China warms to North as tension with South grows

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China warms to North as tension with South grows

South Korea’s decision to deploy a U.S.-made advanced missile defense system despite strong objection from Beijing has raised concerns that China will not cooperate with the international community in imposing additional sanctions should North Korea conduct its fifth nuclear test.

The long-anticipated deployment of the missile system, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad), has raised immediate protest from Beijing, as it views it as a cover for Washington to surveil its airspace using the penetrating radar that comes with the Thaad system.

The decision to set up Thaad in Seongju County in North Gyeongsang, some 240 kilometers (149 miles) south of the demilitarized zone, has left the government in Seoul with the tricky business of dealing with China’s frustration over Thaad.

Analysts here say with the decision for the Thaad deployment, chilly relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, which began with North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, are about to come to an end as Beijing feels it needs North Korea more than ever as a buffer against the United States and its traditional ally South Korea.

“With South Korea and the U.S. now moving ahead with the Thaad deployment here, it is highly likely that China will embrace North Korea in order to restore regional strategic balance upended by the prospect of the Thaad presence,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a policy think tank.

Cheong also noted that China and Russia may refrain from cooperating with other UN Security Council members to slap additional sanctions on North Korea should it push the button on its fifth nuclear test.

The UN Security Council was able to levy the toughest-ever sanctions on Pyongyang in March to punish it for its fourth nuclear test in January, which was followed by its ballistic missile launch the next month, largely thanks to support from Beijing and Moscow.

Cheong said the main reason China gave its “active support” for the sanctions was to draw Seoul into forsaking the Thaad option.

In fact, signs of improvement in relations between the two Communist allies were first seen in May when Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un for holding a party congress for the first time in 36 years. Xi’s message, in which he addressed the importance of alliance between the two and the blood shed by the Chinese in saving the North during the 1950-53 Korean War, led to speculation that this was his reward to the North for not carrying out its fifth nuclear test before the seventh congress.

Since then, the Chinese leader has sent three additional such messages to Kim, with the latest sent on Monday to commemorate the alliance treaty signed in 1961.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinku@joongang.co.kr]

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