Beijing has struggled to hide signs of an about-face in sentiment towards North Korea following claims of a successful Hydrogen bomb test on last Sunday.
While some experts suspect that Pyongyang's test may be nothing more than a "boosted" atomic bomb, amplified thermonuclear capabilities represent a potentially-devastating escalation from Kim Jong Un's previous tests. Even an intermediate step towards a full hydrogen bomb - which uses a second stage of reactions to magnify the force of an atomic explosion – demonstrates that North Korea's nuclear program has become more sophisticated. Such capabilities open the door to warheads with more destructive power in smaller spaces.
Some have called the test a "slap in the face" and "poke in the eye" to Pyongyang's sole ally. Much to Beijing's ire, the test also took place during – and by some accounts overshadowed -- the BRICS summit hosted in Xiamen from September 3-5, launching just hours before President Xi Jinping was scheduled to speak.
However, while this episode marks a visible blow to DPRK-China ties, a closer look reveals a steady fraying of ties that extends further back than many western commentators may have recognized. Since Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle and primary China interlocutor Jang Song Thaek in 2013, ties deteriorated sharply. As a result, Beijing has been cut off from its fair-weather ally's decision-making processes, and, like Washington, fears becoming a subject of Kim's ire.
The precariousness of the China-DPRK relationship has become increasingly apparent in sentiment expressed by the Chinese foreign policy research community – often viewed as one of the few windows into the government's inner thinking. Of late, this group has taken a significantly more hawkish stance towards Pyongyang in newspapers and academic journals across the board. According to The Financial Times, "Gradually this year, voices sympathetic to North Korea have disappeared from newspaper op-eds and academic journals... The debate among these experts is virtually the only public discussion in China of one of the country's biggest foreign policy issues."
Adding to this drumbeat of dissatisfaction towards Pyongyang, the Chinese Foreign Minister on Thursday told reporters that the U.N. should "make a further response and take necessary measures" towards North Korea in light of the new developments, but continued to push for dialogue. However, as North Korea and the U.S. continue to make bogeymen of the other via aggravated Twitter language and mis-translations, it remains to be seen if Beijing's calls for dialogue will be heeded by either side.
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