Despite international warnings and a renewed threat of enhanced sanctions, North Korea went ahead with its third nuclear test on Tuesday. All hopes that Kim Jong-un would set a less belligerent course for North Korea seem to have been dashed, for the moment. Like his father before him, Jong-un has defied the world and reminded Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Washington that, despite their best efforts, North Korea is a bona fide nuclear power. So what happens now?
The United States will undoubtedly support tougher sanctions against North Korea and it’s likely that China will also support such a measure. China’s new leadership now finds itself between two chairs. The PRC cannot simply abandon North Korea, despite the high amount of stress that Pyongyang has been doling out to its closest ally. At best, it can only hope to reign in the North for the time being. China has long viewed North Korea as a shield against a deeper US presence on the Korean peninsula. With Sino-American mistrust increasing and the US in the midst of shifting its military focus to the Western Pacific, China must be wary of how it addresses the issue. If it does not adopt an assertive position with regards to the latest North Korean test, the rest of the world could view that as a sign of weak resolve. UN sanctions against North Korea will not be realistically possible without China’s support. On the flip side, if China becomes overly forceful in its response, that could cause increased difficulties between Beijing and Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un could decide to break away from China’s benevolence in an attempt to assert North Korea’s independence from its close friend to the north. With the fragile state that North Korea is in at present, an internal collapse is a likely consequence of an attempted breakaway.
This is a worst-case scenario for China. Although it does not seem likely at the moment, it’s not completely outside of the realm of possibility. In any event, the world will be watching how China responds to the latest test.