Voices in China diverging from official line on North Korea policy
Nuclear test seen as an embarrassment to Xi Jinping
NEW: Xi makes no reference to North Korea in closing summit speech
China – North Korea’s only global ally and biggest trading partner – has put on a stoic face since Pyongyang successfully conducted its sixth nuclear test Sunday.
President Xi Jinping didn’t mention his country’s unruly neighbor at all in his closing address at the BRICS summit of emerging economies Tuesday, or in earlier speeches, although a communique issued by the group expressed deep concern and called for the crisis to be settled peacefully.
But the test of a hydrogen bomb couldn’t have sat well with China’s leader.
It’s the third time in one year that North Korea has overshadowed a major Chinese event – previous missile tests coincided with the unveiling of Xi’s global economic blueprint at his Belt and Road summit in May and the G20, which China hosted last September.
“The Chinese have been pressing North Korea very hard not to stage a nuclear test,” said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN Beijing bureau chief and the author of “Meltdown: Inside the story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.”
“For the North Koreans to deliberately choose a few hours before a very important summit meeting when Xi Jinping is hosting the leaders from India, Brazil and South Africa – a big, big deal for the Chinese – is a deliberate poke in the eye from North Korea.”
The Chinese foreign ministry quickly and dutifully condemned the test, its statements sticking to the usual talking points of Beijing’s commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and resolving the issue through peace talks.
In academic circles and on social media, however, Chinese voices started to deviate from the official line – noting the deliberate timing and challenging long-held notions that have formed the foundation of China’s North Korea policy.
North Korea's sixth nuclear test
“The US, China and the rest of the world are facing a critical choice: Do we still insist on the denuclearization of the peninsula or do we accept its failure and recognize North Korea as a nuclear power?” said Zhang Liangui, a professor of international strategy at the ruling Communists’ Central Party School and an expert on North Korea.
“It’s not that United Nations sanctions don’t work – it’s that the sanctions aren’t tough enough,” he said.
“If the precondition for such sanctions is that they can’t destabilize North Korea politically, then the sanctions are bound to be useless. If you are not making the leader’s life difficult, of course they won’t change their policy.”
Zhang’s point appears to stand in sharp contrast to those expressed by Beijing officials, who have repeatedly said sanctions alone won’t work, calling for negotiation, and rejected any punitive measures outside the UN framework.
China and Russia have called on the US and South Korea to suspend military drills in exchange for Pyongyang’s halt of its nuclear weapons development, a proposal US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley slammed as “insulting.”
“When a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and an ICBM pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard. No one would do that. We certainly won’t,” she said Monday.
Zhang says the UN’s inability to exert any influence over North Korea called its role into question.
“Faced with such a serious issue with the entire non-proliferation system in danger and a potential nuclear war on the horizon, all the major powers seem powerless – that’s a tragedy,” Zhang said.
Many Western analysts believe that while Beijing is frustrated with North Korea, it prefers a nuclear-armed Pyongyang for two reasons.