• South Korea, China seek cooperation in disarming North Korea
  • South Korea calls for coordinated international sanctions

Tensions remained high on the fortified border dividing North and South Korea as the resumption of propaganda broadcasts prompted Pyongyang to raise the risk of war, overshadowing diplomatic efforts to respond to North Korea’s surprise nuclear test.

South Korea turned on the powerful loudspeakers on Friday in retaliation for the nuclear test conducted on Wednesday. The South Korean military also fortified its positions near the huge banks of loudspeakers that can broadcast miles into North Korea. The broadcasts risk pushing the two sides “toward the brink of war,” Yonhap News cited North Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Kim Ki Nam as saying at a rally in Pyongyang.

A South Korean soldier operates the loudspeakers on Jan 8
A South Korean soldier operates the loudspeakers on Jan 8
Source: Korea Pool-Donga Daily via Getty Images

Threats of war are routinely issued by North Korea. Still, the Kim Jong Un regime has become particularly belligerent over the broadcasts that offer troops and civilians near the border a rare glimpse of the contrasting realities between the two Koreas. Tensions are spiking as South Korea and the U.S. seek to build international support to punish Pyongyang for the test. The success of that effort may hinge on how willing China is to try to bring its unruly ally to heel.

“North Korea’s fourth nuclear test could become a true test of the collective will of the global community to deal with a common security challenge,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a report. “Escalation of a crisis with North Korea would likely open a Pandora’s box of difficult geopolitical, humanitarian and potentially military challenges.”


Negotiations Needed

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung Se by phone on Friday that efforts should be made to pave the way for negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear arm program, according to a text message from South Korea’s foreign ministry on Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China on Thursday to support a more aggressive approach with Pyongyang.

The international community needs to work together to draft additional United Nations sanctions, Yun told Wang. Previous rounds of UN sanctions have failed to convince North Korea to reverse its arms development and return to the disarmament talks that broke down in 2009, leading Pyongyang to revive and accelerate its production of nuclear devices.

Kerry also said that China’s policy of propping up the regime with economic support while trying to coax it back to the negotiating table had proven to be a failure, and China needed to turn up the pressure. China provides almost all of North Korea’s imported energy, and Chinese food goods have helped the Kim regime limit the effects of famine and shortages. China accounted for 79 percent of North Korea’s trade in 2014, the most recent year available, up from 56 percent in 2010.

China Pushback

China has begun pushing back against the notion that it holds the key to resolving the Korea crisis.

“China is not the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue, nor is it the key to resolving the problem,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing in Beijing on Friday. “Nevertheless, having in mind the international nuclear non-proliferation regime as well as peace and stability of Northeast Asia, the Chinese side has been calling for and seeking proper settlement of different parties’ reasonable concerns and fundamental approach to enduring peace on the peninsula.”

In an editorial, China’s official Global Times newspaper blamed the “hostile policy” of the U.S. toward North Korea for prompting the nuclear tests. North Korea has repeatedly said that its weapons program is defensive and the only way to prevent a U.S.-led invasion of the country,.

Each of North Korea’s three previous atomic tests has resulted in a tightening of international sanctions. As United Nations diplomats work toward a new Security Council resolution, the world is looking to China to convince its unruly neighbor to stop its nuclear arms development. 

“China had a particular approach that it wanted to make and we agreed and respected to give them the space to be able to implement that,” Kerry told reporters on Thursday. “But today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it very clear that has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.”

The second nuclear test since Kim came to power four years ago may have angered China President Xi Jinping, who in October sent a high-ranking envoy to Pyongyang with a handwritten letter seeking deeper cooperation. China wasn’t informed in advance of the detonation and is “steadfast in its position that the Korean peninsula should be denuclearized,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Still, China may be reluctant to crackdown hard on North Korea for fear of destabilizing the Kim regime, which could send millions of refugees across China’s border, or lead to an eventual unification with the South, leaving a well-armed U.S. ally on China’s frontier.

“Beijing’s concern is first and foremost about North Korea’s stability,” said Liu Ming, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “It didn’t, and still doesn’t want to see the regime collapse, which would cause unimaginable chaos on the borders.”

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