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Allies Discuss How To Respond To North Korea's Rocket Launch


When North Korea ignored U.N. resolutions and launched a rocket this past weekend, it drew denunciation. The U.S., Japan and South Korea all view the launch as a forbidden test of an intercontinental missile that improves North Korea's ability to deliver a nuclear bomb. Prominently missing from the voices of condemnation was China. On the line with us is NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn in Beijing to tell us how the rocket launch looked from China's perspective.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, they sent a diplomatic envoy to Pyongyang expressly to talk North Korea out of this rocket launch. And they failed. And the North Koreans actually moved up the rocket launch so that it coincided with Chinese New Year's Eve. And you can be sure that was not the kind of fireworks that the Chinese were expecting. But a scholar raised a really troubling possibility, and that is that this missile - this rocket launch - could have gone off course, and it and its payload could have slammed into Shanghai if things had gone wrong. But this was not a possibility that the Chinese government wanted to discuss with its public.

MONTAGNE: Well, that would be a serious problem, obviously, or a possibility. And also, this seems like a poke in the eye to China - launching this rocket on Lunar New Year, this huge national holiday. So China would seem to have plenty to be upset about. What exactly did it say about this launch?

KUHN: Well, its comments were pretty mild, Renee. China said that it regretted that Pyongyang chose to ignore international opposition and go ahead with the launch. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that North Korea will have to pay some price for this action, but he didn't say what it would be. And China's foreign ministry summoned North Korea's ambassador and lodged a formal diplomatic protest, but it did not appear to be a very strong one.

MONTAGNE: Well, other countries are calling for more sanctions. China has gone along with sanctions prohibiting the sale of military equipment to North Korea. But how far will it go at this point to punish North Korea?

KUHN: Well, yes, China has said it is in favor of some sort of sanctions. But it only wants sanctions that don't add to tensions and instability on the Korean Peninsula, and no sanctions on the leadership, but only sanctions targeted at their nuclear missile programs. And that doesn't necessarily leave anything that really bites. One possibility is that they could impose their own unilateral sanctions on North Korea - for example, restricting the flow of oil and border trade to North Korea. And they've done that before, in 2013, following a nuclear test. But I think China's basic calculation does not appear to have changed, and that's that it would rather have a nuclear state on its northeast border than a destabilized state or a hostile one or even a power vacuum.

MONTAGNE: Obviously, then, better a difficult friend than an enemy in North Korea. That stance has led to South Korea now saying that it will discuss installing missile-defense systems with the U.S. How seriously does China take that?

KUHN: Very seriously, Renee. China has tried to say to South Korea, don't work with the U.S. on this. Work with us, and we'll find a solution. But they haven't found a solution. And so now South Korea is addressing the issue through the U.S., Japan and South Korea military alliance. And China really does not like that. So China is essentially on the back foot because of this.

MONTAGNE: Just really briefly, how do the relations between China and the U.S. affect its stance on North Korea?

KUHN: Well, as you know, Renee, there are a lot of tensions between Beijing and Washington. And that could decrease Beijing's willingness to cooperate on this issue. And it certainly affects strategic trust between the two as they discuss this issue.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing. Thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.