China, North Korea's Closest Ally, Joins In Condemnation Of Nuclear Test

The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned North Korea's third nuclear test on Tuesday, and started discussions on further measures against Pyongyang. China joined in the condemnation, calling in the North Korean ambassador in Beijing to criticize his government's action. But whether China — North Korea's indispensable ally — will agree to tougher sanctions is an open question.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The U.N. Security Council is strongly condemning North Korea's third nuclear test and starting discussions on further measures. China joined in that condemnation, but China is North Korea's indispensible ally and it's an open question whether it will support tougher action. NPR's Frank Langfitt sent this story from Shanghai on China's North Korea problem.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: An anchorman in an olive suit announced news of the nuclear test on North Korean state TV this morning. He seemed nearly bursting with pride. Here in China, by contrast, some foreign policy analysts seemed exasperated by North Korea's latest provocation.

SHEN DINGLI: They cause a lot of trouble.

LANGFITT: That's Shen Dingli. He's a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. Shen says North Korea, formerly known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, often frustrates China.

SHEN: I don't think the DPRK is a true friend. A friend would respect China and protect China's interests by not exploding.

LANGFITT: But Shen says he understands why North Korea's seeking weapons for protection and, he adds, the Stalinist state plays a valuable strategic role, serving as a buffer between China and U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

SHEN: We certainly would not view America have its armed force to be deployed surrounding China's periphery. And DPRK what keeps America at a distance.

CHENG LI: This is a serious policy dilemma for China.

LANGFITT: Cheng Li's a Chinese political specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. He says China's incoming leadership sounds tougher on Pyongyang than their predecessors, but Li also says if China takes a harder line against North Korea, it could eventually backfire.

LI: Of course, China could do more, for example, stop, you know, economic aid but North Korea really with a serious, you know, crisis because without China's economic support, North Korea probably will be in big trouble.

LANGFITT: One of China's nightmare scenarios is that North Korea simply implodes.

LI: If North Korea regime collapse, China will immediately suffer because the refugee issues would cause serious problem.

LANGFITT: Many ordinary Chinese, especially younger ones, see North Korea as a basket case, but there's still residual support among some older Chinese. Wang, 59, is a retired laborer. Today, as he strolled through a Beijing park with his wife, he praised North Korea's new leader Kim Jung-un for defying America.

WANG: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: I think Kim Jong-un has a lot of backbone, Wang says. He's not afraid of pressure, not afraid of pressure from America. China ought to be like that. Jin Canrong is deputy dean of the School of International Studies at People's University in Beijing. He says when it comes to North Korea policy, there are two competing camps here - those who still staunchly support their communist brothers and others, called revisionists, who now see North Korea as a liability.

JIN CANRONG: They consider North Koreans not that valuable strategically. More people annoyed by their behavior. So from Chinese national interest, China should say no to North Korea.

LANGFITT: The Communist Party is run by a collective leadership. So, Jin says, top officials have to balance between these two camps.

JIN: Unless the revisionist school overwhelmingly dominate the process, the leaders will still take a very ambiguous attitude.

LANGFITT: In other words, for now, Jin expects China to continue to support international sanctions against North Korea, but not do a whole lot else. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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