North Korea is reportedly likely to carry out a long-range missile test in the near future. Japan’s Kyodo News agency, quoting a Japanese government source, reported Thursday that the launch could come as early as in a week. Seoul’s Defense Ministry, which neither confirmed nor denied the report, said the military had been keeping close tabs on the launch site in the North’s northwestern region.
It has been customary for the North to launch a long-range rocket before or after a nuclear bomb test. In this regard, the report should not come as a surprise. But if the rogue regime is really preparing a missile test, it would be unusual, given that the United Nations Security Council is still discussing sanctions against it for conducting what it claimed to be a miniaturized hydrogen bomb test on Jan. 6.
The media report on the possibility of a new provocation by the North is obviously embarrassing to China. The veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council has been taking pains, to the great disappointment of Seoul, to thwart Washington’s efforts to impose the toughest sanctions yet against the wayward regime for its earlier provocation.
So Beijing warned its unruly ally not to take “drastic” action that would escalate tension further. Expressing deep concern about an aggravation of the ongoing crisis, the spokeswoman for Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said China was keeping a close watch on the developments on the Korean Peninsula. She urged all countries to keep cool heads and exercise restraint.
Pyongyang is unlikely to heed such a mild warning from Beijing. If the North does launch a long-range missile even before the Security Council adopts a new resolution, it is because the North’s young leader is convinced that its additional provocation will not cause China to change stance and stop providing diplomatic and economic support for it.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered such reassurances when he rejected Washington’s initiatives on sanctions against the North during his talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. Washington’s plan included such tough measures as suspending the supply of crude oil to the North, banning imports of its coal and iron ore, and sanctioning governments, companies and banks in third countries that trade with North Korea.
Refusing to endorse Kerry’s plan, Wang reportedly said sanctions should not be the objective in itself. He also reiterated China’s three principles in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program — achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula and resolving the nuclear problem through dialogue.
The North Korean leader could not miss Beijing’s message: China regards its isolated ally as a strategic asset and, therefore, will continue to extend an economic lifeline to it to keep the destitute regime afloat. China may think that North Korea’s strategic value would increase if it secured the capability to launch long-range missiles that could reach the continental U.S.
The Seoul government has long sought to win China’s active cooperation in resolving the North’s nuclear problem. But China’s lukewarm attitude toward the North’s latest nuclear provocation strongly suggests that such efforts are unlikely to bear much fruit. Now Seoul’s approach to the North’s nuclear conundrum needs to go back to the drawing board, as China cannot be relied upon.