North Korea's claim to have successfully tested a nuclear device last Monday stirred up a hornet's nest in the international community. Regardless of the results of international efforts to confirm the test, the announcement itself signals the end of hope for resolving the nuclear stand-off through the six-party talks.
The test has also meant that China's efforts to shirk responsibility by treating North Korea's nuclear program as simply a bilateral issue between the US and North Korea now has turned into a strategic nightmare.
North Korea announced that it would conduct a nuclear test at the same time that Japan announced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would visit China and South Korea for summit meetings. It also coincided with reports that South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was set to become the UN's next secretary-general. The actual nuclear test took place after Abe's China visit and just ahead of his meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
So although North Korea's move clearly seemed to be directed at Abe personally, it clearly also took aim at China and South Korea. From this perspective, we can see that Pyongyang was unhappy with Beijing and Seoul's reception of Abe, who has taken a hard line on North Korea. At the same time, North Korea also gave Ban a difficult task on the eve of his election as the next UN secretary-general.
A key issue discussed at this month's Sino-Japanese summit was North Korea's nuclear program. Pyongyang's test was an open protest against its long-term ally China for holding closed-door negotiations with Abe, who has taken a hard line toward North Korea. It was also an attempt to destabilize and complicate the still-weak Sino-Japanese relationship.
The test also exposed the six-party talks aimed at resolving the issue of North Korea's nuclear program as a complete failure. Because of differences of opinion between the US and China, the talks never achieved a breakthrough. The US believes that China has not done enough to tackle the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, while China regards the issue as being simply a bilateral matter between the US and North Korea.
The US hoped that the talks would resolve the problem, otherwise it would have to send the issue to the UN Security Council. China, however, believed that the goal of the six-party talks should be to reach a consensus among the six nations instead of resolving the nuclear issue. It even accused the US and South Korea of being too harsh on North Korea and opposed their proposals to handle the problem through the UN.
It was not until after July when North Korea conducted its guided missile test that there was any change in China's stance. Although China asked Japan to soften the sanctions it had proposed in the UN, it let them become an official resolution nevertheless.
China has put a lot of effort into the six-party talks, hoping that they would be able to prevent anything from undermining the benefits it gains from North Korea, as well as shore up its power as the leader in formulating the Northeast Asia security agenda. But the failure of the six-party talks resulting from North Korea's nuclear test not only highlighted the failure of China's North Korea diplomacy, it also cost China an advantageous platform for exerting its influence on Northeast Asian politics.