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Is China taking a harsher tone on North Korea?

Before North Korea conducted its third nuclear test this week, China made strong efforts to dissuade Pyongyang, saying that if it went ahead with the test, “it must pay a heavy price.”

After Pyongyang went ahead with the test anyway, China, Pyongyang’s largest trading partner and benefactor, summoned the North Korean ambassador to Beijing in protest. Beijing also joined in the immediate, unanimous condemnation of North Korea’s actions during an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Because China's support for North Korea has made it tough for the international community to get Pyongyang to back away from its weapons programs, some wondered if these actions signaled that Beijing was taking a harsher stance on the North. But as the UN Security Council prepares to expand sanctions in response to the test, China will still likely seek to limit the strength of any measures taken against North Korea, say most analysts.

“When the Security Council discusses tougher sanctions, China will not vocally oppose them, but they will try to weaken the sanctions during negotiations,” says Shin Sang-jin, a professor of Chinese studies at Kwangwoon University in Seoul.

“They will continue their aid to and exchange with North Korea. North Korea is strategically important for China, so they’ll continue to use their power and maintain their leverage in the situation on the Korean peninsula,” Shin added.

The partnership between China and North Korea, however fractious, is crucial for both countries. China values North Korea as a buffer against democratic South Korea and the US militarypresence there, as well as its almost exclusive access to North Korea's natural resources, rare earths in particular.

South Korea, which holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council while the country is in the midst of a leadership transition, has indicated it is undeterred.

"South Korea will take steps that can persuade the North to change its mind and give up its 20-year-old nuclear weapons program," said Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk in a press briefing in Seoul today.

In her campaign, President-elect Park Geun-hye expressed plans to restart diplomatic efforts with North Korea as president, but the political climate facing her as she prepares for her inauguration on Feb. 25 will make that extremely difficult. All measures intended to convince North Korea to abandon its plan to develop nuclear weapons have been ineffective thus far.

And despite China's recent reprimanding of the North, without a substantial change to Beijing's policy toward North Korea, conventional multilateral efforts to rein the North will likely continue to amount to little.

"From North Korea's perspective, over the past 60 years they've never had to pay a serious penalty for their provocations, so there isn't a serious incentive to reform," says Sung-yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean studies at Tufts University.

North Korea has said that it will consider further sanctions “an act of war,” which could lead to another missile launch or a fourth nuclear test.

As North Korea continues to pursue its goal of lighter, more deadly weapons that can travel farther, some analysts have suggested the possibility of the international community deciding to implement more serious financial sanctions to freeze North Korean assets and the sources of the illicit funds that sustain the regime.

Something similar happened in 2007, when the US ordered US businesses to cut ties with theMacao-based Banco Delta Asia bank, which was holding some $25 million in assets laundered by North Korea. The bank subsequently cut its ties with North Korea, forcing the regime to look elsewhere for financial partners.

If a larger number of financial institutions agreed to similar sanctions, North Korea could have great difficulty conducting the transactions that allow it to survive and fund its weapons programs.

But, should such measures be implemented, say analysts, China’s support would only become more important for North Korea.

“China and North Korea need each other for their national interests and strategic purposes," says Kim Hankwon, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Especially for Kim Jong-un, China's support means a lot considering the escalating pressure and increased sanctions from the international community.”

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