Chinese officials used to say their alliance with North Korea was “as close as lips and teeth.” Now, as Pyongyang continues to bite the hand that feeds it, Beijing’s exasperation is growing. In the WikiLeaks dump of classified diplomatic cables, Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei described Pyongyang’s bad-boy behavior as that of a “spoiled child” acting up to grab Washington’s attention. Another dispatch quoted He as saying, “We may not like [North Korea but] … they are a neighbor.” And that was all prior to North Korea’s recent belligerent moves—torpedoing a South Korean warship, shelling a border island—which humiliated Chinese efforts to negotiate a solution to the nuke crisis.
But don’t expect Beijing to break openly with Pyongyang any time soon. Dislike is one thing; national interests are quite another. North Korea is still a strategic buffer state for China. And while Kim Jong Il’s mercurial regime is unsavory, Chinese efforts to ratchet up the pressure—such as curtailing precious energy supplies, which Beijing has tried in the past—could simply facilitate the collapse that China is desperately trying to avoid. More likely, Beijing will continue to prop up Pyongyang while at the same time preparing for a worst-case scenario, which could send a massive influx of refugees into China. Another WikiLeaks document has South Korea’s president asking China’s leader, Hu Jintao, about Beijing’s contingency plans if North Korea collapsed. Hu’s answer? To pretend he hadn’t heard the question.