Is China's Patience With North Korea Wearing Thin?


With North Korea’s latest acts of defiance again grabbing the world’s attention – an underground nuclear test last week and several missile firings – all eyes have turned to China to rein in its secretive neighbour.

And with reports last week that the United States is leaning heavily on China to apply tough financial sanctions against North Korea and its leaders, things are really heating up. China remains a lifeline to the reclusive country, its primary trading partner and sometime ally.

But though Beijing has reacted officially with anger and stern warnings to the latest provocations from Pyongyang, it remains between a rock and a hard place regarding sanctions against Kim Jong-il’s regime.

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China’s main concern when it comes to North Korea is maintaining stability, as any crack in that façade would lead to trouble and instability back home. North Korean refugees have already begun to stream across the borders into China in recent years and further internal chaos there would open the floodgates to thousands upon thousands of refugees that would put further strains on China.

This is not to say Beijing is pleased with North Korea, which has often been seen as China’s troublesome little brother. Indeed, the latest set of events has led to a growing flurry of disagreement within China’s foreign policy circles, along with new calls for real action and punishment. A new sense of anger is emerging against North Korea and its continued proclivity to upset international relations and stick China in the hot seat.

In a recent poll by Global Times, an often strident, conservative Chinese newspaper, 20 international affairs experts were split evenly over whether the international community should apply sanctions against North Korea over the latest incidents. In the past, Chinese foreign policy experts were mostly united about the dangers of sanctions. But several had particularly stern words, and six said they believed the six-party talks on solving the issue had failed completely.

Qinghua University professor Sun Zhe, quoted in the newspaper, called North Korea’s actions ‘nuclear blackmail’, saying the nation is attempting to exploit a period of global and regional uncertainty.

Neighbouring South Korea, meanwhile, was rocked by the May 23 suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun and the nation continues to mourn.

All this provides the first significant North Korea test for US President Barack Obama.

As always with the secretive state, it’s impossible to tell what is really happening in North Korea. But Chinese foreign policy experts have expressed continued pessimism over the potential for success from renewed rounds of the six-party talks. With Pyongyang so obviously bent on thumbing its nose at the world, few believe the same old strategies can be made to work now.

What is certain is that the North Korean pressure cooker will heat up even more in the next week. On June 4, the 20th anniversary of China’s crackdown on democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, two American journalists will go on trial in Pyongyang on charges of’hostile acts’ and illegal entry into North Korea.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling, journalists with Al Gore’s Internet project Current TV, were captured by North Korean guards on the Chinese border. Though there has been very little public outcry over, and few details provided about, their arrests, the trial this week is certain to bring the spotlight back to their plight.

But how Beijing will react is anyone’s guess.

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