Nuclear neighbours: China and North Korea at the edge of patience

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In the 1950s, soldiers from North Korea and China bled and died together to repulse Western forces in horrific fighting over control of the Korean peninsula. In the 1960s, they signed a friendship treaty promising to defend each other.
Over the decades that followed, the two countries that Mao Zedong called “as close as lips and teeth” forged bonds of friendship and common cause. Chinese equipment powered North Korean concrete and electricity plants. Trade raised mutual profits. And a sense of Communist fraternity wrested reconciliation from discord and curried solidarity against a Western order that both sides viewed as hostile.
After China detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1964, North Korean “great leader” Kim Il-sung even appealed to his brothers in Beijing to help him build his own atomic bomb.
But for Chairman Mao, that was a step too far.
He rejected the request, and a similar one a decade later, according to an account in The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin. “North Korea is a very small country,” is how a Chinese official put it to the authors of the 2014 book – and China determined that North Korea simply did not need an atomic bomb.
Even a half-century ago, there were limits to what China would tolerate.
Now, with Pyongyang seemingly on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon that it could affix to a missile to hit targets thousands of kilometres away, China is once again being forced to consider what it will countenance.
Still bound to North Korea through family ties between citizens on both sides of the border, by financial investments, and by a 1,400-kilometre-long shared frontier, China stands at the forefront of the world’s tensions with Pyongyang. North Korea’s preparations for a sixth nuclear test have brought extraordinary disquiet to northeast Asia, with Washington directing some of its most potent military assets to the region.
In mid-April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that “one has the feeling that a conflict could break out at any moment,” and Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke by telephone with Donald Trump on Monday, asking the U.S. leader to “avoid doing anything to worsen the tense situation on the peninsula.” Instead, Mr. Trump warned in an interview with Reuters that diplomatic solutions are very difficult, and “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.”
Against that backdrop, signs are emerging that an angry and anxious China is reconsidering its long-standing brotherhood with North Korea. It is increasingly fed up with the isolated regime that has spurned the world by chasing after ever-deadlier nuclear weapons – a startling reversal of sentiment from a country that was once the world’s most reliable and sympathetic defender of North Korea.
“People living here have a deep sense of fatigue,” says Jin Qiangyi, director of the Centre for North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University in China’s northeastern city of Yanji. They “are growing tired of it all.”
Nowhere is that more clear than along the mountains and rivers of the complicated dividing line between the two countries, where the risks grow frighteningly real. Isolated, sparsely populated, and far away from the country’s modern centres of economic power, the frontier has long been the manifestation and wellspring of China’s worries about North Korea. Here, the country led by a succession of dictators with outsized personalities is not a distant concept or object of late-night Western television mockery. Rather, it is a place that is plainly visible – and occasionally, quite literally, felt. At least twice, North Korean nuclear tests have shaken this area, with an earthquake-like jolt that rattled homes and nerves.

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