China treads complex path between North and South Korea as nuclear risk rises

As tit-for-tat tensions continue to heat up on the Korean peninsula, Beijing is facing a complex dilemma in its dealings with both Pyongyang and Seoul amid risks of a looming nuclear crisis.

Observers warn there is “a significant possibility” of further provocations by Pyongyang ahead of the US election in November and called on China to step up efforts to help rein in North Korea before any escalation.

Compounding matters, Beijing is also wary of Pyongyang’s deepening military pact with Moscow – which analysts say may be detrimental to China’s interests – following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile visit to North Korea last month.

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02:25

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin hold talks on SCO sidelines in Kazakhstan

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin hold talks on SCO sidelines in Kazakhstan

Tensions that have simmered since 2022 over Pyongyang’s accelerated missile tests flared in January, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ditched his predecessor’s goal of reconciliation and Korean reunification and declared Seoul to be his regime’s “principal enemy”.

After a bombardment of trash-carrying balloons from its northern neighbour over the past month, Seoul suspended a 2018 tension-reducing agreement and resumed anti-Pyongyang loudspeaker broadcasts in border areas.

South Korea also conducted its first live-fire drills with its ally the US in seven years, using precision-guided bunker-buster bombs.

Joseph Yun, a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace – and US special representative for North Korea policy between 2016 and 2018 – described the situation on the Korean peninsula as “dangerous”.

“I don’t think we can rule out any provocation soon,” he said, adding that historically during American presidential election years, Pyongyang had tried various things, including testing weapons, to provoke Washington.

US broadcaster NBC reported last month that intelligence officials believe Pyongyang may be planning a “most provocative” military action – at Putin’s request – to “create turmoil” ahead of the November elections.

Seong-hyon Lee, a South Korean visiting scholar with Harvard University’s Asia Centre, said the potential for a coordinated “October surprise” involving Pyongyang and Moscow was “not without merits”, considering “the strategic benefits” for both countries.

“There is a significant possibility that North Korea may conduct its seventh nuclear test. Technically, North Korea doesn’t have to. But politically, it may want to send a signal,” he said.

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The potential for a coordinated “October surprise” involving Pyongyang and Moscow is “not without merits”, according to a South Korean analyst. Photo: AFP

According to Lee, while Beijing – North Korea’s top diplomatic backer and economic lifeline – has long played the North Korea card in its dealings with Washington and Seoul, its leverage depends on its ability to contain Pyongyang’s belligerence.

“When Washington discovers that Beijing lacks political influence over Pyongyang, it means Beijing’s toolbox for dealing with Washington is lacking. On the other hand, if Beijing has influence over Pyongyang but is unwilling to use it, Washington will seek ways to pressure Beijing to do so,” he said.

Beijing roused Pyongyang’s anger by referring to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in a joint statement with South Korea and Japan last month at the end of their first trilateral summit since 2019.

North Korea condemned the move, calling it “a grave political provocation and sovereignty violation”. China has not responded publicly to North Korea’s attack.

Shi Yinhong, an expert on international affairs at Beijing’s Renmin University, said this suggested an initial unwillingness to touch on denuclearisation, which Beijing effectively dropped as a policy goal in 2021 because of changes in China’s own and external environments.

“It seemed obvious that China, which has strained ties with both Japan and South Korea, reluctantly accepted the final wording on denuclearisation for the sake of the trilateral summit,” he said.

“Basically, all that remains of China’s policy on the peninsula is to resolutely defend its alliance with North Korea and resolutely block any attempt by the Western permanent members of the UN Security Council to pass another resolution against North Korea.”

But Beijing’s pro-Pyongyang stance has led to deteriorating ties with South Korea, with Seoul tilting strategically towards Washington and Tokyo.

Beijing and Moscow have repeatedly clashed in the United Nations with South Korea and its allies over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, which have seen North Korea launch more than 100 missiles since 2022 in violation of UN sanctions.

According to Shi, there is unlikely to be “a significant and lasting improvement” in Sino-South Korean ties any time soon despite Beijing’s efforts to ease its rivalry with Seoul.

“For South Korea, North Korea’s fast progress in advancing nuclear and missile capabilities remains its biggest concern, which China seems to care little about, at least from a political standpoint,” he said.

Joseph DeTrani, who was the US special envoy for the six-party talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006, remains upbeat about Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang, given its trade with its smaller neighbour, which it also supplies with crude oil and petroleum products.

“China will encourage Pyongyang not to escalate tension with [Seoul] and – as it did in the recent trilateral meeting … with South Korea and Japan – it will caution South Korea not to strategically align with the US in an effort to contain China,” he said.

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03:10

Trade and Taiwan discussed at 3-way summit for Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders

Trade and Taiwan discussed at 3-way summit for Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders

According to DeTrani, Beijing’s alignment with Moscow at the UN to oppose further sanctions against Pyongyang “does not mean that China is sanguine about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes”.

