China’s reaction to North Korea’s nuclear weapons first-use law tipped to be muted

September 13, 2022 GMT

China’s reaction to a new North Korean law sanctioning the launch of preventive nuclear strikes will be muted, analysts said, despite Beijing’s support for denuclearisation of the Korea peninsula.

This comes after Pyongyang passed a new law outlining scenarios for pre-emptive nuclear strikes if attacked by “hostile forces”, declaring it would not abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

Earlier, addressing the need to maintain a nuclear arsenal, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accused the US ” as the No 1 nuclear power and the first-ever user of atomic weapons ” of not just trying to denuclearise the country, but to overthrow his government as well.

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However, the newly enshrined first-use policy attracted little more than standard rhetoric from neighbouring South Korea and the US, both party to years of Korean peninsula denuclearisation talks that have stalled since 2019 over Pyongyang’s concessions.

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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US had no hostile intent and continued to seek diplomacy with North Korea, while the foreign ministry in Seoul said the move would only further strengthen its alliance with Washington.

China, a powerful neighbour and North Korea’s main ally and trade partner, was also likely to take a low-key approach, regional observers said.

“While it does prefer North Korea to eventually denuclearise, Beijing does not want to put additional pressure to force it to do so,” said Zhang Baohui, professor of international affairs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“China’s position is that this would only increase tensions in the Korean peninsula.”

Zhang said he also did not expect the US or the rest of the world to impose more sanctions or other countermeasures on Pyongyang over the new law.

Even if the US were to push for more sanctions at the UN, China would not support it, he said.

According to Yongwook Ryu, East Asian affairs professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, China “recognises the reality of North Korea being a nuclear power”.

However, Beijing would harden its stance only if it believed Pyongyang could use the weapons for offensive strikes, which is not indicated by the new law, Ryu noted.

North Korea is opposed to nuclear wars, the law states, citing a defence policy that aims to protect the country from outside military threats.

Beijing has long supported the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula but has hesitated to push for more sanctions on Pyongyang alongside other world powers.

China said on Monday that its position on the Korean peninsula remained unchanged.

“We will continue to play an active role in promoting the political settlement of (Korean) peninsula issues, from the overall interest of maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

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While the law will not change the status quo in terms of regional security, the North Korean nuclear issue remains challenging and could still pose a threat, according to analysts.

“For the coming five years, we will have a very challenging Korean peninsula scenario without open access into North Korea’s society and the regime’s high-ranking elites due to Covid-19 (restrictions),” said Hoo Chiew Ping, senior lecturer in international relations at the National University of Malaysia.

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“If no third party offers a neutral platform for dialogue among the Korean peninsula stakeholders, we will see North Korea continue its military build-up and modernise its nuclear arsenal, which will become more threatening than ever, in addition to aligning closely with China and (ex-Soviet ally) Russia for the long run,” she said.

North Korea believed in the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, which was key to its survival, Hoo noted.

And China’s priority here was “to sustain North Korea as a buffer state and support its regime to prevent a societal or regime collapse”, she said.

North Korea’s new nuclear law was passed on Thursday, a day before the country marked the 74th anniversary of its founding.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim on the occasion, reaffirming the historical friendship between the two countries and praising the Korean leader’s efforts on economic development and fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Observers said the new law carried a message for the domestic audience- that the country must be self-reliant, unite against superpowers like the US and use its nuclear capability as a deterrent ” as it is roiled by a deep economic crisis caused by the pandemic and sanctions imposed by several countries.

But there is also a message to the US: “We will not be the first to make any concessions. So, if you want to talk to us, you’d better change your approach and policy first,” said Ryu at NUS.

However, he said the US and South Korea would not change their approach to Pyongyang, but continue quiet diplomatic efforts to bring it back to the negotiation table.

In his speech on Thursday, Kim asserted that his country had drawn a line of “no retreat” and would accept no more bargaining over its nuclear policy.

“The position of our state as a nuclear nation has become irreversible,” official news agency KCNA quoted him as saying.

Hoo at the National University of Malaysia said the administration of US President Joe Biden had not shown any credible response on North Korea-related developments due to an overemphasis on China, while South Korea’s ongoing assertive military posture did not assure the North of any forms of engagement, which had led to the enactment of the new law.

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Last month, the US and South Korea resumed the Ulchi Freedom Shield joint military drills, their largest in recent years, amid increased missile tests by North Korea.

Pyongyang has carried out 18 missile tests this year, with preparations complete for a major nuclear test that could happen “any time”, according to the South Korean defence ministry.

The test plan was earlier reportedly postponed due to the pandemic and summer flooding. If carried out, it will be North Korea’s first nuclear test since 2017.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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