since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
“China is not happy with the Russian war in Ukraine. They don’t want another headache in Northeast Asia,” he said, especially as tensions rise with the US over the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
But for Sung-yoon Lee, professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, it is precisely the global tensions amid the war in Ukraine that may hold China back on North Korea.
Lee believes a North Korean nuclear test may be likely even earlier than the CCP Congress, perhaps around October 10, the anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s Workers Party.
“If Kim Jong Un does carry out a nuclear test around October 10, then the Chinese will be irritated. But they will move on. They have a more important event to hold. So North Korea’s nuclear test and insult perhaps to China and to everyone else will be forgotten, there will be no repercussions,” he said, noting that Beijing has failed to take action against North Korea despite a record number of weapons tests this year.
In May, China, along with Russia, vetoed a US-sponsored resolution for tighter UN sanctions on North Korea.
“China will issue a statement of regret,” Lee said. “North Korea has blatantly violated 10 UN Security Council resolutions banning it from developing and testing ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear weapons. And what has China done? What has Russia done?
“They’ve turned a blind eye to it, there’s not been a single new UN sanctions resolution. So North Korea knows it can do these things with impunity.”