Foreign Policy Blogs

China Reacts to North Korean Missile Launch

Photo credit: BBC News

On Wednesday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) successfully launched a long-range rocket, in defiance of U.N. resolutions against the DPRK using ballistic missiles. The launch of the missile is said to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong Il (December 17) and included a “scientific and technological satellite fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth.” Despite the North Koreans contending the missile was used for peaceful purposes, the launch was widely believed by military analysts to be a covert test of long-range missile technology. Others believe the launch sought to bolster Kim Jong Un’s leadership and heighten tensions in the region, as it took place immediately prior to Japan’s lower house election on December 16 and the South Korean presidential election on December 19.

How real is the missile threat from North Korea? As evidenced by this most recent launch, coming eight months after a failed launch in April, North Korea is moving up the military technological chain. Experts, however, do not believe North Korea has a nuclear warhead small enough to fly on a long-distance missile, and reports are that its scientists do not currently have full operational control over their satellite. Most neighboring nations have the ability to shoot down the missile anyway and Beijing has demonstrated its ability to target satellites. The rocket passed close to the territories of Japan and South Korea, but both refrained from any retaliation.

While the current missile technology in North Korea is still undeveloped, progress is being made and neighbors are feeling increasingly threatened. Over the past decade, the international community has repeatedly called for calm as North Korea tested nuclear weapons and carried out ballistic missile tests. In response to these tests, the U.N. has imposed sanctions, and the U.S. attempted to garnish support for tightened sanctions following the failed launch in April by targeting banks, businesses and government entities that are violating U.N. Resolutions. In this last round, China vetoed all but three of the 40 entities the U.S. had suggested should be added to the sanction list. Japan, however, is alarmed by the launch and is thought likely to demand an amendment to the country’s Peace Constitution, which would allow the rearming of the Japanese military.

The official response from China has been muted. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed regret at North Korea’s decision to launch, saying the U.N. Security Council’s response should be “prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation.” China’s moderate response may have drawn some criticism, but is understandable in light of its desire to maintain the status quo on the Korean peninsula. China dreads a massive influx of hungry refugees into its territories, and has effectively propped up a crumbling buffer state and its weapons program through economic assistance and food aid (South Korea’s Ministry of Unification estimates Pyongyang spent $1.3 billion on its rocket program this year, including the failed attempt in April, an amount equivalent to 4.6 million tons of corn.) China has also bought itself some measure of security as North Korea’s sole major ally, largest trading partner and aid provider, as long-range missiles developed by North Korea are unlikely to be aimed at Beijing.

Beijing is thought to have the most influence and leverage when it comes to reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but how much leverage does China really have? Should sanctions tighten and China discontinue its program of economic aid, a larger humanitarian crisis could ensue, bringing instability to North Korea, South Korea and China. If sanctions are loosened and greater economic aid brought to North Korea, the regime may continue to displace spending on its people and continue to develop a more threatening missile and nuclear arsenal.

Clearly a new approach is needed. In an editorial in The Global Times, it was suggested that Beijing can hold discussions with Pyongyang and other parties on providing North Korea with facilities that could protect it from military attacks and have the same effect as nuclear arms. Would this quell North Korea’s ambitions to go nuclear or would it be a welcome gift to complement its nuclear ambitions?  Many are skeptical and call for Beijing to get tougher, not softer with the North Koreans. But these calls are misplaced – Beijing has little influence on the actions of the North Korean regime. North Korea has its finger on the self-destruct button and the new leadership in China has enough problems of its own, and no desire or energy to deal with the mess left behind should North Korea ultimately fail as a state. And so the status quo is maintained and Beijing reluctantly continues to pay its tribute to its neighbor.

  • Katherine L

    The missile launch, to me, wasn’t particularly alarming, mainly because we as well as many other nations have the capabilities of shooting such a missile down if it were to become potentially threatening or harmful. The main concern in this situation is for China, Japan and South Korea, all nations with ties geographically historically and in some cases economically with North Korea. Regardless as to whether or not it’s warranted many nations across the world fear what this missile launch could mean for North Korea. It’s because this fear exists that its neighboring nations are now put in a somewhat uncomfortable position. Though nothing may actually change as a result of this, the generally accepted system of response to such actions as this missile launch is for all nations to begin taking sides. It might make no difference, but this is what is accepted by societies in order to make everyone feel like they are more aware of who is in control. China, Japan and South Korea may all have to make decisions as a means of pacifying a worrying nation that could actually strongly impact their nation’s safety and security. It feels a bit unfair but I don’t see any way around it.

    China in particular has a hard decision to make. China has clearly been working hard to create an identity different from the one previously given to them by other nations. Unfortunately, much of that revolved around their not stepping on any other nations toes. Either way they go in this issue will end up harming their relationship with either North Korea or many anti-North Korean Nations. Their decision may end up coming down to what will keep them out of the most trouble and what will lose them the most money.

  • Good point – the Chinese are known for their pragmatic approach and attention to economic consequences…so will they sit back, not interfere, and let other nations spend to fix the problem?

  • From the Economist: “North Korea is still a long way from putting nuclear warheads on a
    missile. It has between six and 12 nuclear devices, but they may not be
    small enough to put on a rocket. The technology relies on liquid fuel,
    which makes preparations for a launch both more hazardous and easier to
    spot than solid fuel. Above all, shooting a rocket up is one thing;
    mastering the re-entry technology that a military ballistic missile
    requires is quite another.”

  • Just finished reading Escape from Camp 14 – chronicling the story of the only man born inside a NK prison camp who manages to escape. Interesting facts:
    1) NK has tolerated a porous border in the past, promising leniency to those caught;
    2) nearly 2 million ethnic Koreans live in China’s three northeastern provinces;
    3) China created the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and is 40% Korean;
    4) South Korean suicide rate the highest of OECD countries, and;

    5) cost of reunification estimated 10% of SK GDP for the foreseeable future.


Gary Sands
Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]