Speculation is mounting that North Korea's latest spate of missile launches, apparently aimed at getting the United States to resume talks over sanctions relief, may eventually irk China, Pyongyang's most influential economic and security ally.
North Korea has recently hinted at restarting nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests to put more pressure on the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which is unlikely to readily make concessions on its demands for denuclearization and the sanctions measures imposed on Pyongyang.
But if it goes too far, North Korea could lose the backing of China, which for years has been calling for the lifting of the sanctions set by the U.N. Security Council on the grounds that the country has suspended nuclear and ICBM tests.
The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping would especially not tolerate new North Korean nuclear tests, given that China has long been worried about potential radioactive contamination from the neighboring nation, foreign affairs experts say.
China, seen as keen to successfully host the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics slated to start Friday to enhance national prestige, has also been concerned at the prospect of a North Korean nuclear or ICBM test disrupting the global sporting event, they say.
North Korea claims no COVID-19 infections have been found in the country, having kept its borders largely sealed for more than two years in a bid to prevent the entry of the novel coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
While the resumption of freight train operations between the neighbors was announced Jan. 17, land traffic restrictions have dragged down North Korea's trade with China, dealing a crushing blow to the country's broader economy.
In addition to a plunge in trade with China, agricultural devastation caused by powerful typhoons and flooding has cemented the view that North Korea has suffered a serious food crisis and that its citizens have not received adequate daily necessities.
As North Korea faces economic difficulties, strengthening the country's "national defense capabilities" will enable leader Kim Jong Un to bolster his grip on power, said Junya Nishino, a professor at Keio University.
North Korea, meanwhile, has put emphasis on deepening relations with China to overcome several challenges including the economic deterioration, Nishino said in a report for the Nakasone Peace Institute in Tokyo.
Pyongyang has launched projectiles seven times since early 2022. On Sunday, it fired its longest-range ballistic missile since 2017. South Korea reacted by accusing the North of moving closer to scrapping its moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.
In November 2017, North Korea launched what it said was its "most powerful" ICBM, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the continental United States. Pyongyang's last nuclear test, its sixth, took place in September that year.
North Korea formally declared in April 2018, two months ahead of the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, that it would discontinue nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic rocket firings.
By unveiling its upgraded weapons and intensifying security tensions in the region, home to U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, the North might be trying to bring Washington back to the negotiating table to discuss sanctions relief, pundits say.
So long as the Biden administration remains preoccupied by Russia's massive military buildup on the Ukrainian border and is indifferent to issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang will not stop efforts to develop its arsenal, they say.
On Jan. 20, Biden's first anniversary in the White House, North Korea said it may restart all "activities" that it had temporarily suspended to build trust with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who held talks with Kim three times starting in June 2018.
A key ruling party meeting convened on Jan. 19 concluded that North Korea should take "practical action to more reliably and effectively increase our physical strength" to counter the United States, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University, said, "The recent tests are a demonstration of the expanding missile capabilities of North Korea and a warning to the United States that ignoring North Korea will put them in peril."
"It might be an effort to get sanctions and COVID-19 relief as the combination of U.N. sanctions and the pandemic are stressing Pyongyang's ability to feed its people and generate economic growth," Nagy said.
Nevertheless, it is "unlikely we will see a major shift in the dynamics between Pyongyang and Washington with these tests unless Pyongyang agrees to some kind of freeze in testing and development," he added.
Indeed, the Biden administration, which had expressed eagerness to hold talks with North Korea, has begun to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang in the wake of its ballistic missile tests in January, seen as violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
To turn around the economic situation in North Korea, Kim has to concentrate on boosting cooperation with China under the current circumstances, a diplomatic source said. North Korea relies on China for over 90 percent of its trade.
China and North Korea fought together in the 1950-1953 Korean War against the U.S.-led United Nations forces and have been described as "blood brothers."
China, however, would shy away from stretching out a helping hand to North Korea if it dares to carry out ICBM or nuclear tests, since Beijing is "proud" of having prevented Pyongyang from "running out of control," the source said.
If North Korea conducts such tests, "China would lose face and be forced to be wary of radioactive contamination," he said.
"Should North Korea test-fire an ICBM or stage a nuclear test during the Beijing Olympics, Xi would get very angry and may stop providing economic assistance to North Korea. This is the worst-case scenario for Kim," he added.
Some observers say North Korea has been attempting to steadily develop new weapons based on the decisions made in January 2021 at the first congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in nearly five years.
Kim has pledged to develop ICBMs with the use of solid fuel, which can shorten the time required for prelaunch preparations.
According to another diplomatic source, North Korea seems to be upgrading its existing weapons rather than developing new ones, meaning "we do not have to be careful about the quality too much."
Nevertheless, Pyongyang "will continue testing weapons and threaten peace and stability in East Asia," the source added.
North Korea will mark the anniversary of the founding of the country's army on Feb. 8 and the birthday of the late leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, on Feb. 16, during the Beijing Olympics through Feb. 20.