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China debates its bond with North Korea

The longtime ties between the communist regimes are enduring some questioning among Chinese, who were rattled by the nuclear test near their border.

May 27, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — When is it time to dump an old friend who insists on behaving badly? The debate is raging in China.

North Korea's latest nuclear test raises the question of just how long the bonds forged between old communist allies will endure.

The test was conducted barely 50 miles from the Chinese border. The ground rumbled in northeast China, and some schools were evacuated because of fears of an earthquake.

"It was quite shocking. The location where they did this test was a lot closer to China than to where [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il is living in Pyongyang," said Zhang Liangui, a Korea expert with Beijing's Central Party School, where Communist Party officials are trained.

Mao Tse-tung once famously said that the relationship between China and North Korea was as close as "lips and teeth." Throughout the decades, China has remained the truest friend of its isolated neighbor -- at times the only friend.

Successive U.S. presidents have tried to take advantage of that relationship, turning to Beijing in the hope that it can pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Increasingly, China itself is questioning whether the relationship is worth the effort.

Within the Chinese intelligentsia there is a deep divide over how to handle North Korea. The Global Times, a newspaper with close party ties, Tuesday published a survey of 20 of the country's top foreign policy experts. It found them split down the middle -- 10 arguing for tough sanctions against North Korea, 10 opposed.

"Traditionally, China has been very friendly to North Korea, but now there is a feeling that the North Koreans are causing us too much trouble," Zhang said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who is leading a U.S. congressional delegation in China this week, is expected to press President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao at a meeting today to bring North Korea back into six-party talks about nuclear dismantlement.

The relationship between North Korea and China is a product of history and geography. The 850-mile border with China is North Korea's main connection to the outside world -- given that the DMZ bordering South Korea is as fortified as ever. Virtually all flights in and out of North Korea pass through China.

Even as North Korea has tested nuclear weapons, test-fired missiles and generally made a nuisance of itself in the neighborhood, Beijing has supplied its old ally with goods varying from fuel to fertilizer, corn to cosmetics, shoes, clothing and electronics. Chinese exports to North Korea last year amounted to $2 billion.

North Korea isn't the only country where everything has "Made in China" stamped on it. But North Korea isn't able to pay the bill, so much of the trade is tantamount to aid.

Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, recently analyzed North Korea's trade imbalance with China and concluded that Beijing's support to Pyongyang has in effect quadrupled since 2004.

He contends that China is playing a two-faced game -- supporting the U.S.-led effort to stop weapons proliferation while propping up Kim's regime.

"When has China ever had a better situation on the Korean peninsula? They have the southern side with their investment and technical know-how building a more prosperous China, and a socialist buffer zone in the north. It's perfect," Eberstadt said.

He says he doesn't expect China to take any significant action unless it determines that North Korea is a drag on the economy.

"Clearly, North Korea has not become a question for the economic technocrats. There is no indication that anybody in China is saying, "How can we make this problem go away?' "

Neoconservative analysts say the Obama administration, and the Bush White House before it, has been misguided in depending on China. However, U.S. officials said Tuesday that even though North Korea's nuclear program hasn't been halted, China has proved useful.

"We're not reconsidering China's role in this," said a senior administration official who spoke about the diplomacy on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials say China twice cut off oil supplies to North Korea, in 2003 and 2006-'07, to ratchet up pressure. It also cooperated by scrutinizing bank accounts when the U.S. Treasury went after Macao-based Banco Delta Asia in 2007 in reaction to North Korea's improper use of the international banking system.

Some former U.S. officials say the administration may have to be willing to risk strains in its relations with China in order to get Beijing to push its ally harder.

Michael Green, a senior National Security Council official for five years under President Bush, said the U.S. could signal that it will expand its defense ties with South Korea and Japan, and step up its missile defense activities in the region, unless China takes stronger action.

"They wouldn't be comfortable with that," said Green, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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