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Why China is reluctant to rein in North Korea's bellicose behavior

North Korea is fueling a debate in ruling circles in Beijing over how far China should go in backing the regime in Pyongyang.

By Staff writer / December 6, 2010

North Korean leader Kim Jung-il (left) met with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Beijing in May.

lan Hongguang/Xinhua/AP

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Beijing

Despite China's growing impatience with North Korea's provocative actions, Beijing is not likely to exert dramatic pressure on Pyongyang to check its behavior in the immediate future.

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That's because, for the moment at least, North Korea's stability remains a more important concern in China than any international outrage over North Korea's latest bellicose act toward South Korea.

Yet with each erratic and violent outburst, North Korea is fueling a debate in ruling circles in Beijing over how far China should go in backing the regime in Pyongyang. Over time, those in China who argue that strategic economic interests should take precedence over security ones, thus tipping China more toward South Korea and the West, could lead to an erosion of its reflexive support for Pyongyang. Beijing is not there yet, though.

"China uses its leverage cautiously because it wants to keep the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] stable," says Cai Jian, deputy head of the Koreas Research Center at Shanghai's Fudan University. "If the pressure were too strong, it might lead to the country's rapid collapse."

The world is watching closely to see what Beijing's response will be to North Korea's latest provocation, the shelling of a South Korean island in late November. China remains North Korea's only solid international ally – and a powerful one. For years Beijing has tolerated its neighbor's mercurial and often dangerous behavior, keeping the country afloat with fuel and food, protecting it from tough United Nations sanctions, and keeping it diplomatically engaged with the United States.

'China's spoiled child'

North Korea may be a "spoiled child," as a frustrated top Chinese diplomat told a US official according to a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks, but it is China's spoiled child.

There is no doubt that "China is the single most influential country over North Korea," says Denny Roy, a North Korea expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Its potential leverage is such that Beijing could sink the North Korean government at will by cutting off vital supplies.

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