North Korean nuclear tests

Chinese state media hit back in unprecedented war of words with North Korea

Pyongyang mixes up usual sabre-rattling by taking direct aim at China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 11:28pm

The war of words between North Korea and its main ally China has escalated, with the communist neighbours exchanging volleys through state media amid ­heightened tensions on the ­Korean peninsula.

The row, prompted by Beijing edging closer to Washington over possible tougher responses to Pyongyang’s mounting nuclear threat, coincided with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pledge on Wednesday to mount a ­“pressure campaign” on the North by “leaning hard” on China.

In what mainland diplomatic pundits described as a sign of a deepening rift between Beijing and Pyongyang over the reclusive regime’s nuclear brinkmanship, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency issued the first direct criticism of China in years on Wednesday, warning the nation of unspecified “grave ­consequences”.

The Global Times, published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, fought back on Thursday, dismissing Pyongyang’s broadside as a “hyper-aggressive” move motivated by “nationalist passion” and “irrational logic” over its dangerous ­nuclear armament programmes.

The Chinese foreign ministry weighed in, indicating relations would not be affected by the spat.

Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China’s stance on North Korea nuclear’s programme and the development of ties with Pyongyang was “consistent and clear”.

In a signed commentary on Wednesday, KCNA blamed Chinese state media, think tanks and diplomatic experts critical of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme for the escalating tensions.

The commentary lashed out at People’s Daily and the Global Times as having “raised lame ­excuses for the base acts of dancing to the tune of the US”, an apparent reference to China’s support for tougher sanctions on Pyongyang after the first summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump.

“China should no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK’s ­patience … China had better ponder over the grave consequences entailed in its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of DPRK-China relations,” it warned.

Analysts said that although North Korea regularly engaged in sabre-rattling with Washington and Seoul, it usually avoided direct criticism of Beijing, its long-time diplomatic and economic backer.

They said the escalating ­rhetoric between the two neighbours showed Beijing’s “strategic patience” with Pyongyang was rapidly running out.

“I’ve never seen such a direct attack on China by North Korea’s state media and it shows relations have plunged to a historical low,” Cui Zhiying, a Korean affairs ­analyst at Shanghai’s Tongji ­University, said.

The Global Times said Beijing “should also make Pyongyang aware that it will react in unprecedented fashion if Pyongyang conducts another ­nuclear test”.

The Global Times has ­published at least 11 editorials dedicated to North Korea’s ­nuclear threat since a failed ballistic missile test on April 16.

Mainland analysts believe Beijing is considering a major policy shift on Pyongyang, including tougher sanctions such as an oil embargo.

There was a “big gap” between what Washington expected Beijing to do over Pyongyang and what Beijing was actually willing to do, according to Shi Yinhong, a State Council adviser and director of the Centre for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

Tillerson said the US was prepared to assert even stronger pressure on the reclusive regime. “So it’s a pressure campaign that has a knob on it. I’d say we’re at about dial setting five or six right now,” he said.

In a separate development, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang discussed China-US economic ties by phone with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday.