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Analysis: China no longer able to control North Korea

(Nikkei: February 4, 2016 – p. 7)

 

 By Oki Nagai in Beijing

 

 China has reacted strongly to North Korea’s announcement on Feb. 2 of its plan to launch an “artificial satellite,” which is, in fact, a long-range ballistic missile. It demanded on Feb. 3 that Pyongyang refrain from the launch. However, China, which aims at maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, is actually reluctant to invoke tough sanctions, such as an oil embargo. The situation is such that China is powerless in dealing with a North Korea that has gone out of control.

 

 Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated at his news conference on Feb. 3: “We ask for restraint and for caution in dealing with the situation. No action that will heighten tension on the Korean peninsula should be taken.” He also voiced “serious concern.” However, he called again for finding a solution through dialogue, such as through the Six Party Talks, opposing the U.S.’s call for strong sanctions.

 

 China’s special envoy on Korean peninsula issues Wu Dawei, who is in North Korea from Feb. 2, would only say that he will be “exchanging views on the Korean peninsula situation in Pyongyang,” refusing to reveal whom he will be meeting or his schedule.

 

 According to an informed source, Wu’s visit to North Korea was decided after his meeting with U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim on Jan. 29. This was a time when signs of North Korea’s preparations for another missile launch were already observed. It is believed that Wu’s mission is to convey in person the message that North Korea should refrain from the launch, based on discussions with Japan, the U.S., and the ROK.

 

 However, North Korea suddenly announced its “satellite” launch plan on Feb. 2, the day Wu arrived in Pyongyang. Wu, who chairs the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues, lost face completely. The announced date for the launch is between Feb. 8 (Chinese New Year) and Feb. 25. This is a politically important period for China, which is holding its National People’s Congress (NPC; parliament) from March 5.

 

 A Communist Party of China source was resigned to the fact that “North Korea no longer listens to China.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Lu stressed that “the maintenance of stability on the Korean peninsula is the common responsibility of the concerned nations,” not China alone.

 

 A diplomatic source in Beijing pointed out that “North Korea calculates that China would not be able to take tough measures.” China, which shares a border with North Korea, has serious concerns about a deluge of refugees in case of an upheaval in the North Korean regime. Security-wise, China prefers North Korea to serve as a buffer with the ROK, where U.S. forces are deployed.

 

 If China agrees to stop oil exports, as demanded by the U.S., the North Korean regime may collapse. This is the reason China has been restrained in its response. (Slightly abridged)

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