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(News Focus) N. Korea's rocket launch 'baptism by fire' for China's new leadership
By Kim Young-gyo
HONG KONG, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's expected rocket launch will pose one of the very first challenges for China's new leaders who were installed less than a month ago, putting them on the horns of a dilemma, watchers in Beijing said Tuesday.

   Confirming weeks of speculation, North Korea said Saturday it will launch a long-range rocket between Dec. 10 and 22 to put what it calls a "working satellite" into orbit, with much of the world suspecting it is in reality testing inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. China immediately released a statement on Sunday expressing concern about North Korea's plan.

   "The North Korean announcement is a baptism by fire for the new Chinese leadership," Brian Bridges, a professor of political science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

   The outgoing Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao Chinese leadership would have believed that they had a basic agreement with North Korea's Kim Jong-un regime that there would be no more missile or nuclear tests for the foreseeable future after the April failed launch, Bridges said.

   Bridges did not expect the stunned new Chinese leadership to be able to stop the world's most isolated nation from carrying out its plan.

   China's fifth generation of leadership, headed by Xi Jinping, was appointed last month. Xi will officially be named the country's president next March.

   "As in April, when the North Korean launch was timed for the founder Kim Il-Sung anniversary and China could do nothing to stop it from taking place, so this time the anniversary of Kim Jong-Il's death provides a need, in North Korean eyes, for another missile launch, and China once again will be unable to stop it from taking place," he said.

   What China has done is just to register its unhappiness with North Korea in many small ways after that launch, and it will surely do the same after this month's launch, the Lingnan University scholar said.

   "In particular, the missile launch should ensure that Kim Jong-un will not be invited to Beijing in the near future. A non-invitation is one of the few diplomatic 'instruments' that China can use against North Korea," he said.

   Wang Li, a professor of international affairs at Nankai University in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, said the incident will cause a major dilemma for China, the close neighbor and a nominal ally of North Korea, as Pyongyang's "provocative" behavior will draw the world's attention and therefore affect China's relations with North Korea in one way or another.

   "North Korea's policy or 'sudden' diplomacy has put China into the corner of dilemma many times. On each occasion, Beijing has to take the blame from domestic and international circles. Chinese liberals are surely offended by the behavior of North Korea. But some Chinese consider it as a brave little brother in view of cold peace with Japan and even the U.S.," he said.

   "This time, the official line of Beijing clearly argues that any country has the equal right to use the space for peaceful purpose and that North Korea is no exception. But at the same time, as China wants to show the world that it acts as a responsible power, Beijing reiterates that North Korea's launch plan must follow the regulations and codes of the U.N."

   Wang said China is unable to stop its ally from launching satellites for experimental purpose as it is likely that North Korea has already let Beijing's leaders know of its intention.

   "China may not have provided technology or financial aid to North Korea, so Beijing has little or no say in 'bargaining' with Pyongyang," he said.

   "What Beijing needs to do is to assure the launch to be controlled within the accepted realm. If Japan or the U.S. destroy the satellites by force, it gives more reasons to North Korea to go beyond the influence exercised by China. For sure, China does not want that to happen."

   Wang stressed this presents an opportunity and a challenge for the new leadership in Beijing.

   "If Xi's team could persuade the young Kim to cancel the launch plan, his reputation surely rises greatly, but it seems very unlikely. If Xi's team acts like its predecessor, Japan and the U.S. will take more aggressive approaches to North Korea in the long run, which is troubling for China," he said.

   "The launch by North Korea will not affect its relations with China immediately, but it is time for the new leaders in Beijing to seriously think of their future role in terms of its rising power and national security concern."