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North Korea Rocket Launch Puts Relations With China On Edge


Let's talk now about why China is in a spotlight after North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket yesterday. The U.S. says the launch put two objects into orbit, but it also could have been a test of ballistic missile technology. Countries around the world condemned the launch. China called it regrettable, and that seems all the Chinese are likely to do. This matters because China has more leverage against North Korea than anyone else. Joining us now is Katy Oh. She's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Asian specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Welcome.

KATY OH: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why does China have so much leverage over North Korea?

OH: Because China is the provider of most military, political as well as economic help for the (unintelligible), who is always suffering with all kinds of deficiencies of the material goods. China provides, and North Korea accepts. So for that matter, China has the biggest leverage on top of North Korean government.

SHAPIRO: So if China is North Korea's lifeline and China says this launch was regrettable, why is China unlikely to jerk the leash and reign North Korea in?

OH: China personally, individually, maybe by the leadership viewpoint as well as nationally, citizens, all alike - they don't like North Korea. They don't like North Korean leader. They call him Third Fatty.

SHAPIRO: The Third Fatty.

OH: Yeah because he's the grandson of the grandfather - so three kings. So he's the third fatty. And they said first fatty was acceptable. Second fatty was - we were neutral. But the third one, we hated him.

SHAPIRO: But if they hate him so much, why are they unlikely to do anything to cut North Korea off from these supplies?

OH: Because from the ordinary viewpoint, China can do something, but for the strategic level, China has a bigger fish to fry that is United States. China needs a buffer zone between the so-called democratic and capitalistic power that is making the half arcs around in the Pacific side of it, which is South Korea, Japan and United States. So even though North Korea behaves really like a bad gangster, rogue brother, China doesn't do anything because China doesn't want to upset so-called current stability of the region.

SHAPIRO: I suppose the little gangster or the rogue brother, as China refers to North Korea, might be bad but not as bad as an imploding, chaotic North Korea from China's perspective, anyway.

OH: I think you capture it very correctly.

SHAPIRO: What do you think it would take for China to make some moves against North Korea?

OH: One of the interesting things is that Kim Jong-un is very, very brave, in a sense, and he's relentlessly pursing these goals - so-called weapons of mass destruction development - nuke testing, H-bomb testing, missile shooting, rocket shooting. So the speed and frequency was a lot more than during his father's reigning period. I think this is a very important change. Chinese patience is running very thin. So we don't know when is the turning point. Sooner or later, including some more testing, combining together with some other cultural demands and the population demands from the Chinese side of it all combines together. Who knows when is the trigger point. I'm expecting some kind of trigger point, and so we will see.

SHAPIRO: This launch spurred the U.S. and South Korea to begin consulting on something called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD. Explain what that is and what these neighbors would like China to do.

OH: This is the system that really effective for the short- and medium-range missiles, which is perfect for the Korean Peninsula.

SHAPIRO: A defense system.

OH: Yes, and there are about 35 Americans deployed in Korea and protecting the Americans as well as keeping a psychological benefit for the Koreans there. Americans are committed. They have the system, and we are under their protection. China demands to South Korea, hey, you are my biggest economic partner; behave yourself. Don't accept this. If you accept the THAAD, our relationship may enter a very bad period. But South Korean government obviously decided to seriously consider to accept that the THAAD system to be quickly deployed to Korean territory after this missile testing.

SHAPIRO: That's Katy Oh, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Asian specialist at the Institute For Defense Analyses, talking with us about China's complicated relationship with North Korea. Thank you so much.

OH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.