China: The North's Best Friend Backs Away

For the last half-century, Chinese and North Korean leaders have claimed to be "as close as lips and teeth." They fought together in the Korean War, and China provides 70% of its neighbor's energy and a large portion of its food. But these days Beijing would like to put a bit in Kim Jong Il's mouth. In December, President Jiang Zemin called on the North to abandon its nuclear program. Then, in January, Beijing hosted a South Korean delegation searching for ways to defuse the situation. "No one's using the [lips and teeth] expression right now," says Wang Yizhou, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Why isn't China standing up for its old chum? For starters, its relationship with South Korea may now be more important than its ties to the North. China and South Korea did $40 billion in trade last year. In contrast, China's trade with the North amounted to just $740 million in 2001. And Beijing is eager to improve relations with Washington, which have been on an upward spiral because of shared concerns about terrorism.

Most important, Beijing is worried that North Korea's provocation is bad for business. "What China needs is economic development," says Shen Dingli, deputy director of Fudan University's Center for American Studies in Shanghai. "For that, we need a peaceful peripheral environment. North Korea developing nuclear weapons does not provide that." An added concern is the continued threat of North Korean refugees flowing into China. In March, 25 North Koreans stormed the Spanish embassy in Beijing seeking political asylum.

So China is trying to score diplomatic points with the West and gain more leverage over Seoul by reining in Pyongyang. The Chinese want North Korea to drop the nuclear threats, provided the U.S. will pledge not to attack. "We need North Korea to feel comfortable, feel that their security is guaranteed," says Wang.

Still, no one should expect Beijing to lean too hard. Hard-liners in the People's Liberation Army and the Communist Party have close ties to their counterparts in North Korea, and an interest in keeping North Korea alive. "China would be comfortable with a split Korea for the next 50 years," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. Like lips and teeth--even if the result is sometimes a grimace.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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