China, Japan Respond to North Korea Nuclear Test

NPR's Louisa Lim speaks with host Steve Inskeep about China and Japan's reaction to North Korea's reported nuclear test.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go to China next. This is one of the most important responses we're tracking around the world: North Korea's neighbor and sometime ally. NPR's Louisa Lim is in Beijing this morning. And Louisa, what does China say?

LOUISA LIM: Well, China's released a statement through its foreign ministry, and it's an unusually strong statement for China's foreign ministry, which is normally quite mild. It denounced the test as brazen. It said it was carried out in defiance of international opinion, and it called on North Korea not to take any more steps that would worsen the situation and to return to six party talks as soon as possible.

INSKEEP: Is this a failure for China and China's diplomacy?

LIM: Well, yes. And interestingly, several Chinese analysts are openly admitting as much. I mean, they're saying that for the last 12 years, China's North Korea policy has focused on the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula, and obviously today's nuclear test - if it is confirmed as such -would show that that really hasn't succeeded at all.

So as you say, the real question now is what will China do, because this is really the second slap in China's face? Earlier this year, China warned North Korea not to test missiles. But in July, it went ahead and tested missiles, and again, it ignored China's warnings to carry out this nuclear test.

So it will be interesting to see whether China takes any measures to limit the food and fuel aid which it gives to North Korea, because for China, its biggest fear is that stopping that lifeline to the North Koreans could in fact precipitate the collapse of North Korea. And that's something that the Chinese are desperate to avoid. They really fear waves of North Korean refugees coming across their border.

And so many analysts were admitting it. They would actually rather see a nuclear North Korea than a collapsed North Korea. So it's a really difficult position for China now, and we're going to see a very delicate diplomatic balancing act.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about another country that's involved here, another of North Korea's neighbors: Japan. The prime minister of Japan has just been to Beijing as a matter of fact, and now here he is in South Korea.

LIM: That's right. And in fact, the test happened while he was in the air, on the way to South Korea. And when he arrived in South Korea, he made a statement saying that the test was unpardonable. So, it'll also be interesting to see what impact this test has on Japan's North Korea policy.

This is a new prime minister, don't forget. He's only been in power for less than two weeks. And he has a reputation as a hardliner, especially on the issue of North Korea. And his hand may well be strengthened by North Korea's action today. I mean, he, in the past, has even talked about carrying out military preemptive strikes on North Korea. And many of his conservative supporters say that something like this should give all the more reason for Japan itself to go nuclear. Whether or not he resists such calls is something that we'll have to wait and see.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the chances that not just Japan, but South Korea, other of North Korea's neighbors, will say if North Korea has the bomb, we need one?

LIM: Yes, I mean, that's something that analysts have been very concerned about. At the moment, everybody is trying to react in a very calm and cautious manner, and the Japanese prime minister himself has been saying that first it's time to collate the information and act in a cool-headed manner before making any decisions.

But analysts have warned that perhaps if Japan were to go nuclear, then South Korea and Taiwan would also perhaps feel the need to bolster their arsenals. And even if Japan does resist the urge to go nuclear, there could be, we could see some significant increase in defense spending and in defense budgets. So we could see a conventional arms race emerging in East Asia.

INSKEEP: Louisa, thanks very much.

LIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing.

And again, the news today is North Korea saying that it is conducted a nuclear test. We're still getting information in from around the world, although other nations including the United States say they have detected seismic activity consistent with a nuclear test.

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