NPR

World's Eyes On China After North Korean Nuclear Test

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss North Korea's latest nuclear test. Any specific U.N. response depends largely on China, North Korea's primary trading partner. Former CIA China analyst Christopher Johnson weighs in on China's options and their potential influence on a coordinated international response.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

As you probably heard, North Korea detonated a nuclear device this morning - its third overall, its first under its new leader, Kim Jong Un. After an emergency session today, the United Nations Security Council denounced the explosion as a grave violation of council resolutions and promised to come up with appropriate additional sanctions. But all eyes now will be on the new leadership of North Korea's most important ally, China. They warned North Korea not to go through with the test, so what do they do now?

Christopher Johnson's senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies. He's also a former senior China analyst for the CIA. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Thank you, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And China's first statement ahead of the Security Council's meeting seemed awfully low-key.

JOHNSON: Mm-hmm. Yes. I think, so far, what we're seeing is a mixed picture from Beijing on this. You know, their initial statement when the test was first announced was to sort of repeat a lot of their standard rhetoric, you know, resolutely and firmly opposing the test, while at the same time, calling for calm and no escalation of difficulty or problems on the Korean Peninsula.

There was an interesting sort of development, though, where the foreign minister - the Chinese foreign minister summoned the North Korean ambassador to Beijing in - for a pretty stern talking to. So, so far, it's clear that China is trying to make up its mind about how to proceed. And I think it's trying to send signals to all parties right now, again, with that fundamental goal of maintaining stability on the peninsula on their mind.

CONAN: Maintaining stability, so China will do nothing that might threaten the implosion of North Korea, an ally but a difficult one, and went on the brink, at some point, of economic collapse.

JOHNSON: Yes, a very problematic ally and increasingly so, it seems. And China has got to be very embarrassed by this process. As you pointed out in the intro, they warned North Korea repeatedly not to do this. So they've lost a fair amount of credibility. On the one hand, it does in some ways, though, sort of move forward Beijing's case that they often make to the United States and its Asian allies, Korea and Japan, that they only have so much leverage over the North Korean regime. And clearly, here's an instance where Beijing's limited leverage was very much on display.

CONAN: If they have limited leverage and North Korea is going to continue with such programs, including ballistic missile test as they did in December, the United States says, China, I'm terribly sorry. But we're going to have to put some ballistic anti-missile systems in northwestern China - Asia.

JOHNSON: Mm-hmm. Yes. That's right. And this is a major concern for Beijing in terms of how that would alter the security - the broader security landscape. And they're trying to walk this fine line, and it's a very difficult one for them, between this - what is clearly a judgment by them that's something called North Korea. You know, as you pointed out, Neal, they're not happy with this regime. It's an often troublesome relationship, even for China. And I think we're really seeing some serious divisions, actually, between the two leaderships right now in terms of their approach on these issues.

But at the same time, Beijing is also fundamentally concluded that for their own security and stability, there it is more valuable to have something called North Korea on their border than to have a unified Korea under American influence in South Korean auspices. So they're continually playing this game where they want to do whatever they can to maintain that status without them provoking these additional responses from the United States. And I think there's some serious questioning on the Chinese part as to how serious that U.S. commitment is. My own sense is that they're going to be surprised on that, that the north really has crossed another one of these Rubicon with what looks like a major advancement in their miniaturization program, of their nuclear weapons. And as you pointed out earlier, the test seemed to show that their delivery system capability is getting much better, as well.

So Beijing increasingly has to worry that, now, the closer the north gets to something that could actually - at least in theory - reach out to the United States, the more likely that this heavier, stronger, you know, U.S. responses that Beijing really fears may come to light.

CONAN: And what might they be? And there's very little left it would seems we can do directly against North Korea, barring war, which nobody wants.

JOHNSON: That's absolutely right. And I think the line that the U.S. is going to have to walk in this context is: How do we convince China of our seriousness, aside from just U.N. actions on - you know, we're trapped in this action-reaction cycle with North Korea, and have been for some time. And the administration has tried this sort of strategic patience approach to managing the North Korean problem. I think it's fair to say that it hasn't - at least it hasn't stopped the adventurism of the North.

