N.Korean nuclear test inevitable, China unwilling and unable to help: Victor Cha

Washington: A North Korean nuclear test might be inevitable while China, despite its perceived influence in Pyongyang, may be unwilling to help prevent such a test from taking place, former US nuclear negotiator Victor Cha said.

Cha also insisted that Beijing may not have the means to prevent North Korea from conducting a nuclear test even if it wanted to in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.

“I think it’s inevitable. I think it’s seventh nuclear test is inevitable and I think another Hwasong-17 (intercontinental ballistic missile) test using a solid fuel propeller, I think that’s inevitable because in the New Year speech, they said that,” said Cha, currently a senior vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

North Korea test-fired its largest Hwasong-17 ICBM in November, as part of its record 69 ballistic missile launches in 2022 alone. Its previous annual record of ballistic missile launches was 25.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said his country will work to secure an “exponential” growth of its nuclear arsenal this year.

“North Korea is a very opaque country, but they seem to be very transparent about their intentions with regard to nuclear weapons because they state them in every new year speech and they have basically done everything they talked about in the new year speeches,” said Cha.

Seoul and Washington have traditionally looked to Beijing to use its widely believed leverage over North Korea to stop Pyongyang from taking any provocative actions.

The former US negotiator in the six-party talks, which included China, Russia, Japan and both Koreas, argued Beijing may not have as much influence in Pyongyang as it wants others to believe, adding that North Korea’s three-year voluntary lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that.

“But I think the COVID lockdown has shown that China … can’t really do much because even if you sanction them, it doesn’t really do anything. They (North Korea) have basically had trade cut off with them (China) for three years and it hasn’t made them more willing to come to the negotiating table,” Cha said.

“The whole idea was they may use carrots to get them to the table, but threaten the removal of those carrots to try to get them to agree to denuclearization. But what COVID has shown is threatening the removal of these things may not have an impact because North Korea had everything taken from them during COVID and they still haven’t changed,” he added.

Cha also raised questions about China’s willingness to help denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

“I think China doesn’t want a nuclear test. At the same time, though, China does not share the U.S.’ interest in a nuclear free Korean Peninsula. They are not threatened by it. They don’t really seem to care about it. Otherwise, they will be working with the United States,” he said.

With regard to North Korea’s increased provocations, the US expert said Pyongyang may be in the phase of practicing its newly acquired capabilities, instead of trying to get the US’ attention as had often been the case in the past.

“They are not trying to get attention, and I don’t think they are even testing. They are rehearsing. They are exercising. Some of this is testing for development purposes, but some of it is actually rehearsing war plans with all of these new capabilities,” said Cha.

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