China: No Nuclear North Korea, No Toppling Kim Jong-un Regime

China: No Nuclear North Korea, No Toppling Kim Jong-un Regime

We recently witnessed an unexpected reaction from North Korea as it declared that it had entered a “state of war” with South Korea. In response, Seoul vowed a tough response to North Korea. North Korea also issued threats to attack the U.S. bases in the Pacific. Instead of ratcheting down the dangerous rhetoric, Pyongyang later announced that it would re-open the Yongbyon nuclear plant which is capable of enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. Since 2007, Yongbyon has been closed under a disarmament agreement.

Most of us do not exactly know the reasons behind North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un’s dangerous rhetoric. According to China’s well-known political analyst Song Zhongping, the trigger for North Korea’s reaction was the U.S. and South Korea’s recent military exercise. North Koreans were not happy to learn that B-2 and B-52 planes which can both launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles, participated in the joint military exercise.

Kim believes that the latest U.S. moves are aimed at staging a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on North Korea. On the other hand, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, told reporters at a press conference that, “America and South Korea have not been involved in the provocation of anything. The U.S. over the years has been engaged with South Korea on joint exercises. The B2 fight was part of that.”

The North Korean leader is very young and inexperienced which makes him extremely unpredictable. The unpredictability of the Pyongyang regime was even more apparent as North Korea’s state news agency KCNA, in its latest broadside on April 3, declared that, “The moment of explosion is approaching fast. No one can tell if a war will break out in Korea or not or whether it will break out today or tomorrow.”

Analysts are uncertain of whether Pyongyang really intends to launch missile attacks. At the moment, North Korea seems to be incapable of attacking U.S. soil, however we cannot completely rule out the possibility of North Korea launching missile attacks against its southern neighbor.

China’s position

The key to understanding China’s position is keeping in mind that, as much as China does not want North Korea to increase its nuclear capabilities, China also does not want the U.S. to increase its influence around China’s borders.

China voted in favor of the UN Security Council resolutions that condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests and its repeated violation of Security Council resolutions. Former Chinese ambassador to the UN Zhang Yesui said China voted in favor of the resolution as actions by North Korea showed a “disregard for the international community’s common objective”. So, it is clear that China does not want North Korea to increase its nuclear capabilities. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, on April 2, expressed his government’s regret over North Korea’s recent announcement to reopen the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

According to analyst Lin Changsheng, if Kim launches missile attacks to South Korea leading to a joint retaliation from South Korea and U.S., this might trigger a big change in northeast Asia, which might result in a regime change in North Korea and eventually to unification of the Korean peninsula. Lin also believes that Chinese leverage over North Korea is limited because if Beijing increases pressure on Pyongyang through unilateral economic sanctions, this would put the final nail in Pyongyang’s coffin. Moves that could result in a regime change in North Korea are not in line with China’s national interests.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit China in mid-April. During Kerry’s visit, he will seek support from China’s top leaders to review China’s economic and trade relations with North Korea. Kerry might get some support from China to further isolate North Korea but China wouldn’t go so far as to take actions that would put an end to Kim Jong-un’s regime.