By Michael Mazza, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.
On Monday, North Korea announced it was extending the window for its rocket launch due to a technical glitch. On Tuesday, South Korean intelligence officials announced there were indications that the rocket was being dismantled. On Wednesday, North Korea conducted the missile test, which it carried out successfully. What happened here?
It could be that this false delay was all about China. North Korea originally announced the missile test only a day after a high-level meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Un and Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department. Beijing, in the midst of a leadership transition and already dealing with a period of tense relations with its neighbors and the United States, must have been furious.
Although publicly China adopted a mild approach to the coming missile test, behind the scenes it may well have been exerting significant pressure on Pyongyang to scrap the launch. While Beijing does have leverage it could bring to bear – especially of the economic variety – its history of supporting North Korea under all circumstances, no matter how egregious its behavior, likely undermined any threats China may have made. And even though China is North Korea’s only real ally, Pyongyang is fiercely independent and loath to follow Chinese directives.
Could it be that the announcement of delay followed quickly by the launch was intended as a deliberate slap in the face to China?
There are other interpretations of this about-face, of course. Patrick Cronin, writing for GPS this week, suggested that North Korea was “adhering to the ancient military maxim that all war is deception” and thus “preceded its launch with well-timed misinformation.” He may be right. But even if that’s the case, it appears Kim was content to deceive his friends along with his enemies.
One can only hope that this all finally serves as the straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back. Beijing must realize that having long refused to put its leverage to use, it has unduly limited influence in Pyongyang. And much to Beijing’s chagrin, with North Korea on the precipice of fielding an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States, Washington will have even greater impetus to invest in ballistic missile defense and to enhance defense capabilities in the Asia-Pacific.
Sadly, it’s not at all clear that North Korea’s latest provocation will force China to reconsider its strategic calculus. The Chinese system is not conducive to sharp turns in policy, especially at a time of transition in Beijing in which the new leaders are still consolidating their power. But Xi Jinping may want to teach the young Kim a lesson. He could do so by working more closely with the United States to institute new sanctions and enhance sanctions enforcement. In the short term, Xi may aim to cause Kim some pain just to prove he is willing to do so. China can always ease up on its enforcement of sanctions or step up its aid to the impoverished nation once it determines Kim has gotten the message.
Beijing’s strategic interest will likely remain in the maintenance of an independent North Korean state allied to China. Even with North Korea’s latest show of insulting intransigence, a fundamental change in the bilateral relationship remains an unlikely outcome.