Eugene Hoshiko / AP
Chinese workers set up decorations for the upcoming Chinese New Year in Dandong, China, on Tuesday. Dandong is located across the Yalu river from the North Korean town of Sinuiju.
Published at 10:35 a.m. ET: BEIJING – It remains unclear just when, if ever, North Korea will attempt its controversial third nuclear test, but there are growing signs that the reclusive nation's biggest political ally is growing weary of its behavior.
A strongly worded editorial in China's state-run Global Times newspaper Wednesday called on Beijing to get tough with Pyongyang if it conducts a nuclear test.
"If North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price," the paper said. It called on China to cut economic aid to the struggling country as punishment.
The editorial also restated a popular opinion held by many Chinese experts that friction between North Korea and its regional neighbors was opening China up to diplomatic attack from players such as the United States.
"Some believe the U.S., Japan and South Korea are attempting to foment discord between China and North Korea," the editorial warned. "Such a trap may be real, but China shouldn't be taken hostage by North Korea's extreme actions in order to avoid such a trap."
A propaganda video posted on YouTube by the North Korea government shows a missile launch and a city that appears to be New York, in flames. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Addressing concerns that a harsh response to North Korea's nuclear test would cause Pyongyang to turn on its long-time ally, the paper argued that even if the reclusive nation was to turn completely on China and side with the U.S., there would be "no serious ramifications."
In the Global Times' view, China's increasing political and economic clout would negate such newfound hostility.
"China is never afraid of Pyongyang," the paper declared. "If Pyongyang gets tough with China, China should strike back hard, even at the cost of deteriorating bilateral relations."
Despite the tough talk, China's Foreign Ministry maintained its official position on North Korea, expressing concern about the situation and calling for more engagement between the embattled parties.
"China is extremely concerned by the way things are going," spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. "We oppose any behavior which may exacerbate the situation and any acts which are not beneficial towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
"We call on all the relevant sides to remain calm and exercise restraint and earnestly work hard to maintain peace and stability in the Korean peninsula," she added.
The Global Times, a hard-line state-owned newspaper, has long taken a strong nationalist bent in its opinions, which while tacitly allowed by state censors, does not always reflect the official position of the government.
"Many people outside of China think that the Global Times is the official voice of the Chinese government," said Wang Junsheng, a North Korea researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science. "But the paper is mostly commercial and doesn't represent the government's official point of view."
That isn't to say that the Global Times' editorials aren't representative of the views of many Chinese and Communist Party officials.
But such editorials help Beijing to gauge public opinion within China while also serving as an effective safety valve with which the Communist Party can ratchet up and ease nationalism when needed.
David Guttenfelder / AP
In this March 9, 2011 photo, a girl plays the piano inside the Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Zhang Liangui, professor of international strategic research at the Party School of the China Communist Party Central Committee, believes that in this case, the editor accurately conveyed public opinion in China on the North Korea question.
"This article only represents a reporter's point of view, but I think he really expressed what many people in China are thinking must be done," Zhang said.
Like the editorial, Zhang argues that China should take a stand against the nuclear test and that China should take the additional step of enforcing sanctions on North Korea should the test go ahead.
"If North Korea performs this test, it is necessary for North Korea to pay a price," Zhang said. "North Korea is a small country and is very close to China, so the nuclear test will have an impact on China's security."
NBC News' Le Li contributed to this report.