The response signals a shift from Beijing’s standard, bland pronouncements about restraint from all sides in the long-running standoff over North Korea’s nuclear activities.
Two Communist Party publications, Global Times and People’s Daily, on Wednesday both said China should dissuade North Korea from going ahead with the planned test.
Global Times went further, saying in an editorial that if the test does take place, North Korea “must pay a heavy price,” including a reduction in Chinese assistance.
“The Chinese government should make this clear beforehand to shatter any illusions Pyongyang may have,” it said.
The party organ said it was not advocating an end to the friendly relationship, but “if Pyongyang gets tough with China, China should strike back hard, even at the cost of deteriorating bilateral relations.”
It warned that any breakdown in ties would hit North Korea much harder than China, which “could find some ways to compensate for geopolitical losses.”
“Pyongyang shouldn’t misread China,” the editorial advised. “China won't put its relations with Pyongyang above other strategic interests.”
The People’s Daily said it was “the consensus of the entire international community” that a nuclear test would not be conducive to regional stability or in the interests of North Korea’s development.
As a neighbor, China faced the greatest risk and “should try to relieve the DPRK’s impulse to conduct [a] nuclear test,” it said, using the acronym for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name.
Pyongyang has announced plans to carry out a “higher level” nuclear test shortly, prompting speculation of a possible multiple detonation, following single test explosions in 2006 and 2009.
Korea-watchers speculate the test could coincide with the lunar new year on Sunday, or take place on February 16, the birthday of Kim Jong-un’s late father, Kim Jong-il.
The reclusive communist state’s development of nuclear weapons, alongside an advancing ballistic missile program has been cause for grave concern in the international community, particularly the three main targets of its hostile rhetoric – the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The three allies cooperate closely in their response to the North Korean crisis, but after Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi by phone on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the conversation as “remarkably similar” to those he had earlier with Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
“We are all concerned that despite the strong measures taken in U.N. Security Council resolution] 2087, the provocative rhetoric continues, which means that we’ve all got to stay unified in watching this and making absolutely clear to Pyongyang that if it takes further action, so will we,” Nuland said.
Under that resolution, adopted last month in response to a Dec. 12 rocket launch, the council expressed “its determination to take significant action in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test.”
In its characteristically belligerent response to the unanimously-adopted resolution, Pyongyang has thus far focused its criticism on the U.S., Japan and the “group of traitors” – South Korea’s conservative government – while remaining silent about China as well as fellow Security Council permanent member Russia.
Still, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Tuesday that Kim Jong-un had, unusually, not sent lunar new year greetings to China or Russia this year.
It cited North Korea’s state press as listing about 30 countries whose leaders had been sent greeting cards, and said that “China and Russia were conspicuously absent from the list.”
Meanwhile the U.N. agency responsible for detecting atomic explosions says it is ready to verify any test the North Koreans may carry out, shortly after it occurs.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization oversees almost 300 monitoring sites around the world. When an explosion occurs, they gather seismic, hydroacoustic, radioactive and other data, sent via satellite and ground hubs to the Vienna headquarters for scientific analysis.
When North Korea carried out its previous nuclear tests, monitoring stations as far away as South America detected the seismic activity.