China's cooperation in allowing defector Hwang Jang Yop - one of the chief architects of North Korea's isolated, Stalinist system - to leave Beijing does not signal an end to its support for North Korea's rulers.
Its careful balancing of ties with strategic ally Pyongyang and growing trade partner Seoul reflects China's determination to maintain the status quo on the divided Korean peninsula.
Mr. Hwang, who was for decades part of the inner circle of North Korea's secretive leadership, sought asylum at the South Korean consulate while in Beijing last month.
During negotiations over Hwang's future, China surrounded the South Korean consulate with armored personnel carriers and armed security forces to prevent North Korean agents from capturing the defector.
Beijing carried messages back and forth between North and South Korea, which have been technically at war for nearly 50 years, until Hwang's departure for the Philippines was worked out earlier this week.
Between a rock and hard place
In the standoff, China was caught in the middle. Torn between its new trade partner or its old, ideological partner, China in the end, juggled its interests. "Reality puts South Korea ahead, and history puts North Korea ahead," says a Western diplomatic observer in Seoul, the South Korean capital.
Hwang left behind a North Korea that is on the brink of a famine, but whose leadership has refused to reform its closed-off, collectivized economy to avert a humanitarian disaster.
"Hwang asked for political asylum as soon as he entered the consulate," recalls a South Korean official.
"He said that he would rather die than go back to the North." The South Korean official quoted Hwang as saying, "North Korea should open its doors and relieve the sufferings of its people."
While China fears a violent implosion sparked by food riots in North Korea, it also opposes reunification of the two Koreas under a capitalist, democratic government aligned with the West, say Chinese, American, and South Korean analysts.
"Even though North Korea isn't happy [that China let Hwang go to Seoul], it can't turn its back on China," says Hwang Eui-gak, a professor at Korea University in Seoul. "It's the only country it can depend on at the moment."
Since forming diplomatic ties with Seoul five years ago, Beijing's trade with the South has skyrocketed to $20 billion yearly, while its trade with the cash-strapped North has dwindled. South Korea exports chemical products, steel, and electronics to China.
Beijing sells minerals, agricultural products, textiles, and appliances to South Korea. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng both recently visited Seoul praising the relationship and encouraging investment.
Yet "it is a fantasy to think that China will abandon North Korea just because of its growing economic relations with the South," says Kongdan Oh, who heads an independent think tank in Washington.
"North Korea and China share a similar political ideology and have a great deal of common strategic interests," says Ms. Oh, an expert on the North Korean leadership.
Following the Chinese military's quelling of prodemocracy protests in 1989, and the subsequent fall of communists from Warsaw to Moscow, China and North Korea have apparently strengthened ties to face a common threat.
"North Korea has nothing to offer China, but as long as North Korea remains a socialist country, North Korea remains a buffer zone," says Professor Hwang.
A specialist on cross-Korean affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing says that China's burgeoning economic relations with Seoul would never eclipse its friendship with Pyongyang. Even though South Korean trade with China grew by 30 percent last year, Beijing will keep its strong political ties to Pyongyang.
"Although trade has taken a top place in China's foreign relations since the end of the cold war, political and security concerns will ensure that China maintains its friendship with North Korea," he says.
"The US, China, and other countries should join in helping North Korea out of its economic difficulties" to stave off civil unrest sparked by a famine, the specialist adds.
He says that while Beijing has urged Pyongyang to copy China's market-oriented economic reforms, it does not want its northeastern neighbor "to evolve into a democracy."
"Peaceful coexistence, rather than reunification, may be the best plan for North and South Korea," he says.
Indeed, a Korea divided into a socialist North and a capitalist South in many ways mirrors China's own schizophrenic approach toward change.
While China has gradually dismantled its Soviet-model economy, it has kept intact a Leninist party structure that parallels North Korea's.
"North Korea's unreformed economy is now very similar to China's in the early 1960s," when a three-year-long famine killed tens of millions of Chinese, says the Chinese analyst.
The North Korean government itself has said food supplies will run out by the end of April. Some peasants are subsisting on leaves, roots, or tree bark, say representatives of the UN World Food Program who recently visited the country.
"Because the border between North and South Korea is so heavily mined and guarded, the most logical means of escape from hunger is through China," analyst Oh says.
China's successful resolution of the flight of North Korea's top communist ideologue "might serve as a model for a wave of expected defections," says the South Korean official.
Beijing refuses to disclose how many refugees have already entered the country, but the Chinese social scientist says China hopes "North Korea's tight controls on the populace" will prevent a mass exodus.
"China has thrown a grain lifeline to the North to prevent a famine and support the Pyongyang leadership," Oh says. "China is afraid of violent unrest led by hungry peasants spilling across the border."
"Beijing's other nightmare scenario is that North Korea, on the edge of collapse, launches an attack on South Korea," she says.
"But if it is crystal clear that the North started the war without provocation, China would stay out of the conflict," she says.
"China would unquestionably oppose any aggression on North Korea's part, even the sending of a team of assassins after [defector] Hwang in the Philippines," agrees the Chinese social scientist.
North Korean violence?
North Korea has a long history of using terrorists to silence its political opponents.
It is believed to have been behind everything from the bombing deaths of a dozen South Korean officials in the Burmese capital in 1983 to the shooting of a North Korean defector in Seoul last month.
"Any act of violence would endanger stability on the Korean peninsula," says the Chinese analyst, and "would negatively influence North Korea's relations with the US, South Korea, and China."
North Korea receives Chinese grain for free or at below market prices. And besides the 500,000 tons of free oil North Korea gets under the 1994 Geneva Accord in exchange for freezing its nuclear program, all other petroleum products come from China.