The North Korean government’s claim that it has tested a hydrogen bomb, while greeted with skepticism by experts abroad, has provoked the ire of Chinese leaders, and appears to be the latest round in a long game of brinksmanship. 

“China strongly opposes this act,” said Hua Chunying, a Chinese Ministry of Affairs spokeswoman. “China will firmly push for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

It’s unclear, though, how China will push, at this point, and what effective leverage it has that it hasn’t already tried to use.

China had, in fact, hosted several rounds of talks over years, officially aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. But North Korean negotiators made it clear, throughout, that giving up its nuclear program entirely was not going to happen.

“Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves,” the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official mouthpiece, said in a recent statement.  North Korea’s leaders have made it clear, many times over, that they see their nuclear deterrent as the one thing standing between them and being invaded, or at least out-muscled, by more powerful countries.

The obvious country North Korean leaders have in mind is the United States, with its 28,000-plus troops just across the DMZ in South Korea. But in quiet conversations, some North Koreans will admit that a rising China is at least as big of a worry. Chinese officials have hinted, over the past decade, that parts of North Korea, including the first Korean kingdom of Koguryo, were actually historically part of China. And China has made clear, in its actions in the South China Sea, that it reserves the right to reclaim territory and waters that might ever have been considered part of China.

Still, China has for years been the main source of fuel and a major supplier of food for North Korea, and has been the closest thing to an ally North Korea has. But relations have been lukewarm for years, and downright uneasy in recent months. Kim Jong Un didn’t show up for China’s big military parade in early September, though South Korean President Park Geun-Hye did. And just last month, a girl group called Moranbang, personally formed by Kim Jong Un, travelled to Beijing, and then abruptly turned around and went home, cancelling its three concerts, due to — North Korea’s official media said — “communications at the working level.”

It’s hard to know what leader Kim Jong Un and other members of North Korea’s elite class really want, beyond continued power and privilege. Respect, certainly. Attention, perhaps. Leveraging what little they have into a more prominent and secure place in the world, funded by other parties willing to pay to avoid a nuclear holocaust, plausibly.

Chinese leaders have expressed exasperation that North Korean leaders haven’t taken their lead and moved toward economic reform and modernization, but both the late President Kim Jong Il and his son, Kim Jong Un, resisted, apparently fearing that economic reform could lead to a loss of political control, and possibly to the collapse of their regime. They have preferred, instead, to play the nuclear card at strategic moments, to angle for more aid, to remind global powers that they can make trouble if they so choose. It’s a modern version of Richard Nixon’s “madman” theory. 

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon explained while in office to then White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. “We’ll just slip the word to them that...’we can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button,’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

It didn’t work then for the United States, and it’s not working now for North Korea. President Barack Obama has said his administration won’t reward bad behavior. The UN is considering sanctions. North Korea’s economy continues to languish at or near zero percent growth, with a crumbling infrastructure, anemic agricultural output, limited electricity and squandered human potential. North Korea’s limited resources are instead poured into a million man army and a nuclear deterrent only a real madman would use, since any such launch would almost certainly result in immediate, devastating retaliation.

Still, North Korea continues to play the card it has. China continues to express its anger, while trying not to push so hard that things fall apart in North Korea, and the resulting chaos allows US troops to push across the DMZ and end up on China’s border. And the international community continues to be jarred by continued missile and nuclear tests, despite whatever agreements may have been made along the way. 

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International