Monday June 1, 2020


February 21, 2013

On February 12, 2013, North Korea carried out a nuclear test, successfully setting off an underground explosion that was reportedly twice as powerful as the country’s last test in 2009. The test, which sparked extensive international criticism, created an unexpected and unwelcome challenge for China’s new leadership. China is often seen by other countries as the crucial element in altering North Korea’s behavior, meaning that China is also facing international pressure in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test.

The international community had been expecting the test for weeks, ever since North Korea reacted angrily to UN condemnation of its successful satellite launch in January 2013. North Korea called the test a response to the “reckless hostility of the United States.” In the weeks leading up to the test, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China all sought to discourage the North Korean government from carrying out its plan. After the test was conducted, leaders were quick to denounce North Korea.

President Obama called the test a “highly provocative act”, and the governments of South Korea and Japan both issued warnings and began tightening their military readiness. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was “firmly opposed” to and “strongly dissatisfied with” the test. Now, the international community is crafting a coordinated response to what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called a “direct challenge to the international community.” Negotiations currently underway in the UN Security Council could lead to tighter sanctions on North Korea. China, which holds a permanent seat on the Security Council, will play a key role in determining how strict the final sanctions will be.

The nuclear test created a tricky problem for China to face during a sensitive period. In early March, China will hold its National People’s Congress, where Xi Jinping and the other new leaders will officially receive their new positions. In addition, the test took place during the Chinese New Year holiday, the most important holiday of the year, prompting many Chinese netizens to complain that the timing of  the test was a personal insult from North Korea.  Now, Xi Jinping’s new government will have to quickly decide what strategy it wants to use in dealing with North Korea. International pressure will play a role–China is often accused of encouraging North Korea’s provocations because the Chinese government in unwilling to back the sort of ultra-restrictive sanctions the U.S. would like to see implemented. China, North Korea’s major source of foreign aid, is often pressured to reduce or eliminate its support in response to bad behavior by its neighbor. However, the Chinese government does not believe sanctions in general are an effective tool. China is especially wary of sanctions against North Korea in particular, which could destabilize the government, causing an influx of Korean refugees into northeastern China.

The Chinese government has sent out some signs that it may be willing to take a tougher line on North Korea, with its Foreign Ministry using harsh language in the wake of the test. China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, summoned the North Korean ambassador and “demanded that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea side cease talk that further escalates the situation and swiftly return to the correct channel of dialogue and negotiation.” Online, many Chinese citizens are calling for China to stop supporting North Korea, meaning that the Chinese government may face domestic pressure as well as international pressure to start cutting ties with North Korea.

However, China’s government seems to be sticking to its customary position of favoring negotiations over sanctions. Chinese media analyses of the nuclear test frequently mention the need to re-start the “Six Party Talks,” negotiations between the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. The talks, originally promoted by China, have not been held since 2007, yet the Chinese government continues to push for their resumption. Chinese media sources place part of the blame for North Korea’s actions on the United States, which has refused to participate in the talks until North Korea acts to uphold its previous commitments towards denuclearizing. In this way, some Chinese analysts argue, American pressure has forced North Korea to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself. According to this line of thought, the international community should reject further sanctions, seeking instead to increase foreign aid to North Korea. Analysis in China’s official news source, Xinhua, consistently argues that the best way to resolve the situation was through dialogue–by restarting the Six Party Talks.

However, statements in Xinhua also said that North Korea had “without a doubt” violated UN agreements through its nuclear test, and that it will be “difficult” to avoid stricter sanctions. Such statements speak to China’s position on this issue–in the face of a nuclear test, the international community is strongly united against North Korea and will pressure China to increase sanctions. Though China would prefer other means of dealing with its neighbor, some tightening of sanctions (although probably not to the extent the U.S. would wish) seems inevitable.


For more information on North Korea’s nuclear test and the international response, please see the following new sources.

BBC“North Korea carries out biggest nuclear test”

China Daily “Neighbors get tough on DPRK”

South China Morning Post – “North Korea’s nuclear test gives Beijing a reason to confront Kim”

New York Times“China Looms Over Response to Nuclear Test by North Korea”

Washington Post“China calls in North Korean ambassador over nuclear tests, demands an end to provocations”


For Chinese language commentary on North Korea’s nuclear test, please see the following sources.

Sohu (搜狐)环球时报评论文章:再劝朝鲜政府恢复理性思维”

Xinhua (新华)“外媒: 美国压力政策迫使朝鲜造核武”

Xinhua (新华)“避免局势恶化需信守无核化承诺”


Edited and compiled by Shannon Tiezzi