North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, third from right, inspects a patrol ship during an inspection of the North Korean navy Unit 155, which seized the U.S. spy vessel “Pueblo” in the late 1960s, in this screen capture from the North’s official Korean Central Television taken April 6 in Munchan, Gangwon Province. Yonhap
By Kim Young-jin
With a diplomatic showdown brewing over North Korea’s plan to launch a satellite atop a long-range missile within the next week, analysts say the provocative act could not only raise tensions with the North but also between the United States and China.
Experts on the region expect the move to trigger a strong response from South Korea and the United States, which are likely to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The allies say it is thinly-veiled cover for a long-range missile test and breaks UNSC resolutions.
China, the North’s main ally, has been urging Pyongyang to stand down from the launch. But calls for Beijing to respond more strongly persist given its history of protecting its neighbor from international censure.
Slated for between April 12 and 16, Pyongyang insists the satellite is for purposes of science.
Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the launch could trigger the United States, Japan and South Korea to deploy destroyers in waters near the near the Chinese coast and off the coast of the Philippines.
“China is worried about maritime engagement in Asia. So it’s not going to feel too comfortable,” Smith said.
Expected to be launched from the northwest part of the country and fly south before landing somewhere off the shores of the Philippines, many in the international community are worried that rocket could further the North in a bid to build a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as the United States.
In 2010, China blocked Seoul’s campaigns to censure the North for its sinking of the Cheonan warship and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, urging instead for regional players to resume six-party talks on the North’s denuclearization. This prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to accuse Beijing of “willful blindness.”
Analysts say China protects the North in order to maintain the status quo and stave off instability on its borders.
China will likely weigh its concerns against the response the launch could bring from Washington, given the latter’s alliances to Seoul, Tokyo and Manila. Beijing protested the deployment of a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the West Sea for military drills with the South in response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
China did however, support UNSC resolution 1874, implemented after the North’s nuclear test in 2009 which demanded that Pyongyang not conduct any further “launch using ballistic missile technology. It has yet to publically join other regional players in saying this month’s launch would breach the resolution.
Beijing is also said to be taking the bite out of U.N. sanctions through steady bilateral economic cooperation and turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s suspected proliferation activities.
The questions over China’s role continue despite the concern it has expressed over the launch.
“China doesn't want to be blamed so it is willing to join the chorus,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said. “The real test is after the launch. Will China condemn it? Or worry about a North Korean reprisal and just urge all parties to remain calm?”