By: Shim Jae Hoon

North Korea again surprised the world on Jan. 6 by claiming that it had tested a miniature hydrogen bomb. While the actual type of bomb has yet to be confirmed, news of the test sent shockwaves reverberating around the world, especially for North Korea’s lead ally, China.

By defying China’s explicit advice against further nuclear tests and declining to provide prior warning, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has openly challenged Beijing. China though, despite annoyance, is unlikely to punish North Korea for fear of harming its long-term strategic interests.

While the strategic challenge to the region remains clear, South Korean officials suggest the North Korean claim of having detonated a hydrogen bomb device should not lead to panic. Government scientists in Seoul do not rule out the possibility of North Koreans mixing hydrogen isotopes in the bomb, thus partly justifying the claim that it was a miniaturized hydrogen device.

China in the Dark

Kim left Chinese officials completely in the dark this time, demonstrating his displeasure over a number of developments poisoning bilateral ties, such as China’s strong pressure on the nuclear issue and support for UN sanctions against North Korea. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing will summon the North Korean ambassador to lodge a formal protest about the test.

The thrust of Pyongyang’s message seems to be more political than any indication of maturity in Pyongyang’s nuclear fusion technology. And it appears directed at China as a gesture of defiance and to pressure the United States to negotiate with North Korea as was done with nuclear-arms capable Iran. Official television news announcing the test displayed Kim’s handwritten authorization for the test signed on 15 December, just three days after Kim’s pop music band abruptly left Beijing before a premiere, complaining about China’s alleged attempt to change the repertoire glorifying the dictator and his nuclear bomb threats.

Chinese officials watching the band’s rehearsals are reported to have advised against the band’s video backdrop showing nuclear tests and a mock missile attack targeting the United States. The band leader is reported to have panicked, insisting that not one line could be changed without the dictator’s approval.  

The band’s visit was planned as a harbinger of improved relations, including Kim’s first official visit since he came to power in December 2011. That trip appears in jeopardy.

Historical Dilemma

Even so, the nuclear challenge isn’t expected to lighten the weight of China’s historical dilemma on its relations with North Korea. While the cost of maintaining relations with its chief client state remains considerable in terms of political irritation and economic aid, China can ill afford to abandon Pyongyang for historic and geopolitical reasons. The two countries share a 1300-kilometer border along China’s strategic northeastern region, and China fought against the United States during the 1950 Korean War, to keep the North from being reunified under South Korean control.

China-North Korea relations were being severely tested even before the latest nuclear gambit. Commenting on the state of affairs between Beijing and Pyongyang, former South Korean ambassador to China Kwon Yong Se observed during a television interview: “Beijing-Pyongyang relations are far worse than I had thought… China is quite at a loss as to how to respond.”

The tensions were hinted at several years ago, when an editor of a Chinese Communist Party publication in Beijing was fired for writing a commentary suggesting it was time for China to cut ties with North Korea.