At a first glance, North Korea's defiant February 12 nuclear test and the strong international reactions it provoked are reminiscent of an old movie. North Korea has at numerous times in the past engaged in nuclear and missile brinkmanship, issuing bloodcurdling threats to turn Seoul or Washington into a "sea of fire" The US and the western nations have responded by routinely, and ineffectually, denouncing North Korea for flouting international law, and pursued UN censure with or without China's support. Even while joining the international sanctions, China has repeatedly cautioned that dialogue with Pyongyang is more likely to produce results than sanctions.
The same pattern is repeating in response to North Korea's latest challenge. Yet this time, analysts detect new concern in China. Unprecedented public debate over North Korea in China, where the Communist Party prefers to speak with one voice on foreign-policy issues, and unprecedented public debate about dealing with North Korea reveals both Beijing's growing concern and ambivalent support to the bankrupt regime.
As North Korea continues to serially violate UN resolutions on its nuclear and missile tests, Chinese attitudes have hardened. When North Korea prepared for its third nuclear test, China cautioned against it. After North Korea ignored the entreaties, Beijing condemned the country. In the past, Beijing might have abstained from a UN Security Council vote against North Korean misbehavior, or at least sought to water down US- or European-led sanctions. Not so this time. Tired of the Kim regime ignoring polite entreaties for restraint, China has taken the unusual and striking step of joining hands with the US in drafting a tough sanctions resolution.
The bulk of Security Council Resolution 2094 is designed to disrupt North Korean nuclear-proliferation activities and expand existing sanctions on the imported luxury goods enjoyed by its leaders. The new financial measures are expected to block bulk cash transfers and restrict North Korean institutions engaged in illicit activities - in the past, North Korean diplomats have been expelled from foreign posts for engaging in smuggling drugs, liquor and cigarettes, designed to generate cash for the regime. The sanctions also involve mandatory interdiction and inspection of suspicious ships and cargoes, which China and Russia refused to endorse in the past. In the buildup to UN sanctions, China's scholars and media have shown unusual openness in discussing the problematic neighbor.
In late February, for example, Deng Yuwen, assistant editor of the Central Party School's journal Study Times, published an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, "China Should Abandon North Korea." He argued that "Basing China's strategic security on North Korea's value as a geopolitical ally is outdated." He also warned, "Once North Korea has nuclear weapons, it cannot be ruled out that the capricious Kim regime will engage in nuclear blackmail against China."
Not everyone agrees. Another expert, Liu Ming, executive director of the Institute of International Relations Studies at Shanghai Academy of Social Studies, dismissed such talk, telling YaleGlobal that Deng is not an authority on North Korea. Deng, according to Liu, reflects the view of ordinary young people frustrated by Pyongyang's bad behavior, who consider North Korea's "boy general" Kim Jong Un as a petulant, disobedient little brother who fails to acknowledge big brother China's efforts to help the country. Liu summed up the thoughts of the young scholars: "Even if he does not always listen to the big brother, he should to take into account the core interests of the big brother."