Will North Korea conduct a nuclear test during China’s Congress?

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WWNC – On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its most recent nuclear test. At the time, Chinese President Xi Jinping was getting ready to host the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa at a summit designed to enhance his standing as a world leader before a crucial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress.

The underground detonation, Pyongyang’s sixth such test, set off an explosion that caused a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that rattled residences along the North Korea-China border and reignited concerns about nuclear contamination in the region. Additionally, it caused a 3.5-metre shift in the mountainside slopes where North Korea’s subterranean test sites were located (11.5 feet).

The test—declared a “perfect success” by Pyongyang and reportedly included a hydrogen bomb—cashed in on months of increasing weapon launches, including those of long-range missiles capable of striking the whole United States.

The nuclear test was immediately denounced by analysts in China and the US as a “insult” to Beijing, which has long been North Korea’s main ally and trade partner, as well as a “diplomatic embarrassment” for Xi, who at the time was slated to be confirmed for a second term as the Communist Party’s leader. Beijing has long been North Korea’s chief ally and trade partner.

China’s response was to adopt US-led UN Security Council sanctions that choked off North Korea’s fuel supply and demanded the return of about 100,000 North Korean workers whose labor abroad was paying their government’s nuclear program.

North Korea’s military aspirations have only risen during the past five years, though.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has sped up the development of his country’s nuclear and missile arsenal after denuclearization negotiations with former US President Donald Trump collapsed spectacularly in 2019. This year, Kim personally oversaw the firing of intercontinental and hypersonic missiles and passed a new law authorizing preemptive nuclear attacks in the event of an impending attack on North Korea’s leadership and vital assets.

As North Korea watchers prepare for the Communist Party of China’s five-yearly congress this month, where Xi is anticipated to be elected to an unprecedented third term, there is a growing sense of déjà vu among observers as fears of a seventh North Korean nuclear test intensify. The US holds its midterm elections on November 7, and South Korea’s spy service informed the legislature last week that the window for the new atomic test may be between October 16 and November 7. This is the first day that 2,300 Communist Party members convene in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based analyst, noted that the two nations had just last week resumed freight train services after a five-month suspension due to North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak. “If Kim Jong Un were to carry out this test during the Communist Party Congress, it would be considered a real slap against China,” he said. “To the degree that they do it, it would be more around the US elections because, at this time, North Korea is more anxious about a US response,” he added, making reference to Kim’s repeated requests for Washington to relax harsh international sanctions.

Others, though, claim that Kim is completely unconcerned with China’s worries and that his main focus is on obtaining a functioning nuclear missile, which he asserts is the only deterrent against “hostile forces.”

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