A Bitter Friendship

In July, Chinese tour groups of Korean War veterans returned to North Korea to commemorate their sacrifices on the battlefield. The conflict that bound the two socialist allies "as close as lips and teeth" left 360,000 Chinese dead when it ended in a stalemate 50 years ago. Yet when four Chinese vets visited their old headquarters in the North, they were shocked by what they saw: a massive painting of Pyongyang's late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung grandly instructing Korean officers into battle--with just one Chinese officer on the sidelines. "This isn't true!" fumed one Chinese veteran. "Kim came here only four times. Where are all the Chinese?"

North Korea has been thumbing its nose at China for years, but what was once an irritation for Beijing is becoming a matter of serious concern. Since last October, Pyongyang has gone from restarting its mothballed nuclear facilities to bragging about reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear-fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium--enough to build at least half a dozen bombs. As North Korea has turned up the heat, the United States and other regional powers have implored Chinese leaders to talk some sense into Pyongyang. And for good reason. Besides its historical ties to the Hermit Kingdom, China has powerful leverage: it supplies more than three quarters of North Korea's energy needs and more than one third of its imports. Beijing is weighing all options to influence its wayward ally. "But North Korea's a real headache for us," admits one Chinese official. "It keeps demanding more and more fuel and food. We've sacrificed billions of dollars in the past 50 years."

That helps explain why three weeks ago Beijing arm-wrestled Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. After heavy lobbying, North Korean officials agreed to six-way talks--hosted by the Chinese--that would include representatives from the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. Beijing, in fact, is expending more energy than ever on resolving the crisis. Hu Jintao, who became president of China last March, dispatched envoys across the region to arrange for the talks slated for Aug. 27 to 29. After meeting South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun last month, Hu underscored that a nuclear North Korea would be unacceptable--the closest China has come to drawing a "red line" with Pyongyang. If the North tests a bomb--which Western experts warn could happen this year--Chinese officials may give up on their northern neighbor.

Unfortunately for Beijing, North Korea often bites the hand that feeds it. Dozens of North Korean spies operate on the Chinese side of the border, stirring up trouble for local authorities from time to time. While Beijing tolerates their presence, the agents began misbehaving after China recognized South Korea in 1992. In recent years, one Chinese official says, Pyongyang's thugs have resorted to "terrorist acts," murdering North Korean refugees and the South Korean sympathizers who help them flee. Even some ethnic Chinese have died in the violence. In March 2001, two Seoul missionaries and four North Korean refugees were found dead, after a raid believed to have been carried out by North Korean agents. Beijing is terrified that upping the pressure on Pyongyang could trigger new incidents. One official laments, "What if the North Koreans start acting up again?"

That's why China still needs to tread carefully. In the past, Chinese authorities have delayed oil or aid to show their displeasure with Pyongyang. But when Chinese food assistance dropped dramatically a decade ago, Beijing may have inadvertently helped bring on North Korea's devastating famine. Now Pyongyang's economy is so moribund that too much pressure could unleash waves of starving North Korean refugees and with it regional instability. "If Beijing pushes too hard, it could trigger the very disaster it's trying to prevent," says one Western diplomat in Beijing.

Of course, Beijing will be one of the biggest losers if Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions prompts a nuclear-arms race between Japan, South Korea and possibly Taiwan. U.S. experts believe North Korea has enough plutonium to build between one and four nuclear devices. Chinese strategists worry--whatever the state of the North's nuclear program--that Pyongyang's bravado could trigger an American-led military conflict on its doorstep.

Privately, Chinese officials say their government would not fight alongside North Korea if Washington launched a pre-emptive strike. But there's the sticky issue of a Beijing-Pyongyang "friendship, cooperation and assistance" treaty that serves as a de facto military alliance. "Beijing has been thinking about canceling the treaty for a long time, but it hasn't done it yet," says a Chinese academic who specializes in North Korean affairs. Given what an ingrate Pyongyang turned out to be after the last Korean conflict, it's little wonder Beijing wants to prevent a repeat performance.