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China appears "frustrated" with volatile rhetoric from its ally North Korea 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 that 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 said at a House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing.
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.
"Unlike his father, I think he's underestimating Chinese frustration with him and their discomfiture with his behavior," Clapper added.
The congressional panel underscored that 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, and is apparently "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."
Clapper suggested Kim was shaped by the North's hardline military and security services before he assumed power but that the young man's uncle and aunt likely had a moderating influence on him. He also said Kim's choice for economics minister indicated he may recognize his country's disastrous financial position.
Despite the recent spike in tensions on the Korean peninsula, Clapper said he experienced a more dangerous atmosphere in 1968, when an American naval ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured by the North Koreans, and in 1976, when two US soldiers were killed in the demilitarized zone.
"His primary objective is to consolidate and affirm his power," Clapper, who previously worked in military intelligence posts in South Korea, said of Kim's stream of dire threats against the United States and its allies in the region.
"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 the impoverished North, which depends on its neighbor for 65 percent of its imports, Clapper said.
"There are vulnerabilities there that if the Chinese wanted to exert leverage, they certainly could."
But he said Beijing faces "a dilemma" in that North Korea remains an important bulwark for China and its leaders do not want to take any step that could help trigger a collapse of the Pyongyang regime.
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.