And so the real question is: All roads lead through Beijing at this point. The real, heavy emphasis for the U.S., I think, though, at this particular time is: How do we get China to use what is their ultimate leverage - which they're very reluctant to use - which is their control over fuel and, you know, other key things to keep the North Korean regime alive?

CONAN: And they do have that ultimate leverage. And it's also that China, for - I'm not sure how much China cares about this, but is propping up the most vicious, repressive system on the planet, and one of the worst in history.

JOHNSON: Yeah. They do care about that, because Beijing understands that their own international reputation is somewhat, you know, on the line here. They're trying to improve their own soft power standing, if you will, globally. And when you look increasingly at the regimes with whom they're the closest prior to the opening that we've seen in Burma/Myanmar, they were supporting the junta there. The North Korean regime, you know, it's a pretty despicable group of characters. And I think China is sensitive to this.

But, again, this overweening strategic calculus of theirs that they need something called North Korea, too, for their own security needs. And the really conservative elements within the Chinese system - including the military - that support that idea very strongly are powerful, vested interests that are hard for leadership team to overcome.

CONAN: And I was going to ask you about that. Are there elements within the Chinese leadership or the Chinese military that say anybody who sticks their finger in the eye of the United States is OK with me?

JOHNSON: Oh, I think their position is probably more nuanced than that, but there is certainly...

CONAN: Maybe I overstated.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: No problem. No problem. But there is certainly the idea that the U.S. is hostile, and is seeking to contain China's rise. And actually, as I just mentioned a moment ago, you know, those type of thinkers tend to see the opening of Myanmar as yet another, you know, effort by the U.S. to encircle China. Right. So North Korea is increasingly the only friend that they have, you know, the only security that they have, in this group's mindset.

CONAN: What a wonderful friend. What a great ally. The - from that point of view, the Chinese look at that situation, you can see their concern. Looking out from China, you see this array of American allies, stretching from Japan through to South Korea, all the way down to Australia. And that includes some of the United States' former enemies in Vietnam. And there's all these kinds of conflicts that we see in the South China Sea with the Philippines, et cetera, and Vietnam, and now in the East China Sea. And, well, we're talking about the new leadership in China and the new leadership in North Korea. There is a new leadership in Japan, as well.

JOHNSON: That's right. Yes. And I think this is a fundamental - this is one of the things that I think is really going to get Beijing's attention, and this is why they're so angry with North Korea right now. They're involved in their own very delicate situation with the Japanese. And frankly, these territorial disputes and the way that Prime Minister Abe, the new Japanese leader, has been dealing with the so-called history issue, you know, in a way that tends to get South Korea upset and so on, this all works to Beijing's advantage in terms of driving wedges in the various U.S. alliances. It's things like North Korean behavior that we've just seen that tends to unify the alliance. And so this is not good, from the Chinese perspective, in terms of the way that the chessboard is lining up right now.

CONAN: When we look at North Korea's motives for doing this, we tend to hear about internal politics, that this is Kim Jong Un's effort to consolidate his base, to show that he is as tough and as powerful as his father, to placate his military and his conservative elements. Is it fair to extend that same kind of logic to the new leadership in Beijing, which is trying to establish itself? It's just been named, what, a couple, three months ago, and they're still taking the reins of power.

JOHNSON: That's right. And again, this is one of the really problematic elements, this happening now. That leadership transition, even though the main party positions, if you will, took over, you know, last fall - Xi Jinping is now the party secretary and obviously the most powerful position in the country. But that transition is not complete. They have this strange, six-month dance that they go through for the full transition of power. And so, in a lot of ways, Xi isn't fully empowered yet at this stage to be able to really manage this problem with the freedom that he might like to.

And, in fact, several of the characters, if you will, that have been responsible for Beijing's leaning to one side - as they would say, toward the North - in the last couple of years are still in office. So Dai Bingguo, the state councilor, for example, who manages China's foreign policy, is quite close to the North and has been, you know, sort of key architect, if you will, of that policy. He's still there. And so the North has picked a very interesting time, and Beijing is very internally focused, and I think the North knows that.

