China, North Korea’s chief ally, offered a muted response to its launch of a long-range rocket yesterday, calling on all sides to maintain calm and exercise restraint.
The low-key reaction indicated that Beijing, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, would likely oppose anything but a mild rebuke of Pyongyang during an emergency council session that was scheduled for later yesterday in New York.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) said Beijing had noted North Korea’s announcement that it had launched an experimental communications satellite, as well as the subsequent international response.
“We hope that all sides will maintain calm and restraint, handle the matter appropriately and work together to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” Jiang said in a statement.
“The Chinese side is willing to continue to play a constructive role in this matter,” Jiang said.
The mild language contrasted strongly with angry responses from world leaders, with the South Koreans calling it “reckless,” the US “provocative” and Japan strongly protesting the move.
Diplomats at the UN have begun discussing ways to affirm existing sanctions on North Korea, although envoys said permanent council members the US, Britain and France were unlikely to secure agreement on new sanctions from China and fellow veto-holder Russia.
China has watered down sanctions against North Korea before and is seen as reluctant to risk what leverage it has with the North by criticizing its fellow communist neighbor.
Beijing is wary of taking measures that would isolate North Korea further because it fears a collapse of the regime could lead to waves of refugees crossing the border into northeastern China.
It also does not wish to see Korea unified under a government beholden to the US, having sent troops to fight on North Korea’s behalf during the 1950 to 1953 Korean War to prevent that from happening.
China is further concerned that a public rebuke in the form of harsher sanctions could lead North Korea to freeze all contacts.
After North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006, China and Russia insisted that language expressly ruling out military action against North Korea be added to a UN resolution before they would agree to sanctions.
Nevertheless, the launch yesterday posed a challenge to Beijing’s efforts to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula by averting a major confrontation as well as the collapse of the bankrupt, hardline Stalinist regime in the North.
China is North Korea’s main source of economic aid and diplomatic support, but six-nation talks hosted by Beijing to end the North’s nuclear programs stalled late last year over its refusal to agree on a process to verify its past nuclear activities. The negotiations also include Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.
Both Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) urged the North’s premier during his visit to Beijing last month to return to the negotiations — to no apparent effect.
Beijing’s attitude toward the rocket launch may ultimately hinge on whether North Korea was found to have placed an experimental “Kwangmyongsong-2” communications satellite into orbit as it says it has done.
The US, Japan and other countries believe that the launch is simply cover for a test of the regime’s long-range missile technology, putting it one step toward eventually mounting a nuclear weapon on a missile capable of reaching Alaska and beyond.