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Beijing's big gamble: Can it control North Korea?

Analysis: China’s refusal to check N Korea would be comical if region's stability weren't at stake.

North Korea China relations
The Ariang mass gymnastics team, featuring 100,000 performers, wave North Korean and Chinese flags at May Day Stadium in Pyongyang to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea on Sept. 24, 2010. (Ian Timberlake/AFP/Getty Images)

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TOKYO, Japan — It should come as no surprise that the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was one of the few world leaders to congratulate North Korea on last week’s meeting of ruling party cadres in Pyongyang.

Viewed through the prism of Western liberal democracy, China is at best the only remaining conduit for engaging with the North; at worst it is an apologist for a uniquely grotesque dictatorship with a nuclear capability in its grasp.

That dictatorship looks poised to continue well into the future as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il readies his son, Kim Jong Un, to assume power. Kim Jong Un, believed to be 27 or 28, was named a general in the country's powerful army last week and appeared in public for the first time Tuesday during a live-fire military exercise, North Korea's official news agency reported.

Beijing has won praise for hosting multiparty talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and has, on occasion, appeared exasperated by its ally’s unpredictable behaviour. And as North Korea reels from international sanctions and precarious ties with its erstwhile benefactor South Korea, Chinese largesse could be all that stands between the regime and catastrophic implosion.

But there are times, too, when China’s refusal to confront the worst excesses of North Korean Stalinism would be comical if the stability of an entire region were not at stake.

Witness how it routinely blocks resolutions against Pyongyang in the U.N. Security Council, or its failure to condemn the March sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, apparently by a North Korean torpedo.

And take Hu’s congratulatory message, in which, according to the South Korean media, he praised the Korean Workers’ Party’s “success” in turning North Korea into "a strong and prosperous nation, in developing the national economy, [and] in improving the people's livelihood."

Yet the alternative to the wretched status quo — regime instability, military conflict with the South and its allies and, eventually, the reunification of the Korean peninsula — is enough to strike fear into the hardest Chinese hearts.

China’s priority is to thwart any eventuality that could see millions of refugees streaming across the countries’ 1,415-km border, close to a region historically riven with ethnic tensions between Beijing and the local non-Han Korean population.

“If North Korea collapses, and as we expect, South Korea wants slow and steady reunification, it will put a large, economically dynamic country right on China’s border,” said Andrew Horvat, a China specialist at the Stanford Japan Center at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

“South Korea is a foothold of U.S. power and military bases, so from a Chinese perspective, as long as its interests are protected it doesn’t care too much. It would rather have a failing state than a really successful state adjacent to a [Chinese] region with lots of ethnic Koreans.

“That doesn’t mean that China isn’t worried about collapse; it just doesn’t want collapse to lead to reunification. It doesn’t care if North Korea remains a weak and corrupt regime, even one that is dabbling in nuclear weapons.”