China has been quietly and gently pressuring North Korea to scrap plans for a third nuclear test, said two sources with knowledge of closed-door discussions between the countries, but there is no indication how Pyongyang will react.
If North Korea goes ahead with the test, China would consider taking some retaliatory steps, but they would not be substantive, a source with ties to Pyongyang and Beijing said.
North Korea has almost completed preparations for the test, Reuters had reported in late April, a step that would further isolate the impoverished state after last month’s failed rocket launch that the United States says was a ballistic missile test.
“China is unhappy … and urged North Korea not to conduct a nuclear test near Changbai Mountain,” said the source, who declined to be identified.
China feared a radiation leak and damage to the environment from a blast, the source added. “China also complained about the environmental damage to the area after the first two tests.”
When North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, it caused environmental damage to the mountain straddling the border with China. North Korea ceded part of the mountain to China in 1963.
It was unclear if the secretive North Korean government, typically unwilling to bow to outside pressure, would defer or drop the plans. China is the closest thing to an ally that North Korea has.
“The impact on China’s northeast would be huge,” the source said of a third test.
Chinese officials have discussed whether threats of diplomatic action would be effective, but any action might be restricted to some economic measures to signal China’s displeasure and would not affect vital food aid for North Korea, the source said.
A Western diplomat, who also asked not to be identified, confirmed that China has put pressure on North Korea to abandon the test.
Major diplomatic repercussions were unlikely, however, said Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. Instead, Jin, who has knowledge of how China deals with North Korea, said China may use financial levers to influence its neighbour.
“If closed-door negotiations fail to produce results, economic aid could be cut,” Jin said, adding that imports of mineral resources and unspecified “special local products” could also be reduced.
China condemned North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006, carried out in defiance of China’s public pleas, and it supported a UN resolution that authorised sanctions. It backed sanctions again after the North’s second test in May 2009.