Beijing knows how to use the thorn in its side. North Korea, reclusive and reckless, poses constant risks. A collapse of the government in Pyongyang would send thousands of starving North Korean refugees pouring over the border into China. Worse, a reunified Korea could let America base troops on China’s border. Both concerns provide good reason for Beijing to keep up the flow of trade and envoys to its isolated ally.
But China’s nasty neighbor serves an-other purpose as well: as a stick to poke rival Japan in the eye. Ever since a maritime dispute in September, the Chinese regime has toughened its stance toward Tokyo, sending patrol ships into territory claimed by the Japanese and cutting off exports of rare earth elements needed by Japan’s high-tech manufacturers. Meanwhile Japan is kept constantly off balance by its fears of the North as an unstable nuclear power. Pyongyang’s anti-Japanese rhetoric has grown harsher recently, and a recent survey found that the Japanese see North Korea, not China, as their No. 1 military threat. In fact, Japan regularly pleads with China for help with Pyongyang, since Beijing has more influence with the North than any other outside power. For China, tolerating Pyongyang’s bellicosity is well worth the hassles that Kim’s regime might otherwise pose.