China’s strategic play with nuclear North Korea

North’s missile failures and high-level diplomatic visit to Beijing highlight an evolving relationship between allies.

South Korea
A man watches a TV news channel in Seoul showing footage of a North Korean missile launch on April 24 [AFP/Getty Images]

North Korea’s state TV disclosed on Wednesday, for the first time, video footage showing the launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in April, the latest show of its determination to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them – and at the same time its defiance of the international community’s mounting pressure.

In the video, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is seen watching with a big smile as a missile was “successfully” launched underwater and flew into the sky.

The timing of the release of this more than a month-old video grabs attention in several ways.

First, Kim needed to save face following Tuesday’s failed test of a missile – widely believed to be a Musudan intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) with an ability to travel up to 4,000km – meaning it could reach all of Japan and the American territory of Guam, where the US has military bases.

US, not China, militarising the South China Sea: FM 

Kim Dae-young, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, told Al Jazeera this fourth successive failed launch, if it was indeed Musudan, would have been “a huge embarrassment for Kim Jong-un when he needed to demonstrate to the international community that Pyongyang would not succumb to international sanctions and would continue to walk its own path.


G7 summit: Global growth an urgent priority

“It appears that Pyongyang wanted to stress that the country has various kinds of means to deliver nuclear weapons,” Kim added.

Following the fourth nuclear test in January and the long-range rocket launch in February, the UN Security Council – where Pyongyang’s traditional ally China is a veto-wielding permanent member – unanimously adopted a resolution in March, considered to be the toughest sanction in history imposed on the defiant country.

Second, the video was released the same day that a North Korean delegation led by its top official Ri Su-yong met Chinese President Xi Jin-ping with a purported objective of explaining to Beijing the results of the ruling party’s once-a-generation congress held in early May.

This was the first visit by a high-level North Korean official to Beijing since the January nuclear test that upset China’s leadership, which needs regional stability for its continued economic growth. The test has subsequently chilled the traditional allies’ relations.

Surprisingly, however, Ri told Xi that Pyongyang’s “byungjin” policy of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and its economy remained unchanged, according to North Korea’s state media.

President Xi, more surprisingly, called on “relevant sides” – which means not only Pyongyang but also other players in the region such as Seoul, Tokyo and Washington – to “stay calm” and “exercise restraint”, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Kim Jong-un: North Korea is a responsible nuclear state 

Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute based in South Korea, told Al Jazeera: “Xi’s remark is intended to criticise not only Pyongyang but also Seoul and Washington for further heightening tensions by conducting the largest joint military exercises in March, including a manoeuvre aimed at decapitating North Korean leadership.”

Another twist to this already complicated story is the South China Sea, where Beijing is engaged in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.


The US and Japan – which warily view China’s increasing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas – have been mounting pressure on Beijing, as seen in President Barack Obama’s recent visit to its former bitter enemy Vietnam to bolster ties, and also in the declaration adopted in the G7 summit held in Japan last week.

China is widely viewed as the only country with substantial clout over North Korea, and analysts here say that Beijing might be thinking it is better to mend fences with Pyongyang and keep it as a strategic card to play in dealing with pressure from Washington and Tokyo over the South China Sea issue.

From Friday, the Shangri-La Dialogue – which brings together defence ministers, military chiefs, and prominent security analysts – will be held in Singapore for three days with both North Korea and the South China Sea high on agenda.

“The outcome of the meeting with the North Korean delegation will be taken into account, when China talks to its American counterpart during the Shangri-La Dialogue,” Cheong said. 

 US lifts arms embargo on former foe Vietnam

Source: Al Jazeera