Greg Baker  /  AP
North Korean soldiers relax during a patrol on the waterfront at the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong on Tuesday. China, North Korea's main source of food and fuel aid, said Tuesday that the North's nuclear test would negatively affect ties between the countries.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 10/10/2006 1:09:27 PM ET 2006-10-10T17:09:27

BEIJING — A year ago this month President Hu Jintao was greeted as a “friendly emissary of the Chinese people” by tens of thousands of people in the streets of Pyongyang.

Now, following the nuclear test by North Korea, the warm brotherly love between China and North Korea — who fought the United States during the Korean War and have remained close allies for over fifty years — has been replaced with distrust and tension.

In unprecedented language, the Chinese foreign ministry condemned the test, stating, “The Chinese government is resolutely opposed to this act” and labeled the test “flagrant.”

“In Chinese political language 'flagrant' is only used to label the enemy and never used for countries that have normal relationship with each other,” said Dr. Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University.

“One thing is clear: The strategic relationship between North Korea and China will deteriorate dramatically. The comradely and brotherly relationship is over,” said Yan.

A question of security
Prior to this weekend's test, Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement urging North Korea to “keep calm and observe restraint on the nuclear test issue.”

Kim, however, disregarded China’s advice and thus created a difficult strategic dilemma for its larger neighbor.

“It’s not a question of China losing face, it’s a question of China getting more security threats in this region,” said Yan. “One is possible border disputes [with North Korea], and secondly the uncertain response from Japan and South Korea to this nuclear test.”

Yan, one of China’s top international security experts, warned of the possibility that the Chinese-North Korean relationship could follow the path of Sino-Soviet relations during the 1960s, and of Sino-Vietnamese relations in the late 1970s.

The Sino-Soviet split — over both ideological and strategic differences — eventually erupted into a series of border conflicts in 1969. China also fought a bloody border war with Vietnam in 1979 after the latter invaded neighboring Cambodia. Such inability of neighboring communist countries to smoothly handle conflicts hints at the possibility of worsening relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

The current crisis falls on fertile ground — tensions at the border have remained high in recent years due to the flow of drugs, smuggled goods, counterfeit money, and refugees that flow into China over the North Korean border — reports indicate that with news of the impending nuclear test last week, China moved greater numbers of troops to the North Korean border.

Fearful of the unknown
China, at the same time, remains fearful of a collapse of Kim Jong-Il’s regime and the disruption a flood of refugees would cause in northern China. For this reason the Chinese have been hesitant to support international sanctions that could cause the collapse of the regime.

And even if the Chinese decide to cut economic aid to the isolated regime to show disapproval towards Kim’s actions, it won’t make a difference, suggested Yan. (China provides an estimated 70 percent of North Korea’s fuel and 40 percent of food aid, providing crucial support for the continued survival of the reclusive regime.)

“When North Korea made the decision to carry out the nuclear test, they were already prepared [for the reality] that China could cut economic aid to them,” he said.

Regional balance
Another issue for this Chinese is that a nuclear North Korea may scare other regional powers — such as South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan — into starting their own nuclear programs, igniting an arms race that could destabilize the region.

Most important, the nuclear test by North Korea creates an unfavorable strategic situation for the Chinese, who have been hoping to avoid the militarization of other regional powers and further U.S. military involvement in the Far East.

“Japan and the U.S. are not very despondent with this; [rather, they are] happy to see North Korea carry out this nuclear test,” argued Yan. “This will give these two countries the legitimacy to deploy more troops here, to deploy anti-missile defense systems, and also, especially for Japan, they can revise their constitution to write in the right of war and also to modernize its military.”

In fact, new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a strong critic of North Korea — has actively discussed amending Japan’s constitution to allow greater freedom for Japan’s military in international affairs. The Chinese, still with strong memories of Japanese aggression in the World War II era, are anxious about any re-emergence of Japanese nationalism or militarism.

End of an era
For Yan and many Chinese, as well, are personal emotions tied up with the possible break-up of the 50-year alliance with a country for which China has made considerable sacrifices. 

“I feel great regrets for those many Chinese who fought for the liberation of North Korea,” said Yan, referring to China’s participation in the Korean War of the 1950s.

But there should be not confusion about China’s resolve with North Korea, he said.  “If North Korea takes the policy to purposely provoke troubles at the border, I don’t think China will tolerate that. China will take the necessary response to that provocative action,” he warned.

Mike Kiselycznyk is a Researcher is NBC News' Beijing bureau.


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