On the 32nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster—widely considered the most devastating incident of its kind in history—China’s state-run Global Times has increased the pressure on Kim Jong-un to unequivocally announce the end of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Global Times has repeatedly expressed concern that North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site—about 70 miles from the Chinese border—could create an environmental disaster for residents of northern China. The Chernobyl disaster, while occurring in Ukraine, devastated almost the entire landscape of neighboring Belarus due to winds sweeping the radioactive material across the border (both Ukraine and Belarus were Soviet states at the time).
Kim Jong-un will be meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday, greeting him at the border and beginning their summit in the border town of Panmunjom. Observers expect Kim to announce his intentions to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Last week, North Korean state media announced that the country would “stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” but did not say that it would do so indefinitely.
In a column Thursday, the Chinese Global Times objected to the nebulous phrasing the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has insisted on regarding denuclearization.
“[O]n the North Korean nuclear issue, the North Korean leader cannot continue to remain silent in public,” the column read. “We expect Kim and Moon to clearly announce their willingness to pursue denuclearization of the peninsula and some basic principles that can guide the process in a written document.”
While accepting that convincing the brainwashed North Korean populace to abandon its nuclear intentions would be difficult – “It is not easy for a North Korean leader to mobilize popular support in such short period of time” – the column reiterated that “Kim needs to dispel doubts about his real intention to denuclearize.”
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and closest ally. Kim Jong-un made his first foreign visit as head of state to Beijing, where he greeted Xi Jinping and attended a dinner in his honor. Yet China has been increasingly vocal in its complaints about the potential disaster that could befall it if North Korea’s nuclear scientists fail.
“North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site poses a long-term threat of nuclear leakage to Northeast China’s security,” another Global Times article asserted on Tuesday. “It’s of substantive significance for China that Pyongyang halted nuclear tests and closed up its test site, which also means substantial progress for South Korea.”
On Wednesday, Chinese scientists revealed that their investigations suggest that Mount Mantap, the site of the Punggye-ri testing center, has collapsed into itself after withstanding its sixth nuclear test in September. The South China Morning Post reported that two groups of researchers came independently to the conclusion that Mount Mantap’s collapse had created a “chimney” of radioactive waste that could erupt into the air and travel easily across the border. Aside from the larger hole created, radioactive fallout could seep out of the mountain through smaller holes created all along the mountain.
Satellite images show that Mount Mantap is still standing, and other observers have disputed that Punggye-ri is not operational. Researchers at the website 38 North argued this week that overhead shots appear to show that at least some of the entrances to the site remain accessible, though clear damage exists to parts of the mountain.
China has little reason to believe that North Koreans would react any differently to the Soviets as the Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down. Nuclear site officials in 1986 refused to evacuate the nearby town of Pripyat for days, insisting that what had occurred was a “minor accident.” While police attempted to calm residents, the scientists exacerbated the meltdown by forcing the plant to heat up even more, rather than shutting it down and letting it cool. First-responders leapt into the plant with little to no equipment protecting them from the radiation.
The immediate result was the death of at least 9,000 people of radiation-related poisoning and cancer. In the long-term, scientists estimate that it will take between 3,000 to 24,000 years for radiation levels to return to normal in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Belarus was hit hardest; it took in 70 percent of the radioactive fallout. 22 percent of its farmland was affected in the immediate aftermath. The nation documented 0.041 cases of cancer per 100,000 people in 1986; according to one study, that number went up to 2.548 by 1992. “Incidence based on histologically confirmed cases was highest adjacent and to the west and north of Chernobyl, matching best estimates of iodine-131 contamination,” the study concluded.
Belarus, still under the iron fist of communism thanks to dictator Alexander Lukashenko, is trying to farm its radioactive land, anyway, and largely failing.
The Chernobyl lesson is a clear one for China, and one that Xi Jinping’s regime is apparently heeding.
China’s panic over another nuclear test naturally peaked after North Korea’s alleged test in September of a hydrogen bomb (scientists disputed that the seismic event the test caused was large enough for this to be true).
China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection announced “nuclear radiation environment related contingency plans” and declared a “second-degree emergency” in response to panic from residents near the Chinese-North Korean border. North Korea, meanwhile, began threatening to detonate a nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean.
“China cannot sit and wait until the site implodes,” an unnamed Chinese researcher told the South China Morning Post that month. “Our instruments can detect nuclear fallout when it arrives, but it will be too late by then. There will be public panic and anger at the government for not taking action.”
In December, local state media publications began advising residents in Jilin, a border area, to prepare for nuclear war. An article in Jilin Daily titled “Knowledge about Nuclear Weapons and Protection” advised locals to “close their windows and doors during an emergency and immediately take a shower and wash out their mouths and ears after being exposed to radiation.” Jilin had suffered a 6.3 magnitude earthquake as a result of the nuclear test in September.
The Chinese government also announced plans to build nuclear monitoring stations throughout the country, not just on the northern border.
This week, China has once again made clear it has one of the largest stakes in tensions between North Korea and the United States, which are still technically at war. While Xi Jinping can use North Korea as leverage against the United States and Chinese corporations can benefit from near-exclusive business with the fellow communist country, concerns that North Korea has gone too rogue and could devastate the Chinese economy with an economic disaster are front and center.