By Nicholas Welsh, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security Program.

In the face of rising regional tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea last month launched three ballistic missiles as part of a mock nuclear strike against US ports and airstrips embedded in South Korea. In a report by the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang once again indicated an apparent willingness to utilise nuclear weapons as a preventative as well as pre-emptive measure, with the tests examining ‘the operational features of the detonating devices of nuclear warheads mounted on the ballistic rockets at the designated altitude over the target area’.

This most recent test follows the confirmation of the US/South Korean THAAD missile system deployment in Seongju province, but also comes at an interesting time in terms of North Korean foreign relations. After the US placed its first ever direct sanctions on supreme leader Kim Jong-un in early July, North Korea responded by severing its only official channel of communications with the White House and declaring the sanctions an ‘act of war’, claiming it will now treat all relations with the US as under wartime law. 

After sending such a strong message to the US and South Korea, North Korea will now need to rely on its allies more heavily than usual. Ironically it has done so at a time when its relations with its key supporter China are looking undeniably precarious.

Pyongyang is likely to have lauded the Chinese-Russian joint statement against THAAD’s deployment in June, which challenged the increased proliferation of weapons in the region and denounced THAAD’s impacts on Russian/Chinese interests. Celebrations, however, are likely to have been muted, as both countries also indicated support for North Korean denuclearisation. The joint statement follows a string of tough measures directed at North Korea, including the unanimous passing of UNSC Resolution 2270 in March, which places further sanctions on international trade with Pyongyang in an effort to limit the nation’s nuclear development. 

In addition, both nations have warned North Korea against further inflammatory rhetoric, with Russia stating in March that continued threats of preventative nuclear strikes ‘will create international legal grounds for using military force against itself in accordance with the right of a state to self-defence enshrined in the United Nations Charter’.

Likewise, China has previously stated that if conflict were to be initiated by North Korea, it would not abide by its obligation to intervene under the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. Despite remaining North Korea’s only major trading partner, the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has been strained for quite some time and seems to be maintaining its downhill slide. 

The reality for both Russia and China is that an unstable Korean Peninsula benefits neither nation. Repeated antagonistic rhetoric and threatening actions from Pyongyang serve only to increase the pressure on South Korea at a time when tensions are already running high, pushing security concerns ahead of economic interests and thus moving Seoul further from Beijing and closer to Washington. The deployment of the THAAD missile system comes as a direct result of North Korea’s belligerence and has indirect (and potentially direct, considering THAAD’s capabilities) consequences, particularly for Chinese security and strategic interests. 

China’s cooling relations with Pyongyang do not, however, translate into warming relations with Seoul. THAAD’s deployment may not be supported by all in South Korea (with some Seongju locals fearing it presents a target for retaliation) and it may be officially directed at an aggressive North Korea, but its impact on China’s nuclear deterrent is one of the most significant factors. The US THAAD battery in South Korea brings the US missile defence network right to China’s doorstep, undermining the strength of China’s nuclear deterrent. Unsurprisingly, this has not brought Seoul and Beijing closer together. 

Beijing continues to find itself in a Catch-22. Unable to quickly sever ties with North Korea without destabilising the regime (and thus prevent further South Korean-US defence integration), it is forced to distance itself from Pyongyang gradually in the knowledge that North Korea does not represent the stable buffer state China desires. The risk is, of course, that in doing so it simultaneously weakens any positive leverage it may have over its erstwhile neighbour. China now has limited room to court Seoul, and may find itself slowly losing influence in the entirety of the Korean Peninsula.

The question now is whether China will continue to pull away from Pyongyang or try to rekindle their relationship post-THAAD. Neither case looks capable of defusing tensions on the peninsula in the short term, so Chinese decision-makers will have to base a difficult choice on the potential long-term benefits for a future shrouded in uncertainty.

Photo: Flickr/US Missile Defense Agency