Just really quickly, I think the other point is Kim Jong Un - I think part of this, yes, a lot of it is about his internal consolidation. And I think some of it is also some frustration with Beijing now. And part of that internal consolidation process is to go on a visit to China and get that stamp of authority, you know, from the Chinese. And the Chinese have not been willing to extend that visit so far, in part because of this type of activity, and there are concerns that they would have him in Beijing, and then have him go back and conduct a nuclear test.

CONAN: At the same time, though, the new leader in China has made a point, it seems, of visiting lots of military bases and rallying the troops to the cause.

JOHNSON: Yes, that's right. And he, of course, very interestingly, got all of those key party titles that - in one round, whereas his predecessor, Hu Jintao, had to wait two years before he could get that military title. So a lot of this is just the standard thing that the new military commission chairman has to do. What's interesting about it is, as you point out, the style of rhetoric that he's been using, which is sort of very nationalist in flavor. So one of the questions is Xi Jinping has much better relations with the Chinese military than his predecessor. One of the key questions is: Is he going to be captured by them, or is going to control them?

CONAN: And the outcome could be determined by what he does with North Korea or what he does with the Japanese over the Senkaku Islands.

JOHNSON: I think both of the above. Yeah, that's right.

CONAN: Is there a way to gracefully back down? Some sort of, you know, deal that he can make with Prime Minister Abe of Japan?

JOHNSON: Certainly, that possibility exists. And in some ways, Xi Jinping - because of these credentials that I just pointed out with the more conservative elements in his system - and, likewise, Abe, with some of his credentials with his more conservative elements - there is this idea that just like only Nixon can go to China...

CONAN: Tory reformers(ph). That's right.

JOHNSON: Right. Only these two guys can back out of this situation. I think we saw that earlier on, but there does seem to be some emerging sense that at least until Prime Minister Abe gets through these Upper House elections in July, it's going to be difficult to find an easy solution. Both sides have to be able to save face and claim this as a win. And that's pretty hard to do when you come to wait to get off of the current collision course.

CONAN: China is, of course, not the only member of the United Nation Security Council. The United States is also there and, of course, France and Britain and Russia, as well. And as they look at this, they've got to do something. This is - we sometimes laugh at the, you know, language of the - and nothing seems to happen. They've got to do something.

JOHNSON: I think that's absolutely right. I mean, the credibility is really on the line this time - again, because it's different than the previous tests where they simply exploded a device. It does appear that they're making serious progress in their ability to not only miniaturize, but deploy and deliver these systems. And that's a major advance that the U.S. just can't sit by and watch out.

CONAN: And do we know yet whether this device exploded today in North Korea was another plutonium device that derived from those old power plants provided by the Russians, Soviet Union so long ago...

JOHNSON: Right.

CONAN: ...or were highly enriched uranium, which they made on their own, and which they can continue to make.

JOHNSON: That's going to be a key question going forward. I mean, obviously, the North isn't talking, and it's going to take, I think, probably several weeks of analysis before we can really get a good sense of what that was. But that is a key difference. You know, if it is a uranium-enriched device, that's going to be yet another one of these breakthroughs in terms of their capabilities.

CONAN: As it goes ahead, we're likely to see a new round of sanctions of some sort. North Korea will issue howling threats and Armageddon-like statements. Is anything likely to happen, really?

JOHNSON: Well, this is the key question: How many rounds of sanctions can you have? And there's not that much left that we can sanction. And, I mean, this is the real difficulty for the U.S. and for the allies. There's very little trade, obviously, certainly, between - none between us and the regime, and for the allies, very little. And so China really is the key, here. You know, what - how much willingness do the have to, you know, limit some of the border activity? And will they do something similar to what they were rumored to do in the last major period of tension, which was to kind of mess with that spigot of the oil and get some sense that, you know, they were taking this very seriously?

And what was key in that timeframe, I think, Neal, was this idea that China had become fairly convinced that the Bush administration might do something. You know, this was right after the Iraq invasion, and so on. And so there is that element, I think, in terms of how the U.S. positions itself that they need to emphasize to China we're serious and, you know, we might take unilateral action. And that's usually what gets China to move on this issue.

CONAN: Christopher Johnson, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former CIA analyst, with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Neal. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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