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China told North Korea to chill out. North Korea: how about no?

Turns out North Korea really doesn’t like being told what to do. Who knew?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on October 10, 2010.
AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File

This may come as a big surprise, but North Korea really doesn’t like being told what to do. Shocking, right?

The latest country to learn this is ostensibly North Korea’s best friend: China.

In response to intense pressure from the Trump administration, China has started to push North Korea to rein in its belligerent behavior. In February, China announced that it would suspend all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year, and Chinese media has been escalating criticism of North Korea. On Wednesday, China called on all parties in the Korean standoff to stay calm and "stop irritating each other."

But rather than quieting down to appease its most important ally and trading partner, North Korea opted instead to basically tell China to shove it.

"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," read the scathing response from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.)

The statement blasted the “string of absurd and reckless remarks” being made about North Korea by “some ignorant politicians and media persons" in China. It warned that calls for North Korea to curb its nuclear program were "a wanton violation of the independent and legitimate rights, dignity and supreme interests" of North Korea and represented "an undisguised threat to an honest-minded neighboring country which has a long history and tradition of friendship.”

"The DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China," the statement said.

This highlights an important but often overlooked problem with the Trump administration’s strategy of relying on China to “deal with” North Korea: As much as North Korea depends on China for economic support, North Korea’s leaders are ferociously nationalistic and really don’t like being pushed around.

That fierce independence is the defining feature of North Korea’s official state ideology, known as “juche.” Translated as “self-reliance,” juche stresses total independence in all facets of national life, from foreign policy to economics to national defense.

First developed by the country’s founder (and the current leader’s grandfather) Kim Il Sung back in the 1950s, the ideology has become a core tenet of the ruling Kim family’s legitimacy. When the elder Kim died at the age of 82, KCNA published a glowing seven-page announcement that said "he turned our country, where age-old backwardness and poverty had prevailed, into a powerful Socialist country, independent, self-supporting and self-reliant.”

This helps explain why the North has responded so vehemently to China’s demands that it curb its hostile behavior. Being seen as kowtowing to the demands of a foreign power — even one it relies on heavily for survival — is anathema to North Korea’s leaders, no matter how much refusing to do so might ultimately harm them in the long run.

And it’s one of the many reasons why, as Trump was so surprised to learn during his April meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, relying on China to solve the North Korea problem is “not so easy.”