Ruining Trump and Xi’s April 6th and 7th diplomatic proceedings at Mar-a-largo through an underground nuclear test would be too easy for North Korea, and yet, the meeting between the North’s eternal enemy and now fraught friend is set against a backdrop of circumstances that presents this very opportunity.
The Trump-Xi meeting falls just a week before the birthday of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-song. Kim’s deification, manufactured by North Korean propaganda, is celebrated by designating his birthdate, April 15th, 1912, as the first year on the North Korean calendar—“Happy Juche 106” probably rolls off the tongue in Korean better than it does in English.
A nuclear detonation, in celebration of his grandfather’s birthday, would be consistent with Kim Jong-un’s scheme to legitimize his regime by invoking the most memorable achievements of his father and grandfather: advancing nuclear weapons technology and reviving Juche, the Cold War-era political rhetoric that rejects opening and reform, promotes national self-reliance, and evokes a time when North Korea was wealthier and stronger than the South.
For North Korea, the dates of its nuclear tests and missile launches are also becoming symbolic: they are coinciding with foreign holidays such as the Fourth of July and Chinese New Year, domestic events such as the founding of North Korea, and presidential meetings between the North’s enemies such as the one Trump and Abe held on February 13th. Equally symbolic is that the latest missile test on March 22nd, four days after United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left Beijing, failed within minutes.
The opportunity for a boastful moment of North Korean propaganda is almost too perfect: South Korea’s President Park Guen-hye was arrested on March 30th on corruption charges and the leading replacement candidate, Moon Jae-in, is a proponent of giving the North unconditional foreign aid by reviving the Sunshine Policy and is partial to blocking the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system THAAD.
In the meantime, a recent Washington Post article analyzing commercial satellite images shows North Koreans workers pumping out water and clearing rubble from the underground Punggye-ri nuclear test site, with Kim Jong-un’s private plane nearby. The article later goes on to suggest that North Korea, fully aware of when commercial satellites passing overhead can see military preparations on the ground, are sending a political message.
But why would North Korea want to snub its Chinese counterparts?
The recent sanctions China placed on importing coal from the North, itself a reaction to the four North Korean missiles shot over Japan on February 13th, is economically and politically devastating to the North. It is also symptomatic of the true nature of the Sino-DPRK relationship, one that Victor Cha, former NSC advisor to George W. Bush and current Senior Advisor at CSIS, characterizes as “mutual hostages” in his book, The Impossible State. China needs the Northern regime to remain stable to prevent a flood of refugees from coming over the border, as well as to maintain China’s extractive economic operations that exploit a treasure-trove of rare and vital North Korean natural resources. While it loathes this agreement, the North for its part, needs money to buy loyalty among its elites and prevent its starving population from rioting; the North effectively depends on China for its very survival.
One of the few revenue streams the North depends on that is legal—unlike state-sponsored money laundering, drug smuggling, weapons proliferation, and trafficking labor for logging operations in Siberia to repay billions in Russian loans, is exporting coal to China.1 Politically, China’s sanctions on importing coal from its fourth largest supplier, while highly commendable, invariably isolates the North. When backed into a corner and isolated by the world, North Korea’s modus operandi historically has been to extort the international community through nuclear tests and demand concessions in the form of aid, in return for a temporary reprieve from nuclear brinksmanship.
But by a turn of the same logic, for all the reasons stated above, there are many reasons for Kim Jong-un not to carry out any nuclear tests in the coming weeks. Crucially, doing so would provide further justification for the deployment of THAAD and would push Chinese sanctions to their limit. Pyongyang’s actions—or inaction—will then be a litmus test for the Sino-DPRK relationship: it knows Beijing can only increase the sanctions so much without putting North Korea’s national stability in jeopardy.
The coming weeks will also be an educational moment. If Kim Jong-un chooses not to launch a missile or conduct an underground nuclear test, despite the numerous economic, symbolic, political, propagandistic, and other gainful opportunities for him to do so, then this will reveal as much about the strength of Chinese diplomacy as it will North Korean’s lack of self-assurance.
If so, America’s calls for China to act as a constructive participant in the international community may finally be answered. When Donald Trump and Xi Jinping sit down next week, no doubt with plans to discuss how to deal with North Korea high on their agenda, a quiet month in April north of the 38th parallel could be all the evidence Xi needs to demonstrate to the Trump administration the value in pursuing constructive Sino-U.S. relations.
 Cha, Victor D. The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, 136, 361. New York, NY: Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.