Despite intelligence reports that North Korea‘s President Kim Jong-un had been gearing up to conduct a highly provocative, sixth nuclear test to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of regime founder Kim Il-sung, Pyongyang limited its commemoration this weekend to a lesser, medium range ballistic missile launch that, as it so happens, failed within a few seconds of firing. And financial markets have staged a powerful rally of relief in response.
While Beijing is pleased that Kim Jong-un refrained from triggering the seriously dangerous escalation a nuclear launch would have represented, the high-level Chinese delegation that was sent secretly to the North Korean capital on Friday to pressure Pyongyang (see SGH 4/14/17, “North Korea: Averting a Nuclear Test and Escalation”) returned home to report limited success.
*** From what we are told, a three-person delegation led by a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) returned to China on Saturday evening after a two-day visit that included a direct meeting on Friday night with Kim Jong-un’s number two, Choe Ryong-hae. Choe, a member of North Korea‘s Politburo Presidium and Secretariat of the Worker’s Party of Korea, is also Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission – in effect North Korea‘s second highest military leader. ***
*** The Chinese delegation characterized the discussions as only half successful, and half a failure: Pyongyang agreed not to escalate military conflict with the US and its allies in “the near-future,” but it also reserved the right to launch Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles and to conduct nuclear tests at some point “in the future” even if China were to continue to exert pressure for restraint. ***
*** In a subsequent phone call, Chinese officials warned US officials that the DPRK may attempt to launch another Scud ER on April 25, North Korea‘s Armed Forces Day. Chinese officials are confident the Trump Administration will not react with military force to the likely missile launch. ***
More cynical minds might note that North Korea‘s continued threat will also keep a premium on China’s role as intermediary with the US, but it will be taken on board in Washington that Beijing’s sway over the unpredictable Kim Jong-un may be more limited than hoped.
Kim Jong-un’s Response to Beijing
At Friday’s meeting, Choe Ryong-hae, ostensibly speaking for Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, laid out the following three points in expressing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea‘s position on future nuclear and ICBM tests:
* Taking into account the “traditional friendship” between China and the DPRK, the DPRK will refrain from launching ICBMs or conducting nuclear tests “in the near future;”
* In response to “American Imperialism” and the “crazy and seriously provocative” actions of President Donald Trump, the DPRK will continue to launch intermediate and short-range missiles as “a necessary self-defense measure” in the near-future, and;
* While maintaining its traditional friendship with China, the DPRK insists it will continue to launch ICBMs and conduct nuclear tests “this year, next year, or until the DPRK’s status as a nuclear power is recognized by the world.”
Triangulating with Washington
Just hours after North Korea‘s failed launch of the liquid-fueled Scud Extended Range (ER) missile from the eastern coastal city of Sinpo, China’s State Councilor and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi received a call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
In that call, Yang briefed Tillerson on the Chinese delegation’s Friday night exchange with Pyongyang. According to Chinese sources, Yang also expressed concerns to Tillerson over extreme jitters in South Korea, and a potential dangerous response from the nervous regime in Seoul, and hoped it would not be reflected in any response from Washington.
The two, we are told, agreed that there was no reason to overreact to North Korea‘s failed launch.
On that note, Chinese officials are downplaying the Scud ER launch, and point out the failed missile is the same model that apparently failed to launch from another location earlier this month, on April 5.
They warn the DPRK may attempt to launch another Scud ER on April 25, North Korea‘s Armed Forces Day. But they urge the international community not to worry so much and respond to every North Korean launch. Indeed, Chinese officials note, for what it’s worth, that the DPRK has launched a missile almost every month since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011.
While the situation on the Korean peninsula remains very tense, Chinese officials do believe tensions have been reined in to some extent after the latest failed launch attempt.
Beijing likewise does not believe the Trump Administration will use military force in response to continued intermediate or short-range missile launches. And for its part, the DPRK will not launch ICBMs or conduct nuclear tests “in the near future,” or at least, not for this month.