BEIJING — North Korea’s third nuclear test drew international criticism, but options for punishing Pyongyang may remain limited. A key factor is how China responds. Although officials in China have clearly expressed misgivings over the test, Beijing has yet to show any signs that it is prepared to cut critical support for the North.
China has already voiced its displeasure -- repeatedly and in public -- over North Korea's third and biggest nuclear test. The Foreign Minister has even summoned Pyongyang’s ambassador in Beijing to protest the test.
But it remains unclear what actions it is prepared to take to deal with the intensifying standoff.
Analysts in China say Beijing’s displeasure with Pyongyang has been building since North Korea carried out a satellite launch in December that the United States and others say was part of an effort to develop a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, says both the nuclear test and missile launch come as China’s leaders are in the middle of a once-in-a-decade transition. He says the North’s actions have angered China’s new leaders.
Jin says China is dealing with the problem of a slowing economy, social unrest, the consensus building of leadership transition and even the environmental problem of smog. Jin says that with so many domestic issues on its plate, China does not want to have to deal with external problems as well.
Last November, Xi Jinping and six other leaders took up prominent positions within the Communist Party, becoming its new core leadership. The political transition will be complete next month when Xi becomes China’s next president.
While officials have said little about the concrete steps they could take to express their anger over the test, the Chinese public has been more vocal.
Chinese protestors have expressed their concerns online and in public to the latest nuclear blast from as far away as Guangzhou in the south to Harbin in the north.
Some have even suggested that China, as North Korea’s key economic ally, should cut off Pyongyang completely.
Jin says that China may take some political and economic measures to respond to the North’s test such as taking a cooler approach to diplomatic ties or easing off on trade.
Jin says that the economy is North Korea’s weakest point and if China were to take any economic measures, that could have the biggest impact.
According to official statistics and analysis, China’s trade with North Korea is booming, growing from nearly $300 million in 1999 to nearly $6 billion in 2011.
Still, some question just how much influence China really has on the North and whether tougher measures would help.
“China does have some leverage including its trade ties with North Korea," explained Wang Dong, a political scientist at Peking University. "But the North Koreans are very tough people, and historically I think China has never been able to, quote unquote, control North Korea.”
Wang agrees that the North’s nuclear test has put Beijing in a tough situation.
“North Korea’s provocations have brought a lot of damage to China’s strategic interests, and that is something I think China is really angry about, but at the same time, I think China is very much concerned about the stability of the Korean peninsula,” Wang said.
On Monday, the European Union announced measures to strengthen trade and economic sanctions against North Korea, growing its travel ban and asset freeze list. The United States is calling for stronger sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.
China’s Foreign Ministry has expressed its resolute opposition to the test, but wants Security Council deliberations to focus on moving toward denuclearization on the peninsula, stopping nuclear proliferation and peace and stability.