North Korea Lashes Out At Chinese Pressure Over Nuclear Program

North Korea is pushing back against increased pressure from China over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

North Korea is pushing back against growing pressure from China regarding its nuclear program:

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has issued a rare direct criticism of China through a commentary saying its “reckless remarks” on the North’s nuclear program are testing its patience and could trigger unspecified “grave” consequences.

China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and main benefactor, suspended imports of North Korean coal in line with U.N. sanctions earlier this year and has recently been urging its traditional ally to stop nuclear and missile activities amid U.S. pressure to use its leverage to resolve the nuclear standoff. Chinese state media have also unleashed regular and harsh criticisms on North Korea.

The commentary released Wednesday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency said that “a string of absurd and reckless remarks are now heard from China every day only to render the present bad situation tenser.”

Asked about the KCNA commentary during a regular briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing’s position on “developing good neighborly and friendly cooperation with North Korea is also consistent and clear.”

The North Korean article cited recent commentaries by Chinese state media that it said shifted the blame for deteriorating bilateral relations onto the North and raised “lame excuses for the base acts of dancing to the tune of the U.S.”

“China should no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK’s patience,” the North Korean commentary said, using the acronym for its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations.”

The article was not attributed to any government agency or official; the writer was identified only as Kim Chol. Still, it’s unusual for the North to directly criticize China. Previously it has couched such criticism by referring to China only as “a neighboring country.”

Analyst Cheong Seong-chang at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute said the North’s discontent at China appears to be on the “verge of exploding.” He said North Korea will likely ignore China from now on while trying to strengthen ties with Russia and improve relations with a new South Korean government to be inaugurated next week.

On some level, it’s surprising to see Pyongyang openly criticizing China like this given the fact that Chinese aid, and access to Chinese markets and hard currency, is practically the only thing keeping the country alive at this point. Additionally, the Chinese currently have a fairly substantial military force stationed on the border with North Korea, meaning that the North is effectively facing military action from the north and the south if they misbehave. Nonetheless, this column is consistent with North Korea’s recent behavior and with the way that it has handled increased pressure from Beijing on issues such as its nuclear program and its ballistic missile testing program. Ever since Kim Jong Un came to power on the death of his father, it’s been apparent that he is attempting to undermine Chinese influence on the regime and he’s taken action to back that up. In addition to effectively ignoring previous warnings from Beijing on these issues, Kim has also undertaken what seems for all the world like an effort to purge the North Korean government of people who are perceived to be too close to China. The most extreme example of this, of course, was Kim’s own Uncle, who was removed from the “power behind the throne” position he had at the start of the younger Kim’s time in power, quickly convicted in a secret trial, and executed along with most of his family members by allegedly having live artillery shot directly at him. Clearly, Kim Jong Un desires to assert some degree of independence from China, especially now that Beijing seems to be growing ever more impatient with his recklessness when it comes to the nuclear and missile testing programs.

All of this means that future efforts to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula could become far more difficult than they already are. If North Korea isn’t going to be listening to pressure from China like it has been in the past, this makes it more likely that it will act in a rogue manner that will just continue to increase tensions and cause the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other nations in the area to band together in opposition to North Korean recklessness. This would become even truer if it results in the Kim regime becoming more tied to Russia, which has no real stake in what happens on the peninsula as it drifts away from China. The result could mean that the next crisis on the Peninsula could be one for which there is no reliable back channel to Pyongyang, and that just makes more likely the possibility that it could spin out of control regardless of the intentions of the parties. Additionally, diminished Chinese influence spells trouble for the future in another respect. As I’ve said before, one of the most important questions facing the Korean peninsula concerns what happens if and when the Kim regime collapses or becomes so threatened that it feels the need to lash out. If the Chinese are unable to influence events in North Korea even slightly, then that could make for quite a messy affair that has negative consequences for everyone in the region.

FILED UNDER: General, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    In the end the question is this: Is Kim Jong-Un even capable of walking back his nukes/ICBM program without signaling fatal weakness to potential opponents inside North Korea?

    If he is not able to back down without ending up with a bullet in his head, then he won’t, no matter how much pressure we or the Chinese apply.

    If he is able to back down, he might. Maybe. Which would be wonderful.

    Obviously I don’t know the answer, I doubt anyone does. But that is the essential unknown here. It’s not about Kim being crazy so much as it’s about Kim’s political (and literal) survival.

  2. @michael reynolds:

    All true, which is why I’m rather pessimistic about future developments on the Korean Peninsula. Especially taking into account the lack of judgment on the part of the current occupant of the White House.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    I’ll probably take this at face value. It’s reasonable to see Kim as having to keep escalating to stay in place. But it’s possible it’s kabuki to keep Trump tied to Xi at least until Xi is confirmed for his next term, which IIRC is sometime this fall.

  4. CSK says:

    OT, but Trump’s really outdone himself now.

    He said that the israeli government and the Palestinian Authority “get along unbelievably well. They work beautifully together.”

    I. Am. Not. Kidding. He said that after his meeting with Abbas.

    Sweet Jesus.

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    All true, which is why I’m rather pessimistic about future developments on the Korean Peninsula. Especially taking into account the lack of judgment on the part of the current occupant of the White House.

    No matter how this descent into hell unfolds we already know whose fault it will be.

    Trump: North Korea ‘Should Have Been Taken Care of During the Obama Administration’
    “It’s very late. We’re very angry at what he’s done, and frankly, this should have been taken care of during the Obama administration,” Trump said. He also said North Korea’s ballistic-missile and nuclear programs presented a “very dangerous situation,” and that China “can end it very quickly in my opinion.”

  6. @CSK:

    Well to be fair, the real problems in that area are between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

  7. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Do you think Trump has any grasp of that?

  8. dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I believe he could, but he would have to forget the Big Plan of a large scale RIF. The nuclear shield frightens many of his own military for that reason. Quite a few comfortable people in the PDRK are contemplating becoming very uncomfortable without their military status. Being uncomfortable in the PDRK is no joke.

    I suspect the only reasons he has gotten this far with it is some of his generals agree the day is coming when they will no longer be their people’s sole source of information, they must tackle the issue now, and that he has offed every person who did not salute that plan with enthusiasm.

    IOW, they would be right back to square one. They would have to craft a new plan of getting out of the 1984 corner they’ve painted themselves into.