North Korea has put its sole major ally, China, in an awkward position.
Though the two countries are often aligned because of their opposition to the US, a series of recent actions from Pyongyang is now testing their relationship. On Feb. 12, the Hermit Kingdom once again launched a ballistic missile, a move against UN resolutions that was immediately opposed by China. The next day, news accounts emerged that Kim Jong-nam—the half-brother of leader Kim Jong-un who was reportedly under Chinese protection—was murdered in what appeared to be an assassination carried out by Pyongyang. Beijing has refrained from commenting on Kim Jong-nam’s death, but its actions have spoken loudly. On Feb. 19, China announced it was halting coal imports from the isolated state until the end of this year.
North Korea responded by slamming Beijing in rare strongly worded commentary via its state media, saying its strongest economic and diplomatic backer is ”dancing to the tune” of the US to “bring down its social system” for the coal-shipment suspension, a move that complies with earlier UN sanctions. The opinion piece, published Feb. 23 on the state-controlled KCNA news agency, didn’t directly refer to China by name, but it made its target clear, referring to “a neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a ‘friendly neighbor.'” The article reads:
This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the US while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK but to check its nuclear program.
It has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people’s living standard under the plea of the UN ‘resolutions on sanctions’ devoid of legal ground.
While Beijing hasn’t made any official remarks over the KCNA piece, its own state media has weighed in. The state tabloid Global Times, which is run by the top state newspaper, the People’s Daily, responded with an editorial (link in Chinese) on Feb. 24 suggesting Beijing won’t take Pyongyang’s “impulsive attitude” seriously, and that it would not engage in a war of words with it—”at least for the time being.”
The editorial also argued that Beijing should resolutely comply with UN sanctions against North Korea regardless of the regime’s reaction, and, in the meanwhile, try to maintain normal relations. “We should not make concessions to Pyongyang without principles, nor should we push it too hard,” it said.