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China Told North Korea to Hold Off on Nuke Tests, Missile Launches

A high-ranking Chinese official warned North Korea in a recent visit against carrying out any new extended-distance missile launches or atomic detonations until Beijing has concluded the delicate process of changing its leadership in coming months, the Washington Times reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Aug. 15).

An unidentified Western diplomatic insider told the Times that Chinese Communist Party International Liaison Department chief Wang Jiarui delivered the message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when he visited Pyongyang in early August (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, Aug. 15).

Beijing was frustrated by Pyongyang's April decision to flout its wishes and carry out a long-range rocket launch. Though the rocket broke apart shortly after liftoff in a high-profile embarrassment to the young Kim regime, China still joined with the rest of the U.N. Security Council in condemning the action as a violation of resolutions that forbid the North from using ballistic missile technology.

China is North Korea's principal trading partner and economic supporter. As such, Beijing is believed by the West to have the most influence over Pyongyang's actions.

There were indications this spring of a looming North Korean nuclear trial blast after satellite images detected construction of a new detonation tunnel at the isolated country's testing site. However, Chinese analysts interviewed by the website 38 North are now forecasting that Pyongyang over the short term will abstain from conducting its third atomic trial.

There is strong agreement that the present political environment and Pyongyang's own difficulties will lead it to stay its hand for now on a nuclear test. Kim Jong Un is thought to be readying for his first state visit to Beijing since he assumed leadership after the December 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and is not likely to want to risk spoiling the symbolically significant trip.

Pyongyang will not carry out a detonation because it is "weaker than before, know[s] China will be very upset and Kim Jong Un wants to focus on domestic issues," according to Peking University academic Zhu Feng.

Renmin University scholar Shi Yinhong said North Korea is likely at some later point to carry out another test.

Still, an unidentified but well-connected Chinese armed forces official said Pyongyang was likely to detonate a nuclear device as that is its "sovereign right."

Experts were divided over whether Beijing would support new Security Council sanctions if Pyongyang carries out another atomic test. China backed punitive resolutions passed in the wake of the North's 2006 and 2009 attempts.

Zhu said he did not believe another nuclear detonation would cause China to sever its longstanding alliance with the North.

Discerning just how far Beijing is willing to go in preventing another test is difficult. Earlier this month the Chinese Xinhua News Agency cited Japanese news reports that Beijing had conditioned Kim Jong Un's visit on North Korea abstaining from carrying out a nuclear test. The North reportedly refrained from providing the sought-after assurance (Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, 38 North, Aug. 14).

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