Once touted as a “friendship cemented in blood,” the relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have deteriorated to new lows — perhaps to a point from which they cannot be salvaged.
The roots of mistrust stem back to the execution of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, in 2013, and the rift has intensified as the relationship was intertwined with the power struggles on the Chinese side.
While the world frets over North Korea’s threat to target the waters around the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, home to the Andersen Air Force Base, the fact that the whole of China now falls in Pyongyang’s crosshairs is a consequential piece of the puzzle.
On May 21, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un witnessed the launch of a Pukguksong-2 solid-fuel, medium-range ballistic missile from Pukchang in the country’s South Pyongan Province.
The newly developed missile was equipped with a small camera to capture in-flight footage. With great fanfare, the state-run Korean Central Television released an extended video of the flight the following day.
Bizarrely, while the missile was heading east towards the Sea of Japan, the footage focused on the west, back towards Chinese territory for an unusually long time, according to military experts.
“You can clearly see the Liaodong Peninsula, where Dalian and Lushun are located, ” one expert on Korea explained. “Towards the west of the peninsula is the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea is to the south. The footage would have also shown the capital Beijing if not for thick clouds.” Despite the clouds, the message was clear.
“Kim Jong Un is threatening Xi Jinping,” the same source said. “The intercontinental ballistic missiles Hwasong-12 and 14 are designed to target the U.S., but the medium-range Pukguksong-2 is meant for ranges that include Beijing.” Kim has apparently ordered mass production of the Pukguksongs.
A separate source said that Kim Jong Un considers possessing a nuclear weapon would enable North Korea to avoid becoming a semi-colony of China. Despite sanctions, North Korea depends heavily on China for oil and many other goods. The country’s markets are awash with Chinese-made products.
“With nuclear weapons and various ballistic missiles, North Korea can speak to China on an equal footing, even if it cannot compete economically,” the source explained.
Ultimately, by establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S., Pyongyang could be free from its dependence on China.