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North Korea’s nuclear test ‘puts China at disadvantage’

North Korea’s new nuclear test puts China at a further disadvantage in the diplomatic tug of war over an antiballistic missile system to be deployed in South Korea, mainland scholars say.

The underground test on Friday has drawn condemnation from world powers, including the US, Japan and South Korea, which said the “maniacal recklessness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un would lead to self-destruction. China said it “strongly opposed” the test and would communicate with Pyongyang’s embassy in the capital over the matter, according to the foreign ministry.

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The test could accelerate the time table for deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, scholars said. According to Yonhap news agency, the system was expected to be operational by the end of next year at the latest.

“There were voices against its deployment within South Korea but the test will further provoke South Korea’s conservative camp in pushing forward the date,” said Cui Shiying, with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Seoul and Washington announced in July the deployment of THAAD, which they say is necessary to counter the threat from the North.

Cui, repeating the government’s official line, said the launch would not help solve the North Korean problem and only further provoke a regional arm race. “THAAD will also enable Seoul to increase surveillance of East and Central China,” Cui said.

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His view was echoed by Gao Haikuan, a specialist in Northeast Asian security at the Chinese Association for International Friendly Contact, a semi-official group affiliated with the foreign ministry. “It certainly added instability to the whole situation,” Gao said. “But I think North Korea’s tests and the South Korea’s missile defence system are mutually provocative.”

China’s close ties with North Korea dates to the cold war, when Beijing sent about 800,000 troops to fight in the Korean war, and Beijing continues to view the North as a strategic buffer between China and US-ally South Korea.

Scott Snyder, an analyst with the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said that mentality had made China unwilling to take steps that might undermine Pyongyang’s survival.

“China does not want to put in motion instability [in North Korea] that would advantage the United States,” Snyder said. “Their first priority is to maintain stability on their border. That means they’re unwilling to put North Korea’s survival at risk.”

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Cui said China’s concerns were not about maintaining a buffer. “Such a strategic buffering zone will hardly work in a modern war. It won’t be able to deter marines and an air force,” he said. “Weapons are now far more advanced now than during the cold war.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg