FOCUS: N. Korea keen to cozy up to China for economy by giving up U.S. talks

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North Korea’s latest test-firing of ballistic missiles may signal that leader Kim Jong Un would try to rebuild the nation’s economy not by gaining concessions from the United States but by deepening ties with China.

For China’s part, President Xi Jinping could use North Korea as a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with the United States, as the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has struggled to find a clue on how to resolve nuclear tensions on the divided peninsula.

With China’s implicit permission, North Korea is likely to continue bolstering its military capacity and accelerating provocations against the United States, probably jeopardizing the regional security situation, foreign affairs experts warn.

“China may not be happy with Kim,” who has pursued ballistic missiles and nuclear programs, which have hurt peace and stability in East Asia, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.

But the chilly atmosphere in talks between U.S. and top Chinese diplomats earlier this month “will reinforce China’s reluctance to pressure Kim as North Korea’s nuclear weapons provide Beijing with useful leverage vis a vis the United States,” he said.

“In this high stakes poker game, Pyongyang has been adroit in securing concessions and aid while conceding little,” Kingston said, adding, “The chances of further testing (by North Korea) are high.”

On Thursday, Japan and South Korea said that North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in the morning on the day — its first such launch since Biden took office in January.

The first ballistic missile firing in a year also came amid mounting fears that North Korea’s economy has been devastated since it cut off traffic to and from neighboring China and Russia in early 2020 in a bid to prevent the novel coronavirus from entering its borders.

North Korea’s state-run media reported Friday that the country test-fired new tactical guided projectiles, arguing the development of the weapon system is aimed at “deterring all sorts of military threats existing on the Korean Peninsula.”

A few days before the launch, Kim Yo Jong, younger sister and close aide of Kim Jong Un, issued a statement lambasting U.S.-South Korea military exercises that took place for 11 days from March 8, calling the drills a “rehearsal for war” to invade the North.

Many pundits say North Korea carried out the test-firing on Thursday to watch how Biden reacts to the move, as his predecessor Donald Trump did not censure Pyongyang’s launches of short-range ballistic missiles that would not reach the U.S. mainland.

In contrast to Trump, Biden swiftly criticized North Korea for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions banning it from using ballistic technology, saying Washington will “respond accordingly” if Pyongyang chooses to heighten tensions further.

A diplomatic source in Beijing said, “Biden, unlike Trump, showed his determination to keep North Korea from firing even short-range ballistic missiles. Kim may have been aware that it would be difficult to proceed with talks on sanctions relief with Biden.”

North Korea has been seeking an easing of the sanctions, which have thwarted Kim’s efforts to achieve his cherished goal of building a “powerful socialist economy” against a backdrop of a shortage of resources such as crude oil.

“Should Kim give up persuading Biden to relax economic sanctions, he would break contact with the United States and turn his energies to boosting relations with China to obtain economic aid,” the source added.

Recently, China and North Korea have apparently cemented their cooperation to resist political pressure from the new U.S. administration, as their ties with the United States have shown few signs of improvement.

Beijing and Washington are at loggerheads over several matters, including trade, state-of-the-art technology, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and alleged human rights abuses.

China and the United States held two-day ministerial talks from March 18 in Alaska — the first in-person contact between high-level officials of the two nations since the change of U.S. administration.

The world’s two major powers acknowledged that they had “candid” discussions during the gathering, but they were not able to make significant progress in improving their souring relations.

North Korea, meanwhile, has pledged to ignore U.S. attempts to hold bilateral talks unless Washington withdraws its hostile policy toward Pyongyang, rapping the Biden administration for using North Korea-U.S. contact as a “means for gaining time.”

Under such circumstances, Xi and Kim earlier this month exchanged messages and reaffirmed the necessity of joining hands to strengthen cooperation between the two friendly socialist neighbors.

North Korea’s official media quoted Xi as telling Kim that China is ready to “provide the peoples of the two countries with a better life,” indicating Beijing’s willingness to offer economic assistance to Pyongyang.

Indeed, China has been preparing to reopen a bridge on the Yalu River connecting it with North Korea, raising speculation that traffic between the two nations might resume by the end of this year.

After North Korea fired ballistic missiles on Thursday, China refrained from condemning it.

“China may be the most dependable partner for North Korea in economic and security terms now,” a source familiar with the situation in Pyongyang said.

“For China, North Korea may become a bargaining chip to move forward negotiations with the United States. Beijing and Pyongyang are expected to promote win-win cooperation,” the source said.

“If China pampers North Korea, Kim would take more provocative actions against the United States, which would certainly make the security environment in East Asia more fragile,” he added.

In 1949, China and North Korea established diplomatic ties. They fought together in the 1950-1953 Korean War against the U.S.-led United Nations forces and have long been described as “blood brothers.”

North Korea also relies on China, its closest and most influential ally, for more than 90 percent of its trade, while Pyongyang has no diplomatic relations with Washington.