April 08, 2013
Unprecedented Chinese criticism of North Korea is unlikely to mean tough new action against Pyongyang because if China pushes too hard and its troublesome neighbour collapses, the result would be disastrous for Beijing.
That limits the options for China, even as it has grown frustrated with Pyongyang since the reclusive state carried out a third nuclear test in February and ramped up the sabre-rattling in response to the U.N. sanctions that followed.
Restricting or cutting off food and energy supplies as well as strictly implementing U.N. sanctions would hurt North Korea. It’s unclear whether such measures by China could lead to the downfall of the regime of young leader Kim Jong-un.
But Beijing will likely never risk a scenario that could prompt waves of North Koreans to flee across the border and at the same time leave nuclear material unsupervised.
“China is coming to the conclusion that North Korea is becoming a liability and it needs to take steps to deal with it,” said Paul Haenle, former China director on the U.S. National Security Council and White House representative to stalled six-party talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to end its nuclear activities.
“(But) I don’t think we’ll see dramatic shifts overnight and I don’t think we’ll see publicly announced shifts. This is the kind of thing that will happen gradually and will happen behind the scenes.”
Over the weekend, China’s foreign minister said it would not allow “trouble making” on its doorstep while President Xi Jinping appeared to rebuke North Korea during a speech in which he said no country should be allowed to cause chaos “for selfish gain”.
U.S. lawmakers in turn criticised China, saying it had failed to rein in North Korea.
But Beijing does not have the influence it is often assumed to have in North Korea, a country used to isolation and deeply suspicious of outsiders, even of China, which came to Pyongyang’s aid in the 1950-53 Korean War.