China and the United States downplayed and denounced the North Korean government’s January 6 claim that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had tested a miniaturized hydrogen bomb. They both called on Pyongyang to cease such tests and fulfill its nuclear disarmament obligations. China, the United States and other countries unanimously agreed in the UN Security Council to denounce North Korea’s violations of earlier UN resolutions. But whether China will agree to severely punish North Korea, which has been regularly sanctioned since its first nuclear test in 2006, is unclear.
The fundamental challenge for Beijing and Washington is that they diverge in their preferred strategy to deal with the North Korean problem. The trick will be to find a “win-win” overlap in these preferences to achieve an effective and mutually acceptable response to the common threat.
Beijing and Washington both quickly concluded that North Korea had simply detonated another less powerful atomic bomb, its fourth such test, rather than a hydrogen (also known as “thermonuclear”) weapon. Among other considerations, the magnitude of the January 6 explosion was similar to that of the DPRK’s previous detonation of a purely fission weapon in 2013.
Following the latest DPRK nuclear test, Chinese officials urged North Korea to honor its denuclearization commitments and not worsen regional tensions. The Foreign Ministry stated that, “China is steadfast in its position that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and nuclear proliferation be prevented to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia.” Chinese officials told foreign governments that they wanted to cooperate to craft an effective collective response to North Korea’s behavior, but they also emphasized China’s limited influence on DPRK decision-making. They let it be known that Pyongyang had, as on previous occasions, not informed Beijing in advance of this nuclear test. To all appearances, China has been striving to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. The DPRK testing of these weapons has worsened regional tensions and lead the United States and its allies to strengthen their missile defenses and other military capabilities around China’s periphery.
The January 6 test has not led to a change in U.S. policy toward North Korea or assessment of DPRK capabilities or intentions. U.S. officials reaffirmed that they would never accept North Korea as a legitimate nuclear weapons state and argued that Pyongyang’s provocations would drive the DPRK deeper into international isolation. In a modest show of force, the U.S. Air Force flew a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber based in the United States to South Korean airspace on January 10 as a demonstration of U.S. commitment to defend South Korea and other allies. U.S. diplomats consulted with these countries, who called on China to put more pressure on North Korea to reign in its nuclear activities.
In particular, South Korean President Park Geun-hye pressed China to support very strong measures to punish the DPRK and discourage further nuclear tests. Since her inauguration, Park has worked to build closer ties with Beijing China and South Korea recently established a military hotline, yet the South Korean defense minister had difficulty using the line on this occasion to reach his Chinese counterpart. Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se did reach his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, who reaffirmed China’s longstanding insistence that denuclearization must be achieved through dialogue.
North Korea’s previous nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 had induced China to support only modest UN sanctions against the DPRK that do not authorize the use of force to enforce them. Chinese scholars often express sympathy with the DPRK’s claim that North Korea pursues nuclear weapons to counter threats from United States, Japan, and South Korea. Beijing’s preferred outcome to the Korean conflict would be for a regional peace agreement that limited unconventional weapons on the Peninsula, constrained Japanese and U.S. military activities, moderated but sustained the current DPRK regime, while expanding regional economic activities with Chinese participation.
Washington’s immediate goal has been to reassure U.S. treaty allies like Japan and South Korea that the United States would guarantee their security. The long-term U.S. interest, and undeclared objective, in the words of former senior director for Asian affairs of the National Security Council Jeffrey Bader, is to see “the North’s collapse and absorption into a South-led reunified Korea.” What is unclear is whether the Chinese government is adamantly opposed to a unified Korea under Seoul’s dominance or would require a curtailment of the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
In addition to having some differences over their preferred Korean end game, Chinese and U.S. policy makes differ over the best means to achieve them. U.S. analysts generally agree with their Chinese counterparts that there is no good military solution to the Korean problem and that it would be better to avert a crisis through non-military means. But they fault Beijing for not exerting more pressure on Pyongyang to change its policies. Of course, China has had to balance its goal of ending the DPRK nuclear program with that of preserving a stable buffer state. Americans need to do a better job persuading more Chinese that their country would be better off with a unified Korean Peninsula under Seoul’s leadership rather than the current situation in which China suffers from being the closest partner of a troublesome and ungrateful rogue state.