US officials are taking heart in mounting evidence that China, while still worried about the repercussions of a North Korean collapse, is tiring of protecting its troublesome ally.
Though wary of each other on other international issues, the United States and China are demonstrating renewed cooperation as North Korea ratchets up its belligerence with threats of an imminent nuclear test.
First, the two world powers reached a compromise that allowed unanimous passage earlier this week of a UN Security Council resolution condemning a December long-range rocket test and tightening sanctions – a vote that prompted North Korea to threaten “all-out action” against “big countries.”
Then at talks in Beijing on Friday, the US envoy for North Korean issues, Glyn Davies, said that the US and China “achieved a very strong degree of consensus” on how to confront North Korea’s latest threats.
That comment came as Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, which is aligned with China’s ruling Communist Party, said in an editorial Friday that “if North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance” – an unusually blunt warning.
“A new game is on with North Korea,” and this week’s UN resolution “indicates that any new nuke test or missile launch will bring yet another round of even stronger and more targeted sanctions,” says George Lopez, a former UN monitor of North Korea sanctions and a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
The new environment “is both the best and the worst for the Obama administration,” Professor Lopez says: The “worst” because any a nuclear test would lead to Republican criticism of his foreign policy, but the “best” because a test would almost certainly present Obama with the “opportunity” to show that the world – including the Chinese and Russians – is ready for “meaningful united action.”
Some analysts speculate that Pyongyang is willing to risk a round of tougher sanctions because its 2012 harvest was better than anticipated. The new round of belligerence, particularly towards the US – which it labeled “the sworn enemy of the Korean people” this week – may be aimed at rattling the US into direct talks.
The ultimate goal of the North’s dictatorial regime is to achieve recognition from the US and to sign a non-aggression treaty with Washington, analysts say.
But there also could be technical reasons for carrying out another nuclear test, nuclear experts say. The North may want to see if it has successfully miniaturized the crude weapons of tests in 2006 and 2009, they say. In addition, after last month’s long-range rocket test, a nuclear test might be aimed at demonstrating that the country is capable of mounting a weapon on a missile.
Lopez says he expects the climate around the North Korea issue to “get a little more dangerous … before it has a chance to get better.” He expects a nuclear test sometime in the next three months, which he guesses will lead to tough new sanctions, and then a return to six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program.
While he doesn’t want to downplay the risks ahead, Lopez points out that North Korea is “years away” from “taking an explosive device and successfully putting it on a missile,” according to nuclear experts.