The words barely resonate anymore. After North Korea succeeded with its fifth—and likely largest ever—nuclear test on Friday morning, the reclusive state’s lone ally issued its usual barrage of condemnation. China “resolutely opposes” North Korea’s flouting of a U.N. ban on such nuclear tests, went a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement. China’s official newswire said the test, which took place on North Korea’s National Day, “shocked the world.” The Xinhua News Agency continued: “All parties including North Korea should recognize that tumult on the peninsula, war and instability in Northeast Asia will benefit nobody.”
That’s true enough. But there’s only one power that serves as North Korea’s economic lifeline—and a finger-wag from Chinese state media is hardly enough to check the ambitions of Kim Jong un, the scion of North Korea’s dictatorial dynasty. Nor are public warnings from top Chinese leaders. Late last month, after North Korea launched yet another test ballistic missile—this one from a submarine into the Sea of Japan—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi again expressed his disapproval. “China is opposed to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development process,” he said, “and is opposed to any actions that trigger tensions on the Korean peninsula.”
For all its public disapproval of North Korea’s recklessness on Friday, Xinhua made sure to spread the blame beyond Pyongyang. In its official positioning, the Chinese state newswire dedicated almost as many words to criticizing South Korea for planning to install a U.S.-backed anti-missile system as it did to assailing the actual nuclear test. The proposed deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, Seoul contends, is meant to protect the South from a trigger-happy North. But the renewed U.S.-South Korean defense alliance has irked Beijing, which went from inviting South Korean President Park Geun-hye last fall to a grand military parade in the Chinese capital—where she was given a starring role alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping—to canceling performances in China by South Korean entertainers. Just as China “resolutely opposes” North Korea’s nuclear tests and has lodged official protests, it also “resolutely opposes” THAAD and made an official protest in July when the defense system was announced.
China and North Korea were once famously as close as “lips and teeth,” ideological brothers against capitalist swashbucklers in Asia. Chairman Mao’s own son was killed during the Korean War, when waves of Chinese soldiers supported the North as it invaded the South. “For quite a long time, China has tolerated what North Korea has done, but this time, North Korea went too far,” says Wu Qiang, a North Korea expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, noting the embarrassing timing of Friday’s nuclear test on the heels of the G20 summit that China hosted in Hangzhou. “North Korea is challenging the security in East Asia.”
But what can China do to moderate its rogue neighbor? Sealing the border would mean financial ruin for North Korea. Although China supported international sanctions after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test eight months ago, Beijing surely wants to avoid starving North Korean refugees flooding northward. Even worse, should the North Korean regime fall altogether, the South—with its American defense treaty and tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers on its soil—could lap right up to Chinese territory. China is left with limited options. Chinese professor Wu lists the usual—and so far ineffective—policy approaches: uniting with other nations, like Russia, to warn North Korea or attempting to relaunch six-party talks. Then he mentions a third shocking option. “The most radical one,” he says, “is that China may take some measure to destroy North Korea’s nuclear facilities.” For a Chinese academic to even contemplate bombing North Korea shows just how far onetime ideological soulmates have diverged.
—with reporting by Yang Siqi/Beijing