The Wall Street Journal – North Korea appeared to lash out at Beijing in a state-media commentary published Thursday, aiming unusually pointed rhetoric at a powerful neighbor that Pyongyang has long relied on for economic and diplomatic support.
The commentary, published by the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency, didn’t name China but left little doubt about its target: “a neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a ‘friendly neighbor’.”
The article lambasted China for playing down North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and for curbing foreign trade—an apparent reference to China’s weekend announcement that it would suspend coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year.
North Korea is heavily reliant on its giant neighbor for trade, while China sees North Korea as a buffer against South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies.
But Beijing’s patience wore thin after Pyongyang conducted a series of nuclear and ballistic-missile tests last year, prompting China to back fresh United Nations sanctions in November that target North Korea’s coal exports.
According to the KCNA report, the unnamed country “has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people’s living standard under the plea of the U.N. ‘resolutions on sanctions’ devoid of legal ground.”
While an early round of U.N. sanctions restricted coal imports from North Korea, China is widely believed to have used a so-called humanitarian exception to exceed that cap.
That loophole was tightened in November’s U.N. resolution, and North Korea’s protest suggests that Beijing has made clear it intends to adhere to the new rule, said Adam Cathcart, a scholar who focuses on China-North Korea relations at the University of Leeds in the U.K.
“I would take this editorial as hard evidence that China has told North Korea it is narrowing the definition of coal exports for ‘humanitarian purposes,’” Mr. Cathcart said, adding that it was rare for North Korea to criticize China so directly.
Mr. Cathcart called the KCNA editorial “a frontal assault,” a shift from the oblique critiques of China that North Korea usually turns to when it expresses its displeasure.
In Thursday’s piece, North Korea even adopted a mocking tone, saying that the country is “styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
The KCNA statement also vowed that cutting its exports wouldn’t deter North Korea from developing its nuclear arsenal.
“It is utterly childish to think that the DPRK would not manufacture nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic rockets if a few penny of money is cut off,” it said, using the acronym for its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
North Korea and China, which were founded as Communist states within a year of one another after World War II, have long enjoyed a close relationship, frequently described as that of “lips and teeth.”
Beijing has been an economic and political benefactor for Pyongyang since they fought alongside each other in the Korean War of the early 1950s. But bilateral ties have become increasingly strained, as China opened its economy through market-style reforms while North Korea grew more isolated and pursued a nuclear-weapons program that antagonized the region.
North Korea’s apparent anger at China comes amid an escalating diplomatic row with another friendly nation, Malaysia, after authorities in Kuala Lumpur identified a North Korean embassy official and a state-owned airline employee among seven suspects still at large in the killing of dictator Kim Jong Un’s half brother.
North Korea has denied involvement in the Feb. 13 slaying of Kim Jong Nam. Malaysian authorities have refused to turn over the corpse to North Korea, as the embassy there has demanded, instead conducting its own autopsies—a move decried by North Korea as part of a broader conspiracy engineered by South Korea and the U.S.
Just hours before its broadside against China, KCNA published a report blaming Malaysia for an “undisguised encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK.”
“The biggest responsibility for his death rests with the government of Malaysia as the citizen of the DPRK died in its land,” KCNA reported, quoting a group called the Korean Jurists Committee.
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