By Sunny Lee
BEIJING ― China is likely to acknowledge North Korea as a de facto nuclear power as the recalcitrant regime now seems to have completed the final stages of developing its own nuclear weapons with its "advanced" test Tuesday, analysts said Wednesday.
Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, followed by a second in 2009. Now this week came the third, each time upgrading its nuclear capability.
"Essentially, now North Korea's nuclear warheads can reach the United States," said a Chinese state-controlled CCTV anchorwoman in a live analysis of the event, characterizing it as "an importance milestone" in North Korea's leverage against Washington.
China is widely seen as the only country with any leverage over the North and also virtually its sole aid supplier. Beijing now needs to come up with a new blueprint as Pyongyang's nuclear test this time will pose a completely different threat to the security landscape of the Asia-Pacific region.
China has not yet made any change to its official policy that seeks denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but analysts say there is a good chance that it will be adjusted according to the new reality, engineered by North Korea's nuclear test.
"North Korea has already gone too far now with it nuclear weapons programs. Now, achieving the goal of denuclearization is very difficult," said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.
"So, now there is a debate in China that we should be realistic with the changed situation and focus our attention on how to manage Pyongyang's nuclear weapons, instead of preventing it from developing them, which is already a lost cause," Cai said.
Another Chinese analyst with a state-run think tank in Beijing echoed the view. "Look. How many of China's neighboring countries have nuclear weapons? India has them. Pakistan has them. Russia has them too. So, China doesn't give too much attention to whether North Korea is a nuclear state or not," he said on condition of anonymity.
"China can accept another neighbor who has nuclear weapons," he added.
Now the nuclear-armed North Korea will also pose a security dilemma to the other regional powers too. The primary reason China strongly opposed the North developing nuclear weapons was because it was concerned about a nuclear domino effect in East Asia. Once North Korea has nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea may also want to have them. That's not something China wants to see.
Tetsuo Kotani, a security expert with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, thinks the changed environment will spark Japan to think in that direction. "If North Korea successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead to fit intermediate range missiles, it would pose a direct threat to Japan. Meanwhile, Japan is worried about the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella."
South Korea also will be more eager to consider joining the US-led missile defense system too, and that's something, in turn, that worries China. "This kind of new US military deployment to the Asia-Pacific will then become a threat to China's security," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
To prevent the situation getting worse, some North Korea experts in China, who were greatly enraged by the nuclear test, have reportedly been calling for "teaching a big lesson to North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un," according to a Chinese scholar. These scholars are trying to influence the Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping so that when he official takes power in March, he will implement a tougher policy to contain North Korea's behavior.
But Cai in Shanghai thinks there won't likely be a drastic shift in China's dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea. "I don't think Xi Jinping's North Korean policy will be much different from the past. It's because, for Beijing, the stability of Pyongyang is a priority. And China also needs the North to counter the US in the region."