“Indeed, China does not want instability on the Korean peninsula, which would incite instability in the region. These developments are not in China’s interest,” DeTrani said.

In Yun’s view, while China “is very much on the side of limiting further nuclear tests in North Korea”, Beijing is probably more concerned about the rapidly warming military ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.

“China has always been wary of North Korea getting too close to Russia and it would want to see some distance between them,” he said.

Putin, who wrapped up a China visit in May, signed a mutual defence agreement with Kim last month during his first trip to Pyongyang since 2000, reviving a Cold War-era pledge for “military and other assistance” in the event of war.

Kim vowed his “full support and solidarity” for Putin’s war in Ukraine and claimed that the pact elevated bilateral relations to the level of an alliance as both face escalating stand-offs with the West.

On a rare trip to Russia’s Far East in September for a meeting with Putin, Kim hailed ties with Moscow as his country’s “number one priority”.

The visit significantly boosted their military and economic cooperation, with North Korea allegedly supplying conventional weapons to support Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for military technologies and economic aid.

“North Korea has always been historically very good at manipulating major powers and playing off China and Russia. So this is very much a strategic balance issue between the three countries,” Yun said.

In another sign of Pyongyang edging closer to Moscow, China’s communist neighbour has switched the transmission of its state TV broadcasts from a Chinese satellite to a Russian one in the wake of Putin’s visit.

Putin also used his personal influence to persuade Kim last month to agree to build a new cross-border vehicle bridge over the Tumen River, according to pundits, raising hopes of allowing Chinese ships to navigate the last stretch of the river to the Sea of Japan, or East Sea. For decades, a Soviet-era bridge located downstream of the river, less than 100 metres (328 feet) tall, has made it impossible for freight vessels to use the sea route.

Coinciding with Putin’s Pyongyang visit, China and South Korea held their first vice-ministerial level diplomatic and security dialogue in Seoul last month, with both sides saying “the top priority is to cool down the situation, avoid intensifying confrontation,” according to a Chinese readout.

A South Korean foreign ministry statement urged Beijing to play a constructive role in promoting peace and stability on the peninsula and warned that tensions fuelled by the North Korea-Russian military cooperation “go against China’s interests”.

According to South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh, China’s foreign vice-minister Sun Weidong, who led the “two-plus-two” consultations, said Beijing hoped the interchange between North Korea and Russia would contribute to peace and stability in the region.

DeTrani also expressed concerns about the close Pyongyang-Moscow alignment, but was sceptical about a potential seventh nuclear test by North Korea, because of China’s apparent influence on Kim and its opposition to another nuclear test.

However, if the Ukraine war continues and Pyongyang continues to provide Moscow with military support in return for technical assistance with its satellite and weapons programs, “it’s likely we’ll see something provocative from North Korea”, he said.

According to Wooyeal Paik, an associate professor and deputy director of Yonsei Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, North Korea and Russia’s growing military cooperation has dragged China into a deepening dilemma in Northeast Asia.

“For the first time, China and Russia diverge in the payoff structure of the North Korean nuclearisation game,” Paik said.

“Russia sees some positive – [if] extremely risky – sides to stockpiling nuclear weapons in North Korea as a leverage-bargaining chip. At the same time, China is damaged from, rather than just enduring, this instability-inducing security environment.”

Paik also noted that China had largely stopped mentioning denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in recent years, suggesting this was because it could not do anything about the situation in the current security environment and amid its own struggle with the US.

“Even though China doesn’t want Northeast Asia destabilised, it [has] already moved on to take the nuclear state of North Korea as a given condition, not as a variable,” he said.

“So even though it neither endorses nor supports North Korea, unlike Russia, China grudgingly keeps quiet on this issue, so as not to antagonise North Korea too much.”

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02:07

North Korea, China vow to deepen ties as Pyongyang conducts new missile tests

North Korea, China vow to deepen ties as Pyongyang conducts new missile tests

Most experts were pessimistic about the prospect of direct disarmament talks resuming between Pyongyang and Washington, especially without the support of Beijing.

“I don’t think there will be any chance to resume the denuclearisation talks between North Korea and the US in the near future. One slim chance might come if Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office again this coming November,” Paik said.

But in DeTrani’s view, complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula remains a viable option for future negotiations, even though it might be a long process.

“China would be supportive of this process. Russia probably would be the outlier, but North Korea’s future is more in sync with its allied relationship with China and a path to normal relations with the US, and also South Korea and Japan,” he said.

“We should not give up on a peaceful resolution of issues with North Korea,” DeTrani added.

According to Lee, from Harvard University’s Asia Centre, China should consider relaunching the six-party talks, a series of negotiations that Beijing helped to inaugurate in 2003 aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

“This move would be appreciated in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, and it would benefit China by unwinding the trend of forming a Cold War-like structure with Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo on one side and Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow on the other,” he said.

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