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North Korea Rocket Launch May Have Alienated the Only Friend They Have

After conducting a widely condemned rocket launch last December, North Korea responded to a United Nations resolution condemning its behavior in typical fashion: bombastic threats of military force against the United States and South Korea.

While the threats were vague, they came just a day after DPRK promised to continue long-range rocket launches and conduct a third nuclear test, both of which could undermine regional stability and ratchet up tensions on the peninsula. If North Korea is determined to continue its reckless behavior, there’s not much the U.S. can do to prevent these tests. Still, every North Korean provocation is an opportunity for the U.S. to reach out to China, working towards mutual security interests and depriving the DPRK of a reliable backer. 

According to media reports, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered top military and party officials to take “substantial and high-profile important state measures” to retaliate against the United States for the unanimously adopted UN Security Council resolution. The following day, North Korea took aim at its southern neighbor, warning of “strong physical counter-measures” directed at South Korea if the nation attempts to enforce existing sanctions. After the DPRK shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, which killed two South Korean marines and injured at least a dozen civilians, these threats cannot be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, there are few containment options available to the United States. Decades of sanctions, along with efforts to reach a compromise on the nuclear issue through the now-defunct Six Party Talks did nothing to stop North Korea from pursuing its nuclear weapons program. While there is currently no evidence that the DPRK is preparing for a nuclear test, according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, North Korea has ”the capability ... to conduct these [nuclear] tests in a way that makes it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it.

Given these limitations, U.S. efforts to collaborate with China in managing the DPRK are more important than ever. While it’s increasingly clear that even Beijing has limited influence over North Korean decision-making, China has long intervened on behalf of its erstwhile neighbor, protecting North Korea from international backlash at the United Nations. As North Korea’s biggest trading partner, it has also helped to insulate the DPRK against the harshest effects of international economic sanctions. In fact, while China voted for the most recent Security Council resolution, it blocked the implementation of any new sanctions and vowed to stop “extreme UN sanctions on North Korea.”

Still, recent events may be pushing China to the limits of its tolerance. The DPRK rocket launch was conducted after specific and public warnings by China not to proceed, and in recent statements Pyongyang seems to be pushing its luck. While stopping short of threats, North Korea expressed unmistakable irritation with China for its approval of the most recent UN resolution, pinning the need for nuclear testing on the failure of “different countries concerned ... [to] fairly solve the problem.”

In response, the Chinese newspaper Global Times, which generally reflects the official party line, shot back with a reminder that, “if North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance." The editorial also noted that Beijing’s efforts to soften the resolution, complaining that “North Korea does not appreciate China’s efforts.”

Both the U.S. and China share a desire to calm tensions and prevent an outbreak of violence in the region. While Beijing has traditionally been reluctant to push economic sanctions too far, concerned that a resulting collapse of the DPRK regime could create chaos and bring a flood of refugees to its border, North Korea’s increasing recklessness may prove to be an even more pressing concern. The United States must continue to make that case, and persuade China that enabling North Korea is no longer in its best interest.

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