BEIJING – China called for “calm and restraint” Friday on the long-troubled Korean Peninsula, as both North Korea and South Korea exchanged increasingly harsh threats in the wake of new United Nations sanctions punishing the North for a nuclear test last month.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged “relevant parties to exercise calm and restraint and avoid actions that might further escalate tensions.”
Ignoring that familiar message from Beijing, North Korea announced Friday it was canceling all non-aggression pacts with South Korea, cutting off its hotline and closing the main, albeit little-used, border crossing inside the Demilitarized Zone that has separated the two nations for six decades.
Newly elected South Korean President Park Geun Hye vowed Friday to deal strongly with North Korean provocations.
“Our current security situation is very grave. North Korea pressed ahead with a nuclear test and long-range missile development and is threatening to nullify the Armistice Agreement,” she said at a commissioning ceremony for military graduates, according to the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency.
“If North Korea attacks South Korea with a nuclear weapon, Kim Jong Un’s regime will perish from Earth,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said in a briefing Friday, according to Yonhap.
The words came a day after Beijing agreed to tougher than usual sanctions by the U.N. Security Council against China’s longtime ally North Korea as punishment for a nuclear test last month and a satellite launch in December that many analysts viewed as a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North’s nuclear test marked the third time the reclusive, impoverished but highly militarized East Asian nation has defied the world and tested its nuclear program.
Chinese experts have long downplayed the extent of Beijing’s influence in Pyongyang. The popular, Communist Party-run tabloid Global Times said Friday that all sides should appreciate China attempting the “thankless” task of mediation and understand China’s dilemma.
The ongoing annual session of China’s legislature dominates the state-run news agenda here, and China’s often nationalistic cyberspace was not as moved to comment Friday on the Korean issue as after the North’s nuclear test last month.
Luo Yuan, a normally hawkish Chinese military commentator, wrote on his micro-blog Friday that neither North or South could afford the cost of war, “while neighboring countries also don’t allow either side to pick a fight, and China especially put its own national security in first place.”
This week, Pyongyang threatened to launch a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on South Korea and the United States, which start joint military exercises Monday. Though many experts dismiss the nuclear threat as bellicose bluster, recent history suggests there is genuine risk of a smaller-scale military provocation against South Korea.
Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a front-line artillery unit that launched a deadly shelling attack on a nearby South Korean island in 2010. North Korea’s army units “are fully ready to fight a Korean-style, all-out war,” he said, according to state news agency KCNA.
In agreeing to U.N. Resolution 2094 Thursday, China, North Korea’s northern neighbor and only significant ally, has gone further than before, but serious doubts remain about how willing Beijing will be to enforce sanctions against the nation that depends on China for fuel, food and diplomatic support.
“If the Chinese government chooses to enforce Resolution 2094 rigorously, it could seriously disrupt if not end, North Korea’s proliferation activities,” wrote Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Unfortunately, if past behavior is any guide, this is unlikely to happen.”
Several Chinese experts have publicly called on Beijing in recent weeks to reduce that support, arguing that its provocative behavior harms Chinese interests. Yet Beijing continues to protect its Korean War ally, for fear that regime collapse could launch a flood of Korean refugees into China and result in a unified Korea with U.S. troops right on China’s border.
Bruce Bechtol, a former China and Korea analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who’s at Angelo State University in Texas, says China will take real steps against the North only to prevent financial pain to China.
If the United States and other countries threaten to pull money out of Chinese banks that do business with North Korea, “this will force – force – the Chinese to take action,” Bechtol said.
Contributing: Oren Dorell in McLean, Va.
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