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Few expect China to punish North Korea for latest nuclear test

BEIJING — North Korea’s biggest nuclear test, conducted last week less than 50 miles from the Chinese border, sent tremors through homes and schools in China’s northeast. But hours later, there was no mention of the test on China’s state-run evening television news, watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.

The decision on Friday to publicly ignore stark evidence of Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear capabilities illustrated the embarrassment that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, poses for his patrons in Beijing.

But although North Korea remains nearly 100 percent dependent on China for oil and food, Chinese analysts say that Beijing will not modify its allegiance to North Korea or pressure the country to curtail its drive for a full-fledged nuclear arsenal, as the United States keeps requesting.

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“The United States cannot rely on China for North Korea,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Maybe now at this moment, China is closer to North Korea than the United States.”

China sees living with a Communist-ruled nuclear-armed state on its border as preferable to the chaos of its collapse, Shi said. The Chinese leadership is confident that North Korea would not turn its weapons on China and that China would be able to control its neighbor by providing enough oil to keep its economy afloat.

The alternative is a strategic nightmare for Beijing: a collapsed North Korean regime, millions of refugees piling into China, and a unified Korean Peninsula under a US defense treaty.

The Obama administration’s decision to deploy an advanced missile defense system in South Korea also gives President Xi Jinping of China less incentive to cooperate with Washington on a North Korea strategy that could aim, for example, to freeze the North’s nuclear capacity, the analysts said.

The US-supplied missile defenses in South Korea, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, has effectively killed any chance of China cooperating with the United States, they said.

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“China is strongly opposed to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but at the same time opposes the defense system in South Korea,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an assistant professor of international relations at Renmin University. It was not clear which situation the Chinese leadership was most agitated about, he said.

Beijing interprets the THAAD deployment as another US effort to contain China. The system serves to reinforce China’s view that its alliance with North Korea is an integral part of China’s strategic interests in Asia, with America’s treaty allies, Japan and South Korea, and tens of thousands of US troops close by, Shi said.

Washington insists the THAAD system, due to be installed next year, is intended to defend South Korea against North Korean missiles and is not aimed at China. The system “does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China,” President Obama said after meeting with Xi in Hangzhou, China, a week ago.

China is not convinced. Chinese officials argue that the THAAD radar can detect Chinese missiles on the mainland, undermining its nuclear deterrent.

So despite what Chinese analysts describe as the government’s distaste for Kim and his unpredictable behavior, China’s basic calculus on North Korea remains firm.

Xi would continue to ensure that North Korea remained stable. The Chinese leader, 63, has shown disdain for the much younger Kim, 32. He has not invited him to China and has only authorized sporadic visits by Chinese officials to Pyongyang. The two militaries remain largely uninvolved with each other.

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But the personal and professional antagonisms do not alter Beijing’s goal of preventing a unification of North and South Korea under a US defense arrangement.

The long-standing fear that punitive economic action would destabilize North Korea makes it unlikely that Beijing would cooperate with the United States on more stringent sanctions at the United Nations, according to Chinese analysts.