North Korea a ‘nightmare neighbor’ for China

With North Korea speeding up its nuclear and missile tests at an unprecedented pace, the Hermit Kingdom is turning into one of the biggest headaches for China, Pyongyang’s only treaty ally in the world.

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test — the most powerful detonation to date with a hydrogen bomb — is creating an environmental nightmare for China.

China Earthquake Networks Center had reported a 6.3-magnitude quake, immediately after the North’s Sept. 3 nuclear test at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, less than 60 miles from the Chinese border. And the University of Science and Technology of China issued a statement on Sept. 4, “The power of the latest North Korea’s nuclear test is 7.8 times stronger than that of the Nagasaki atomic bomb dropped by the United States in 1945.”

“Residents of border cities in northeast China’s Jilin Province who experienced strong tremors had their worst fears confirmed when North Korea claimed that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb,” according to the Global Times, China’s official mouthpiece, “residents of Shenyang, the capital and largest city of China’s northeast Liaoning Province, and Changchun, the capital city of China’s Jilin Province, felt the shaking and rushed outside, fearing destructive aftershocks.”

“A radiation leak is inevitable,” Wei Shijie, who worked on China’s nuclear weapons program from 1964 to 1990 and is often considered an authority on the subject, told the Telegraph, “it will definitely happen, it is just a matter of time to detect it. And I do not believe the Chinese government has done a necessary job in enabling its people to be fully prepared for the harm that is on its way.” Wang Naiyan, former chairman of China Nuclear Society, warned, “we call it ‘taking the roof off’ — if the mountain collapses and the hole is exposed, it will let out many bad things.”

As fears of possible radiation leaks as well a volcanic eruption continue to grow in northeast Chinese region, Beijing is concerned, and rightly so, with a second potential humanitarian disaster: a refugee crisis that China may never be ready for.

“Much of the discussion around North Korea has focused on a nuclear war between Pyongyang and Washington,” writes Terrell Starr of News One, “but little has been mentioned about one crucial topic: if the country collapses, it will result in an unprecedented refugee crisis. For all of the tough talk by the U.S., the reality is that China — not America — will be left to deal with the human toll of an armed conflict. A mass migration of refugees trying to enter China through its northern Liaoning and Jilin provinces would present complex economic, infrastructure, and cultural and political challenges.”

If a conflict breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, an estimated 6 million North Korean refugees will flood across the 870-mile Chinese-North Korea border. “I am very pessimistic about prospects in the peninsula,” says Zhang Tuosheng at China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies. “China needs to have an emergency plan to deal with the influx of refugees and possible nuclear contamination.”

Last but not least, North Korea’s nuclear ambition is threatening China’s path to power in Asia.

“China,” writes Jane Perlez of New York Times, “has made little secret of its long-term goal to replace the United States as the major power in Asia and assume what it considers its rightful position at the center of the fastest-growing, most dynamic region in the world. But North Korea, which defied Beijing by testing a sixth nuclear bomb on Sept. 3, has emerged as an unexpected and persistent obstacle.”

“Even if the United States steps back from the region,” says Hugh White at the Australian Defense Department, “North Korea’s nuclear capability means China can never be able to dominate the region as much as its leaders today probably hope.

Worse still, North Korea’s nuclear development is likely to prompt Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons. “If Japan and South Korea feel forced to go for radical options like nuclear weapons,” warns Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at China’s Nanjing University, “the spread of nuclear weapons would thrust China into ‘a new Cold War’ in Asia.” That, in turn, “would frustrate Beijing’s ambitions for regional supremacy while also leaving it vulnerable to being labeled an enabler of nuclear proliferation, tarnishing its international reputation,” according to Perlez.

Kim Jong-un has made advancing North Korea’s nuclear capability a hallmark of his regime. North Korea as a nuclear state has become a “nightmare neighbor” for China.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.