BEIJING: North Korea’s rocket launch showed China did not have as much influence on Kim Jong-il’s regime as some believed, despite being its main economic and political ally, analysts said. Leading up to the launch, China came under widespread pressure to use its influence on its communist neighbour not to go ahead.
North Korea had said it was launching a communications satellite, but the US, South Korea and Japan were concerned it was actually a long-range missile and said North Korea breached a UN Security Council resolution.
China undoubtedly has more influence with North Korea than anyone else, as evidenced by Mr Kim’s visit to Beijing last month and other high-level contacts between the two countries. But John Feffer of the US-based Institute for Policy Studies said the secretive regime in Pyongyang did not in any way feel beholden to the leadership in Beijing. “The historical ties and ideological similarities no longer exert any influence,” Mr Feffer said. “North Korea is dubious of ‘older brother’ pressure” and “does not want a subservient relationship”.
Leonid Petrov, an associate researcher at the Australian National University, said China would have made its views about the rocket launch known to the regime in Pyongyang. “But (China) does it very cautiously out of fear of losing its remaining leverage on North Korea,” he said. China wanted to keep its influence for a time when it was really needed to protect its interests.
The UN Security Council was due to meet overnight to discuss the launch, but experts said China, a permanent member of the council, was likely to veto any move for sanctions on its ally.
Mr Petrov said proof of China’s weak hand with North Korea came when Pyongyang conducted its first and only atomic test in October 2006. A Chinese envoy was the first foreign official to meet Mr Kim in Pyongyang soon after the test, which lifted North Korea’s nuclear programs to the top of the global political agenda. North Korea defied Chinese calls not to go ahead with the test and Pyongyang informed Beijing of the test only 20 minutes in advance, Mr Petrov said.
Analysts say one way China can exert some influence on the impoverished nation is through the delivery of food and energy. North Korea’s economy, ravaged by poor economic planning and international sanctions, is largely kept afloat by China. Last year, Beijing increased its exports to North Korea by 46 per cent to more than $US2billion ($2.79 billion), according to Chinese figures, accounting for a large proportion of the nation’s food and energy supplies. These deliveries have in the past been used by China to put pressure on Pyongyang.
“China has applied pressure in the past to get North Korea to come to the negotiating table and take more flexible positions,” Mr Feffer said. China is reluctant to use this leverage too dramatically because it dreads triggering an influx of refugees across its 1400km-long porous border with North Korea. “I am not sure if China has any significant level of influence over North Korea,” said Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia non-proliferation program at the US-based Monterey Institute of International Studies.