China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Foreign Ministry/MFA/外交部) dominates a corner of the Chaoyang district; its grey girth looms not far at all from the DPRK Embassy. While the MFA is not the driving Chinese institution in relations with North Korea, it does play a key role in articulating China’s public concerns about the alliance; the publications and statements of the MFA are thus of deep interest and concern to the North Korean state. Speculation about the North Korean missile launch have been all the rage of late, but Scott Bruce tries something rather novel — reference to actual documents, seeking patterns of continuity and change. — Adam Cathcart, Editor
Parsing PRC and DPRK Foreign Ministry Statements on Satellite Launches
by Scott Bruce
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…North Korealaunches a satellite or conducts a long range missile test. The UNSC condemns the launch. North Korea, not to be cowed by the international community, escalates to a nuclear test to demonstrate their defiance.
With another North Korean launch just a few days away, it is not clear if history will repeat itself. North Korea has committed to the launch in both international and domestic media. This means there is effectively no chance that it will back-down. The two key questions are, will the UNSC condemn or sanction the North for the launch and, if it does, will the DPRK escalate to a nuclear test? While Foreign Ministry statements are not clear statements of policy, it is worth contrasting recent DPRK and PRC FM statements with those in 2009 and 2006 to see how the language on missile and satellite launches has or has not changed.
China | Safeguarding Peace and Stability
China has been extremely consistent in its statements on North Korean satellite and missile launches. All statements, regardless of Chinese action at the UNSC after the launch, have called for stability and restraint. For example,China’s FM statement in 2012:
China voiced its concerns and worries over the DPRK’s announcement of launching a satellite in mid-April…China believes that all parties shoulder common responsibilities and share common interests in safeguarding peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. We hope that all parties concerned will keep level-headed and exercise restraint so as to avoid escalating and complicating the situation.
Is remarkably similar to the FM statement in 2009:
China has always endeavored to safeguard peace and stability of the Peninsula and Northeast Asia and resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation… In spite of the similarities, technologies of rockets and missiles are different. Launching a satellite is different in nature from a missile or a nuclear test. It involves countries’ right of peaceful use of the outer space.
Although the July 2006 launch was a described as a long range missile test by the DPRK, China’s statement echoed similar themes:
China hopes all relevant parties can act in a way conducive to the peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula… Under such circumstances, we hope all parties concerned can act in a way conducive to regional peace and stability, and help ease the tense situation, she said.
And while China was not notified in advance of the 1998 satellite launch, the PRC Foreign Ministry was clear that “China hopes all relevant sides negotiate to appropriately resolve this problem and safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula” after the launch.
So the song from the Chinese Foreign Ministry has remained the same. Despite the well-publicized “concerns” and South Korean news reports that Hu Jintao called on the DPRK to give up the launch, Chinese FM statements have not given any hints about a possible response at the UNSC. Although the Chinese are undoubtedly unset over the impending launch, it is not clear that China would risk the stability ofNorth Koreaand damage ties with the DPRK by supporting action in response at the UNSC.
North Korea | Having Your Cake and Eating It Too
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, has framed the satellite launch in a very different terms than in previous years. The March 23 FM statement carried in KCNA noted that, if a group such as the UN Security Council sought to “deprive the DPRK of its independent and legitimate right” to the peaceful use of space, it would “compel the DPRK to take counter-measures.” These counter-measures were not defined. A subsequent statement used even weaker language: “the DPRK has not yet reached such a point as to discuss the severity and gravity of the consequences” if the launch were to be condemned by the US and/or other powers.
Compare this to the 2009 Foreign Ministry statement which was clear that UNSC condemnation of the launch would be considered “a blatant hostile act” and would lead to “necessary strong measures” being taken, a clear reference to a nuclear test.
The 2006 statement on the North’s missile test likewise promised “stronger physical actions… should any other country dares [sic.] take issue with the exercises.”
This weaker language in 2012 does not rule out the possibility of escalation, but is clearly framing the launch in less confrontational teams than the 2009 satellite launch or the 2006 missile test. So the jury is still out on both the Chinese response to the missile launch and the DPRK’s options for escalation. But we can see that North Korea is clearly taking a more subdued response to the issue of condemnation from the US and others, trying very hard to portray this as a legitimate scientific endeavor, while China is playing its cards close to its chest in the run up to April 15.
- “China Calls for Talks Over N. Korean Missile Test,” Reuters, Benjamin Kang Lim, September 1, 1998.
- “China Expresses Concern Over DPRK Satellite Launch,” Xinhua News, May 20, 2012.
- “DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Launch of Working Satellite,” KCNA, March 23, 2012.
- “DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Its Missile Launches,” KCNA, July 6, 2006.
- “DPRK’s Stand on Satellite Launch for Peaceful Purposes Re-clarified,” KCNA, March 26, 2009.
- “FM Spokesman on U.S. Announcement of Suspension of Food Aid to DPRK,” KCNA, March 27, 2012.
- “Foreign Ministry Press Conference, June 20”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 20, 2006.
- “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on March 19, 2012,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 20, 2012.
- “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu’s Regular Press Conference on April 7, 2009,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. April 8, 2009.
- “Hu Tells Pyongyang to Call Off its Satellite Launch,” Kim Hee-jin, Joong-Ang Ilbo, March 26, 2012.
- “The Nelson Report April 2, 2012,” Chris Nelson.
- “U.S., Russia Agree N. Korea’s Rocket Launch Would Violate U.N. Resolutions,” Yonhap News (26 March 2012).