China appears "frustrated" with volatile rhetoric from its North Korean allies but is eager to see the regime stay in power as a "buffer state" on its border, US spy chief James Clapper said Thursday.
The national intelligence director told lawmakers North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-Un, who has threatened nuclear war with the United States, was testing China's patience.
"China is under new leadership and the indication we have is that China is rather frustrated with the behavior and belligerent rhetoric of Kim Jong-Un," Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee.
Nor is it clear if the new leader will follow in the steps of his father and predecessor in his approach to Beijing, which holds crucial economic leverage over its neighbor, the intelligence director said.
Clapper said that "unlike his father, I think he's underestimating Chinese frustration with him and their discomfiture with his behavior."
The congressional hearing underscored how Kim remains an enigma even to the world's most powerful intelligence apparatus, with top officials voicing concern the North Korean leader might be more unpredictable than his father.
"There's no telling how he's going to behave because he's impetuous," Clapper said.
Kim apparently is "not as inhibited as his father became about taking aggressive action," he said.
"A pattern with his father was to be provocative and then sort of back-off. We haven't seen that yet with Kim Jong-Un."
Kim's stream of dire threats against the United States and its allies in the region appeared to be aimed at demonstrating his grip on power while also convincing Washington to offer him concessions, he said.
"I think his primary objective is to consolidate and affirm his power," said Clapper, who worked in military intelligence posts in South Korea during his career.
"I don't think he has much of an endgame other than to somehow elicit recognition from the world, and specifically and most importantly the United States, of North Korea's arrival on the international scene as a nuclear power," he said. "And that that entitles him to negotiation and accommodation."
China held the key as the only outside power with major leverage over North Korea, but Beijing faces "a dilemma," he said.
North Korea remains an important bulwark for China and Beijing does not want to take any step that could help trigger a collapse of the regime, according to Clapper.
The worst case scenario for Beijing would be an upheaval that would "facilitate the unification of Korea," effectively putting a staunch US ally on China's doorstep.
"Geopolitically, China is very sensitive about having that buffer state in North Korea," he said.