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North Korea Isn’t Going to Stop Provoking Its Ally China Anytime Soon

7 minute read

Super Bowl 50 had plenty of fireworks — most supplied by Beyoncé’s halftime performance, not by the rather sludgy game — but one part of the light show was unplanned. An hour after the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday evening, North Korea’s Shining Star satellite was spotted some 300 miles above the Bay Area’s Levi’s Stadium, hurtling across the California sky.

It was either the second or fourth successful satellite launch by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), depending on whether one believes Western observers or Pyongyang’s own pronouncements, respectively. North Korean state media says the satellite will monitor weather patterns, forests, natural resources and collect agricultural data.

However, no signal has been detected so far, and U.S. officials initially said the craft appears to be tumbling through orbit, rendering it useless for science (though it now appears to have stabilized). But few experts believe the satellite was launched for peaceful purposes alone. It was just a month ago that North Korea detonated what it claimed was a miniaturized hydrogen bomb. “This nuclear testing coupled with the testing of ballistic-missile technology is a concern,” says Ben Goodlad, principal weapons analyst at IHS Aerospace, Defence and Security.

On Wednesday, South Korea responded by shuttering the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which has operated just across the border in North Korea since 2004. This is a significant step — although Pyongyang has suspended its participation several times, Seoul maintained operations even when North Korea sank the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and killed civilians during the shelling of Yeonpyong Island in 2010. South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said in a statement that move was to counter the “catastrophic disaster” of leaving North Korea’s nuclear expansion unchecked.

All this has Washington worried, especially after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on Feb. 9 that North Korea had restarted a plutonium reactor that could provide fuel for more nuclear weapons. Pyongyang, Clapper said, was committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile “capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.”

Yet if Shining Star was intended to be used against the U.S. and its regional allies like Japan, its launch also represented a hostile act toward North Korea’s chief and only ally, China. Beijing had dispatched veteran diplomat Wu Dawei on Feb. 2 to convince Pyongyang to postpone the launch. Yet not only was Wu unsuccessful, the launch was even brought forward by a day to coincide with Chinese New Year’s Eve — the country’s major holiday. This was “a slap in the face for Beijing,” says Steven Weber, an international-relations specialist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is unaccustomed to slaps. Since taking China’s top job in 2013, he has launched an unprecedented anticorruption drive within the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) — targeting both top-tier “tigers” along with low-level “flies” — and riled Asian neighbors by embarking on military expansion in the East and South China Seas. The Chinese security dragnet has also been expanded overseas to covertly target dissidents and other Chinese that Beijing regards as wayward. Xi is arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

So why does he put up with the defiance shown by North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, much less fund it? China is impoverished North Korea’s top trading partner — amounting to an estimated $6.39 billion in 2014 — and its principal source of cash, food, arms and energy. If China turned its back on North Korea, the Kim regime would almost certainly collapse.

Historically, there have been two reasons why that support has continued. Despite embracing free-market economics, China is still an essentially autocratic, one-party state — even more so under Xi — and extremely wary of having a unified, democratic, U.S.-allied Korea next door. Secondly, the collapse of the DPRK would send millions of refugees over the 880-mile border into China, bringing with them social and economic anguish. As a result, Beijing has often thwarted international attempts to ramp up economic sanctions, or clamp down on the shadowy businessmen propping up the regime by smuggling counterfeit goods, cash, and even narcotics.

Beijing has its own problems. Growth in China is forecast to shrink from 6.9% last year to 6.3% in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, with the domestic stock market in chaos and the national currency under attack from capital outflows. Beijing has no desire to jeopardize its unchallenged access to cheap North Korean minerals, such as gold, zinc, copper, nickel and rare-earth metals. “The North Korean regime is fully aware that it has the Chinese leadership over a barrel,” says Weber.

That’s fortunate for Kim, but not for North Korea’s 25 million people, victims of a regime that commits what a 2014 U.N. report called “crimes against humanity.” It also complicates U.S. goals to prevent this rogue state from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. Shortly after Sunday’s launch, Washington and Seoul jointly announced talks on rapidly deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system in South Korea, which is designed to intercept longer-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Beijing remains opposed, though, and there are technical doubts about the system. “THAAD interceptors deployed in South Korea do not have the speed or range needed to intercept a rocket such as the one North Korea just launched,” says George Lewis, a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Nevertheless, the deployment of THAAD on China’s doorstep would be yet another DPRK-induced headache for Beijing. Ordinary Chinese are also growing increasingly exasperated by their government’s support of the Kim clan, expressing their distaste in hastily censored social-media posts.

What’s clear is that there is little love lost between these labored confederates. China historically resents being dragged into the Korean War, a conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of the Chinese lives, including that of Mao’s own son, Anying. During the six-party nuclear nonproliferation negotiations, which ran 2003–09, insiders say the Chinese delegates could frequently be heard screaming at their North Korean counterparts. Chinese tourists on day trips to North Korea stoke enmity by gawking mockingly the Stalinist iconography and wanton deprivation, which smacks of their own much maligned Cultural Revolution.

“North Koreans hate China more than the U.S.,” says Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert formerly with the International Crisis Group and now based at Troy University in Seoul. North Korea’s nuclear program “is as much aimed at Beijing as it is at Washington,” he adds, “because the Chinese don’t respect the North Koreans and treat them with contempt.”

The trick for Washington will be turning Chinese irritation into the will to tackle the DPRK before its nuclear ambitions are realized. Nothing else would seem to work. Even shuttering of the KIC, which to date has funneled $560 million to the DPRK, is simply an “emotional response,” says William Choong, senior fellow International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It won’t have that much effect as [Pyongyang] can pretty much send those same workers to China to recoup that revenue.”

However, convincing Xi to act will be an uphill battle, says Pinkston, as “Beijing fears the collapse of the Kim regime could give Chinese people subversive ideas.” Unlike the Super Bowl, we’re not likely to see victory celebrations anytime soon.

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Beijing at charlie.campbell@time.com