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North Korea's Kim Jong-il visits China with hat in hand, and a threat

North Korea’s need for aid may have prompted Kim Jong-il's visit to China. But the isolated nation has leverage over its powerful ally: instability next door if China says no.

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That dependence, however, gives Beijing less leverage over Pyongyang than might be thought, he argues.

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“We have to help Kim solve his problems,” says Professor Chen. “If we push North Korea towards the American side, that could endanger Chinese security. We have to keep Kim on our side to ensure North Korea’s stability. They are neighbors, and we need good relations with them whether they are good or bad neighbors.”

At the same time, Chinese officials fear, economic collapse in North Korea could lead to chaos there and a flood of refugees across the border into China.

“China’s two main interests in North Korea are stability and denuclearization, but the top priority is stability,” says Cai.

China has led the diplomatic efforts in recent years to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, chairing the six-party talks aimed at a deal whereby North Korea would give up its nuclear program in return for international economic aid and diplomatic acceptance.

They have so far failed; Pyongyang last year pulled out of the negotiations and tested a nuclear device, prompting China to support stricter United Nations sanctions against its ally.

Breaking an impasse

The dangers of the current deadlock were thrown into sharp relief in March, when an explosion sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. South Korean investigators are said to be increasingly suspicious that a North Korean torpedo sunk the ship.

Though Pyongyang has vehemently denied such accusations, some analysts here believe they are not far-fetched. An attack “could have been designed to break the logjam,” suggests Cai. “North Korea has often played this sort of trick, making trouble to get attention and then negotiating.”

China will not offer food, fuel, and other assistance, says Chen, unless Kim returns to the six-party negotiations. “China will offer aid and North Korea will reciprocate by resuming the six-party talks on denuclearization” he says. “If that happens it will be an important result of Chinese diplomacy.”

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