North Korea doesn't have a whole lot of longtime friends on the world stage. In fact, as Pyongyang looks beyond its borders, it is likely to find only one world power ready to regularly defend its interests and actions in high-level international negotiations: China, its next-door neighbor, most important trading partner and staunch ally.
Yet that did not dissuade the North's state-run news agency from releasing a rare broadside against Beijing on Wednesday, admonishing China by name for exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
"One must clearly understand that the DPRK's line of access to nukes for the existence and development of the country can neither be changed nor shaken," reads a commentary attributed to someone named Kim Chol, using an abbreviation for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, "and that the DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is."
The commentary specifically targeted the People's Daily and the Global Times — two Chinese publications that Kim says are "widely known as media speaking for the official stand of the Chinese party and government" — for recent stories that have been critical of North Korea's nuclear program.
The Korean Central News Agency commentary decried the critical articles as "just a wanton violation of the independent and legitimate rights, dignity and supreme interests of the DPRK and, furthermore, constitutes an undisguised threat to an honest-minded neighboring country which has a long history and tradition of friendship."
That friendship has been a point of contention between China and the U.S., which have long harbored differing views on how to grapple with North Korea's missile tests and nuclear developments. While it has signed on to U.N. sanctions against the North, China has sought to defend Pyongyang from the worst of the international pressure, fearing the prospect of a destabilized nuclear neighbor.
Lately though, as North Korea has opened the year with several high-profile missile tests, China has shown signs of frustration with dictator Kim Jong Un's regime. In February, for instance, Beijing banned coal from the North, which conducts an estimated 90 percent of its trade with China and relies on coal as its top export. The move marked a significant shift for China, which had been using an exception in the U.N. sanctions — often known as the "livelihood loophole" — to keep its coal imports flowing.
The Trump administration has adopted a hard-line stance toward North Korea — notably installing a missile defense system in the South and warning of "major, major conflict" with the North — and it has been angling to get the cooperation of the North's greatest ally.
So far, China has publicly played the role of conciliatory peacemaker, and the country's response to the KRNA commentary was no different.
"China's position on developing friendly, good-neighborly relations with North Korea is also consistent and clear," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Gang Shuang told reporters, according to Reuters.
Nevertheless, the commentary marks a rhetorical escalation for the North.
"It has been a long-established tradition between North Korea and China that even if they held grudges against each other, they didn't voice them in public," Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at a South Korean think tank, told The New York Times. "This shows that the current North Korea-China relations are bad enough for both sides to break that tradition."
And the commentary displayed little hesitation in breaking it, leveling a thinly veiled threat at Beijing in its final lines:
"China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations."