Why China will have to take a harder line against North Korea

Kim Jong-Un, leader of North Korea. Photo: Getty Images

North Korea claimed to the world yesterday that a 5.1-magnitude tremor detected off their north-east coast was caused by the successful testing of a hydrogen bomb.

The test is the country’s fourth of a nuclear weapon, with the first taking place in 2006, followed by tests in 2009 and 2013.

However, there have been doubts surrounding whether or not the explosion was actually a hydrogen bomb or simply a “boosted” atom bomb, with scientists and even Washington today expressing their doubts.

Dr Robert Kelly, an associate professor at the Pusan National University in South Korea, told Business Insider that he also was skeptical of the hydrogen bomb claim. Here’s Kelly:

North Korea makes all sorts of claims of course, and there is no reason, given their history of lying and dissembling, to take them at their word [that this was a hydrogen bomb].

Perhaps the bomb today was given a hydrogen fuel boost; I’ve heard that. But the seismic footprint of the blast already resembles that of the 2013 test, so I am skeptical of the H-bomb claim.

However, Kelly said that if it was a successful test, it would be a major and frightening upgrade to the North Korean nuclear arsenal.

“They [hydrogen bombs] are fusion weapons. So yes, if NK has miniaturized them enough to put on top of a missile, that would be a threat to region,” he said. “But North Korea has a history of big talk. Before we believe that they have H-bombs on ICBMs, I would encourage calm until we have independent verification.”

Perhaps one of the most curious part of all this though is China’s involvement. Traditionally China has been an ally of North Korea, with both the countries sharing mutual interests, but even China was caught by surprise by these most recent tests.

Kelly believes that China can’t seem to make up its mind about how to deal with North Korea, even if it is constantly frustrated by its actions.

“North Korea doesn’t listen to them, and won’t unless Beijing takes a harder line. The whole world blames China for North Korea’s shenanigans and wants that harder line. But Beijing hates to push too hard. It does not want the ‘buffer’ (between it and SK, Japan, and the US) to collapse,” Kelly said.

The “buffer” is the physical zone between China and the Western forces of South Korea and the USA. If a new regime took power in North Korea, or an alliance with the US or South takes place, it would destabilise China-North Korean relations while also bringing those countries closer than ever to Chinese borders.

At the same time, North Korea relies on China for its food energy supplies. The country could collapse if China withdrew support should there be a breakdown in relations over the hermit kingdom’s nuclear programme.

Pressure for China to take action this time could soon be coming. Kelly says it will be important to see how the UN process around these tests forces both China and Russia to take a tough line on North Korea. “A UN resolution effort tells China and Russia that covering for the world’s last worst Orwellian tyranny has reputational costs,” Kelly said.

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