Young Mr. Kim will not follow orders. How Beijing got used to Pyongyang’s provocations.

The World
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the rocket launch in an official North Korean government photo.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the rocket launch in an official North Korean government photo.


North Korea this weekend launched a satellite into space again, in violation of international sanctions.

State TV described it thusly: “The fascinating vapour of Juche [self-reliance] satellite trailing in the clear and blue sky in spring of February."

Not so in the West, where "the vapor trail" was seen more as a sign of Pyongyang’s continuing nuclear ambitions. An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was called and South Korea announced that it was considering cooperating with the US on a missile defense system.

But the official response from Beijing, North Korea’s only ally, was muted. China, which up until days before has been lobbying North Korea to cancel the launch, expressed "regret" at the launch, but called for restraint from other countries in criticising the North. 

Privately, Beijing’s frustration with Kim Jong-Un’s regime may be much greater, says professor Steve Tsang of the Chinese Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. The test will be seen "very poorly" by the Chinese government, Tsang says, because of the instability which it brings to China’s borders. And it comes at a time when China is keen to focus on its own problems.

North Korea’s resistance to Beijing’s influence might seem strange, given North Korea huge economic and military dependence on China. But it can be explained by China’s own fear of political instability on the Korean peninsula, according to Tsang. “The Chinese do not want to see North Korea implode or get into serious difficulties, and the North Koreans know that. ... That’s why the North Koreans behave the way they are with the Chinese. They are taking the Chinese for granted, and the Chinese don’t like it.”

This weekend's satellite launch has even been interpreted as a deliberate snub to Beijing. The launch took place on the eve of the Chinese New Year — forcing senior Chinese officials to abandon their vacations in order to deal with the international reaction.

Kim Jong-Un’s personal style of leadership have contributed to Beijing's wariness. The North Korean leader’s unpredictability make it difficult for China to guess what the consequences of a reprimand or confrontation might be. As a result, Beijing has adopted a  policy of mild public regret over tests and rocket launches. Says Tsang, “They [in Bejing] cannot simply tell ‘young Mr. Kim’ what to do, because young Mr. Kim will not follow Chinese orders.”