North Korea’s ‘Hydrogen Bomb’ Test Suggests Relations With China Unraveling

January 7, 2016 Updated: January 8, 2016

News Analysis

For once, the antics of North Korea may be acting against the interests of the Chinese regime—and, as the United Nations mulls its response, the ball is in China’s court.

North Korean state media claimed on Jan. 6 that they tested a hydrogen bomb. Seismic data suggests they did, in fact, test a nuclear weapon, but it had nowhere near the strength of a hydrogen bomb—and was even a bit less powerful than their previous test in 2013.

North Korea is still at the beginning stages of building nuclear weapons.

Norsar, a Norway-based group that monitors nuclear tests, published seismic data showing 4.9 magnitude after the blast. The explosion was actually smaller than North Korea’s last test on Feb. 12, 2013, which measured 5 magnitude; it was larger than their first test on Oct. 9, 2006, which was 4.2 magnitude.

To put that in perspective, Norsar estimated the blast was “comparable [in] size to the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” In other words, North Korea is still at the beginning stages of building nuclear weapons, and data show they haven’t improved their weapons much over the years.

Whatever the bomb’s power, however, North Korea having any type of nuclear weapon is viewed as a threat.

Shortly after the test was confirmed, the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting. Whether the meeting can accomplish anything depends on China. The Chinese regime is North Korea’s main backer, providing it with supplies and support; China also has a veto in the U.N. Security Council.

In most cases, the Chinese regime’s response to North Korean threats doesn’t go much further than empty condemnations. But things may be different this time, as North Korea has recently been biting the hand that feeds it.

In mid-December 2015, China sent a lower-ranking delegation to protest Kim Jong Un’s claims he had a hydrogen bomb, and Kim didn’t take kindly to the snub. North Korea then cancelled the “friendship performances” of its all-girl Moranbong Band in Beijing, and allegedly put the Chinese ambassador to North Korea under investigation.

For the Chinese regime, the timing of the recent nuclear test couldn’t have been worse.

Relations between North Korea and the Chinese regime were already shaky before that. North Korea has been on a pseudo witch hunt in an “emergency investigation” for what it believes are Chinese spies, and by October it had already arrested or executed more than 100 Chinese nationals.

An unnamed source told DailyNK the campaign was started over perceptions the Chinese Communist Party was getting too close to South Korea. It stated, “Some Party cadres have even speculated that this move will spell the beginning of the end for Sino-North Korean relations.”

Shifting Ties

For the Chinese regime, the timing of the recent nuclear test couldn’t have been worse.

While North Korea likes to threaten the United States, it’s really only a regional threat—mainly to South Korea and Japan.

Facing increasing hostilities from China, Japan passed a new defense policy in September 2015 that will allow its troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War II. It also recently passed a record $41.4 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2016/2017.

What Japan’s shift in defense policy lacked, however, was popular support among the public—and North Korea may have just changed that to some degree by creating a very visible threat to the Japanese people.

The Chinese regime is now facing a similar issue with South Korea. Much to the dismay of the regime, South Korea has recently been negotiating with the United States to build a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the country.

South Korea has generally been growing closer to China diplomatically. Seoul views the Chinese regime as an intermediary to negotiate with North Korea—and it still wasn’t certain if it would install the THAAD system and risk relations with China.

But the recent nuclear test in North Korea may have also just changed this—and it’s possible South Korea may now go through with the plan.

The developments suggest the Chinese regime no longer has the same influence over North Korea that it enjoyed when Kim Jong Il was in power.

Normally, a North Korean nuclear test serves the Chinese regime’s interests. It likes to be the sane voice when North Korea goes haywire, and this helps with its own diplomatic missions in South Korea and Japan—but this case is different.

The previous understanding was that North Korea could act crazy, and the Chinese regime could use this for diplomacy with South Korea and Japan. The exchange was that the regime shields North Korea through its role in the United Nations, while also giving North Korea the supplies it needs to continue what it’s doing.

This understanding seems to have started to unravel, however, since Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and his son, Kim Jong Un, took over the country’s leadership.

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