Just how bothered is Beijing about North Korea?

While neither Beijing nor Washington want to see North Korea's belligerence explode into actual conflict, Beijing is not willing to push Pyongyang too hard for fear of toppling the regime.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Chinese paramilitary policemen build a fence near a concrete marker depicting the North Korean and Chinese national flags with the words 'China North Korea Border' at a crossing in the Chinese border town of Tumen in eastern China's Jilin province, Dec. 2012.

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Chinese tour operators are halting scheduled trips into North Korea at the request of local officials, as the hermit kingdom's neighbors await an expected missile test off the North Korean east coast.

Reuters reports that authorities in the Chinese city of Dandong, located on the North Korean border, have told tour operators in the city to stop overland tours into North Korea, apparently due to safety concerns.

"There were tourists that were planning to go there today, but then we received the notification, so they've all gone back home," said an employee of Dandong China International Travel Service, who asked not to be named.

Five other travel agencies confirmed they had stopped tours that use the land border crossing into North Korea at Dandong. One cited a notice from the government tourism bureau in Dandong.

"All (tourist) travel to North Korea has been stopped from today, and I've no idea when it will restart," another travel agent in Dandong told Reuters by telephone.

"I think it is because of the situation in North Korea," she said, declining to give her name.

Reuters adds that the central governments of both China and North Korea deny that they have given orders to halt tourist activity. A Chinese spokesman said that the tourism groups had stopped operations of their own volition.

The move to halt tourism comes amid expectation that North Korea will soon conduct a missile test along its east coast. CNN reports that an unnamed US official said Washington believes the launch could come at any time and without warning, as several missiles have been fueled for launch according to surveillance.

What this means for the Korean Peninsula seems to be of great debate in the Chinese press, according to the BBC, though blame appears to be falling on the US and its allies as much as upon Pyongyang. Zhang Liangui, a North Korean expert at the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School, told the state-run Global Times that he foresees a "70- 80% likelihood of war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula" with the North attempting to forcibly reunify the Koreas. But Cai Jian, deputy director of the Centre for Korean Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, told the Times that the North's belligerence was primarily psychological, directed at the US and South Korea.

While the BBC notes that several experts in the Chinese press blame the US for provoking Pyongyang's antics, it also cites Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University, as saying that North Korea is becoming "a headache" for Beijing that could necessitate the US and China working together to rein it in.

The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reported on Monday along similar lines, though noting that such cooperation was possible "only up to a point." While neither Beijing nor Washington want to see North Korea's belligerence explode into actual conflict, Beijing is not willing to push Pyongyang too hard for fear of toppling the regime – a consequence that Washington would certainly welcome.

Still, Chinese patience may be wearing thin. Mr. Ford noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech Sunday that "no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains” – an unusually public rebuke of North Korea, as well as a more typical criticism of the US.

That was a slap at both North Korea and the United States, whose current military maneuvers in South Korea first prompted Pyongyang’s vitriolic response, say Chinese scholars. “He was trying to kill two birds with one stone, but his primary target was North Korea,” explains Professor Cheng [Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing.]

The unusually harsh tone of President Xi’s comment echoed a warning from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who told United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday that China “does not allow any troublemaking on China’s doorstep.”

The message, believes Cheng, is that if Pyongyang continues to ignore Beijing’s admonitions to halt its nuclear and long-range missile tests, China “will take unilateral action, including meaningful reductions in aid” for the first time. North Korea depends on subsidized shipments of Chinese fuel and food.

“China’s soft line has not worked, but neither has the US hard line,” Cheng Xiaohe told the Monitor. “The two governments have to find a way to strike a balance.”

Still, TIME's Austin Ramzy notes, China has long, frequently, and fruitlessly been seen to be "angry" with Pyongyang. Mr. Ramzy writes that "In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s establishment of diplomatic ties with South Korea, discussions of Sino–North Korean ties frequently mentioned China’s growing anger," and yet little seems to have changed.

Two decades, two North Korean leaders and three nuclear tests later, China is still perturbed with North Korea. A nuclear armed North Korea is frightening to Beijing, but so too is a unified, U.S.-aligned Korean Peninsula and the prospect of an unchecked flow of starving refugees crossing the Yalu River. For all its criticism of Pyongyang, Beijing is unlikely to push its brittle ally to the brink.

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