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.
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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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'
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.