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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claps during a celebration for nuclear scientists and engineers in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.   © Reuters

North Korea's China bashing makes Trump look polite

Pyongyang reminds Beijing that it supported China's nuclear test in 1964

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- While the exchange of harsh words and warnings between North Korea and a U.S. has engrossed the global audience, Pyongyang is also engaged in another shouting match, with China, that is equally blistering.

Its target is the People's Daily and the Global Times, both mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party.

In a commentary piece distributed on Sept. 22 and titled "Rude Deed of Shameless Media," the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers' Party of Korea, accused the Chinese media of being in collusion with the imperialists, interfering in North Korea's internal affairs, being oblivious of the mission of media ("objectivity and impartiality" it said), and driving a wedge between the two countries and the two peoples.

"This leaves us think that whether they can be entitled to enter the coming party conference hall only when they register the dirty reptile records of betraying the peoples of the two countries," it read.

The party conference hall here refers to the Chinese Communist Party's national congress, which begins on Oct. 18. That the editorial bombs of North Korea -- approved by top leadership -- would target the twice-a-decade party congress, for which Chinese President Xi Jinping has spent years laying the groundwork, shows just how much damage their countries' once-strong alliance has suffered.

China's "good neighbor"

The editorial ran around the same time that the Chinese government was announcing restrictions on exports of petroleum products to North Korea.

In expressing its unhappiness toward the Chinese coverage of its nuclear program, the North Korean paper turned to memories of the favors Pyongyang paid China half a century ago.

The paper recalled that when China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, not only did the Soviet Union and U.S. issue statements denouncing the blast, so too did other members of the international community.

"It was only the DPRK (North Korea), good neighbor, which actively supported it and encouraged it through government statement."

A barrage of rotten tomatoes

The writer seemed especially furious with Beijing for joining the U.S. in imposing new sanctions on North Korea, rather than paying back the diplomatic thumbs-up of 1964.

Back then, China seemed to be exploiting its lack of membership in the United Nations (China's seat was held by the Republic of China -- Taiwan). After the test of 1964, the nation went on to successfully detonate a hydrogen bomb, in 1967. In 1970, it was able to fly a ballistic missile and put a satellite into orbit -- events that helped to make China a nuclear power. All along, North Korea kept up its diplomatic support.

In 1980, China tested another hydrogen bomb, in Lop Nur, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It was the world's last atmospheric nuclear test.

Beijing can justify its posture toward Pyongyang by harking back to the Korean War. Fighting broke out in the summer of 1950 and ostensibly ended three years later with the signing of an armistice. At the time, China was impoverished, yet it sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its people for the sake of North Korea. Chinese citizens now say they cannot tolerate the abusive words from a country China saved. Further, they lament that so many volunteer Chinese fighters gave their lives on behalf of North Korea.

As a country, China feels as though it is being pelted with rotten tomatoes from a North Korea that is adamant about becoming a nuclear state.

What China heard

Yet, China's frustration is hardly limited to historical emotions. A major concern is that this tension could trigger the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the region.

In a meeting in New York with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went outside the usual playbook.

Wang told Kono that Japan was accepted back into the international community after World War II because it enacted a pacifist constitution and established its three non-nuclear principles, according to an announcement made by China.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in New York on Sept. 21.   © Kyodo

That sounds remarkably like praise for Japan's postwar posture. But China's real intent can be seen in Wang's reference to the three principles --  not possessing, not producing and not allowing the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan. With Wang's remark, China, which rarely refers to Japan's non-nuclear principles, sent a message that it is resolved to prevent the introduction of tactical nuclear arms into Japan.

Perhaps Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera buttressed China's resolve on this issue on Sept. 10, when he told reporters that North Korea is already armed with nuclear weapons.

Onodera was speaking a week after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. Pyongyang said it was the country's first thermonuclear test. Experts estimate the bomb could have been 10 times more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima 72 years ago.

"We must conclude that North Korea has nuclear weapons that are posing a threat to us," Onodera was quoted as saying. "We cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear nation."

While this sounds reasonable, China heard something else -- that Japan was promptly recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power and using the threat as an excuse to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Eager for Trump

China also might have had its resolve stiffened by former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who wondered "if it is really a proper argument that Japan should not place nuclear weapons on its soil." He speculated on the matter before Onodera had spoken.

"Japan should start discussing the domestic installation of U.S. tactical nuclear arms to deter North Korea's development of nuclear weapons," Ishiba said.

Meanwhile, there is great discord between China and South Korea. According to an announcement by China, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in New York told Wang that Seoul would faithfully abide by its pledge not to study the redeployment of tactical nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea immediately denied the announcement's accuracy, saying Kang did not discuss tactical nuclear weapons with Wang and had no reason for making such a promise to the Chinese minister.

The competing narratives of what was discussed come with South Korea and China already in a much more consequential spat. South Korea has allowed U.S. forces to install an anti-missile defense system in the country, and China has been unrelenting in its demand that Seoul have the system removed.

Regarding this, an Asian security official said China is scapegoating South Korea and refusing to take responsibility for having emboldened North Korea by supporting it through the decades.

Meanwhile, China is not complaining to the actual owner of the tactical nuclear weapons, U.S. Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump. China has avoided going head to head with the U.S. president ahead of a state visit to China in November, after the national congress.

Will they act on their words?

Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, had contemplated a visit to China in September, but the trip did not take place. Worried that this may cast a pall on the prospects of President Trump's visit to Beijing, China was avoiding any head-on confrontations with the White House. As a result, Beijing has taken a somewhat conciliatory stance toward the new sanctions on North Korea.

"I cannot say this openly," a senior Chinese diplomatic and security expert told me, "but we have taken North Korea too lightly in recent years." He added his regrets that China unknowingly made the North into a monster.

There has been no top-level contact between China and North Korea over the past two years.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un, left, and Liu Yunshan, No. 5 in the hierarchy of the Communist Party of China, observe a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2015. The countries have held no top-level meeting since. (Photo taken from China Central Television footage.)

When Liu Yunshan, one of the top CCP leaders, in the fall of 2015 visited North Korea to attend an annual commemoration of the Workers' Party of Korea, he and Kim embraced. But any momentum toward restoring cross-border relations immediately evaporated due to North Korea's nuclear development program.

Pyongyang has since removed all footage of Liu from a documentary film on Kim.

Furthermore, North Korea has rejected a visit by Wu Dawei, China's former special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, and another by Wu's successor, Kong Xuanyou, who also serves as the assistant minister of foreign affairs.

Will secret channels be established so the parties can negotiate out of the current explosive situation? Or will Trump take another look at "all options on the table" and choose the military one?

Concurrently, Japan is in the midst of an election campaign, China is preparing for its party congress and President Trump is getting ready for a tour of Asia. In a schedule-packed autumn, danger lurks around every corner.

[Click here for visual data on China's leadership structure]

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