China — North Korea’s sole major ally — yesterday urged “calm and restraint” from all sides after Pyongyang’s failed rocket launch drew strong condemnation from the US and its allies.
The isolated, nuclear-armed country went ahead early yesterday with what it said was a launch to put a satellite into orbit, but the long-range rocket disintegrated in mid-air and plunged into the sea soon after takeoff.
“We hope all relevant parties can maintain calm and restraint, and refrain from acts that would harm peace and stability on the peninsula and in the region,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Liu Weimin (劉為民) said in a statement.
He also called on all sides to maintain “contact and dialogue” in the brief statement, which gave no other details.
Pyongyang had insisted that the launch — planned to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung — was a peaceful space project, but Washington and Seoul viewed it as a disguised missile test in breach of UN resolutions.
The US, Japan and South Korea yesterday rushed to condemn the launch as a “provocative act” that threatened regional security, despite its failure.
However, China, which as North Korea’s only main ally is considered to have the most influence on Pyongyang, waited more than six hours before reacting.
“I suspect the hesitation partly reflects the dilemma about how they are going to deal with this,” said Brian Bridges, a Korea expert at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
The UN Security Council — of which China is a permanent member — has ordered an emergency meeting to condemn the failed rocket launch, and Bridges said this could put Beijing in a difficult position.
“The Chinese are very concerned that if there is a UN Security Council resolution or statement that is critical of North Korea — which I’m sure is bound to be the case — will this then provoke North Korea ... to go for a nuclear test?” he said. “Does it [Beijing] sign up to a critical UN Security Council resolution, or does it say the rocket failed, so let’s not make a big fuss about it?”
Pyongyang has already conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009 — both of which caused huge concern in China and other countries and triggered a raft of sanctions against the impoverished state.
Bridges said China — which provides a lot of food and fuel to North Korea and has been accused of not strictly implementing the sanctions — might now be pressured to enforce them more rigidly.
“They fear that if they really clamp down on trade and supplies to North Korea, this could tip the balance and bring the end of North Korea, which could lead to disintegration, civil war, refugee outflows,” Bridges said.