Beijing quiet as North Korea turns up the heat with missile tests

North Korean and Chinese president

As North Korea test-fired a new tactical guided weapon last week under the supervision of Kim Jong Un, its closest ally Beijing barely seemed to raise an eyebrow despite the high stakes.

Missile tests have taken place with increasing frequency in North Korea in recent months, but this time it was testing a new weapons system aimed at improving its nuclear capability.

North Korean media described the weapon as one of “great significance” that would drastically improve the “firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes”.

The test, coinciding with the 110th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, also followed a series of launches this year that have raised alarm in South Korea and Japan, as well as in the United States. In March, the North test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time in four years, breaking its self-imposed moratorium by firing off their “largest nuclear-capable missile,” according to NK News.

Satellite imagery has also shown renewed activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was officially closed in 2018.

Following the tests, Beijing dispatched a special envoy to Washington this week, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, but it has also been holding back as it bides its time with the US and South Korea.

Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, notes the contrast with previous incidents when China has stepped in as the middleman between North Korea, South Korea and Seoul’s close ally, the US.

“In the past, China constructively hosted the Six-party Talks and was willing to join UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. But now Beijing is hardly pressuring Pyongyang on denuclearization or returning to diplomacy,” Easley said.

Historic ties

As two of the few Communist countries left in the world, North Korea and China are each other’s only treaty allies, and Beijing yields enormous influence over the deeply isolated nation. China played an instrumental role in helping North Korea push back US-led forces during the Korean War, and the two sides have maintained close ties ever since.

China is North Korea’s most significant source of trade and economic assistance, and its importance has grown since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While new sanctions dealt a serious blow to cross-border trade in 2018 before the pandemic, informal trade continued while North Koreans worked in Chinese factories just over the border in Dandong.

In January, cross-border trains resumed service, bringing goods north from China, probably to meet food shortages exacerbated by Pyongyang’s decision to close its borders when COVID-19 first emerged.

Yun, who is also a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, said the ongoing competition between Beijing and Washington “means China is hoarding strategic leverage, and its relations with North Korea, and potential influence.”

While always tense, relations between the US and China soured under the presidency of Donald Trump, and they have not markedly improved since President Joe Biden took office last year. Now, she tells Al Jazeera by email, Beijing has “less incentive and willingness” to act.

Isaac Stone Fish, founder and chief executive of the China-focused research firm Strategy Risks, agrees. “I think North Korea is trying to get attention for what it wants, and China would love for other countries to give it to it,” he told Al Jazeera. “It just doesn’t want to have to do it itself.”

The US imposed a new round of sanctions in early April following the ICBM tests, but Stone Fish says North Korea’s leader is hoping for financial support in exchange for halting tests.

Pyongyang has traditionally used tests to extract diplomatic and financial concessions and was often successful.

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