China Backs UN Statement Against Rocket Launch

China joined the rest of the UN Security Council on Monday in backing a statement condemning North Korea’s failed rocket launch last week, calling for harsher sanctions and warning of “further consequences” in the event of more launches or nuclear tests. From Reuters:

China, a permanent veto-wielding council member and North Korea’s protector on the 15-nation panel, backed the council’s “presidential statement,” which was adopted unanimously ….

The statement does not result in an immediate expansion of the North Korea sanctions regime. Rather it instructs the U.N. sanctions committee to expand its existing sanctions blacklist within 15 days and to review that list annually.

The committee, which includes all 15 council members and works on the basis of consensus, will have to take a separate decision on expanding the U.N. blacklist. China will therefore have an opportunity to thwart any push for adding new names to the North Korea sanctions list if it chooses to do so.

China’s support for the statement contrasts with earlier warnings appearing in the Global Times, that a confrontational approach could easily inflame an already volatile situation.

Following the satellite launch, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China hopes that all relevant parties can remain calm and demonstrate restraint, maintain contact over the situation on the Korean Peninsula and make efforts to maintain stability and peace in the region ….

Yang also called on the parties to restore dialogues, promote mutual understanding and facilitate the resumption of the Six-Party Talks ….

“The Cold War mentality will inevitably lead to an arms race on the Peninsula and prompt Pyongyang to resort to counter-deterrence measures against Washington and Seoul,” Qu [Xing, director of the China Institute of International Studies] said, adding that sanctions would not help change the North but instead push the tense situation into a vicious circle ….

Liu Ming, director of the Center for Korea Studies under the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that whether the North would carry out a third nuclear test would be decided by the next steps taken by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

“If the three parties hold a tough position at the UN Security Council, it would only push Pyongyang into a corner,” Liu said.

Such caution reflects China’s deep interest in keeping North Korea from boiling over, bringing a flood of refugees across the border and American troops right up to it. The equation was unsettled by Friday’s unsuccessful launch, however. Pyongyang has tried to compensate for past failures with alternative demonstrations of power, the prospect of which on this occasion was enough to push China into line with the rest of the UNSC.

A pair of Global Times op-eds published in the wake of the UN statement illustrates the new balance: “Strong words don’t mean a break with North Korea“, but ”Pyongyang must remember to heed China’s advice“:

… China’s support of the UN presidential statement will neither irritate North Korea, nor come as a surprise due to the existence of a bilateral communication channel between the two countries. I believe China has given notice to North Korea about the condemnation before its release. It also allows North Korea more time to respond and rethink its plan for the new nuclear test, if there is one.

And North Korea must have a clear observation and understanding of the different standpoints of China and other countries, although this statement was unanimously accepted. In the three-day debate in the UN, China and Russia have both had lengthy negotiations with the US and its allies.

It isn’t hard to see that the UN has not added any new names of individuals and firms to the sanction list. And the Security Council has chosen to release a presidential statement instead of a resolution ….

China has taken a clear attitude in condemning Pyongyang. Some analysts take it as a result of North Korea neglecting China’s discouragement on its satellite launch. This is also the first time that China has openly taken a tough attitude toward Pyongyang since the new leadership came into power.

It is necessary for China to take this stance. As a young leader, Jim Jong-un is still developing his knowledge about China. China’s role in ensuring Pyongyang’s stable power transition is positive. But China does not need to pacify the junior Kim. China supports the stability on the Korean Peninsula and the stability of the North. But Pyongyang is not the only thing on China’s diplomatic agenda. It has widespread stakes to consider. If Pyongyang also cherishes the bilateral relationship, it should commit itself to expanding shared interests, not expanding conflicts.

In addition to backing the statement, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reports that China has also stopped its longstanding policy of deporting refugees back to North Korea. From AFP:

The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted two Chinese officials as saying the long-standing policy of swiftly returning any North Korean who made it across the border and into China — despite the punishment they face — had been put on hold.

“If refugees are sent back, that’s the end of their lives. We can’t ignore it,” one official in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea, told the paper, adding that deportations had been halted.

Another official said the move was because Pyongyang had not consulted its patron about the botched launch of a rocket which the hermit state said was carrying a satellite, but which the West condemned as a banned missile test.

See also netizen reactions to the launch at chinaSMACK and Tea Leaf Nation, and Evan Osnos’ Letter from China on North Korea’s “Wrong Stuff”.

Melissa M. Chan contributed to this post.