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China remains passive as Korean standoff escalates

BEIJING — South Korea warned Friday that it will order airstrikes if North Korea again launches artillery at the South, raising its military posture as Pyongyang reportedly deployed new rockets capable of hitting the South Korean capital.

Appearing before the South Korean parliament, the newly appointed defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said at his confirmation hearing that: "We will thoroughly retaliate to ensure that the enemy cannot provoke again."

Kim was named as defense minister following a North Korean artillery barrage targeting the island of Yeonpyeong last week that killed two South Korean civilians and two marines.

Although the North and South have long traded threats, tensions on the Korean Peninsula now are at the highest levels in decades.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency Friday reported that North Korea had added 100 multiple-launch rockets to its arsenal of some 5,200 capable of hitting the South Korean capital. The agency also reported that South Korea planned to soon begin live fire artillery exercises near five islands in the Yellow Sea, including Yeonpyeong.

Adding to the uncertainty about the standoff, China, the only power in the region with sway over North Korea, has given no indication that it plans to rein in the regime of Kim Jong-il.

An opinion column in China Daily, a state newspaper, emphasized Friday that North Korea has in the past repeatedly ignored Chinese officials who voiced strong opposition to Pyongyang staging long-range missile and nuclear tests. "The world," said Sun Ru, a Beijing analyst, "has to understand that (North Korea) makes its security decisions independently."

Last month, Pyongyang unveiling a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant that could be used to help manufacture nuclear weapons and, earlier in the year, a reported North Korean torpedo attack sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors.

While China is the North's main supplier of food and energy, the Chinese leadership has so far done little publicly other than call for talks between the two Koreas and their allies.

Analysts in Beijing express discontent with Pyongyang, and a secret U.S. cable distributed this week by WikiLeaks website indicated that younger Chinese officials are increasingly frustrated with North Korea's volatility, though Beijing has not significantly shifted its diplomacy toward the North.

"Sometimes North Korea's behavior is not very satisfactory to us — they bring trouble to us, they embarrass us, " Su Hao, a prominent analyst at the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told McClatchy this week.

But he said the alternative to supporting Pyongyang was either a completely isolated North Korea that might stage significantly worse provocations, or a regime collapse that brings "a disaster spilling over" China's border.

"I don't think that we can reconsider the relationship," he said.

There are also broader strategic implications, for North Korea acts as a buffer between the mainland and U.S.-allied South Korea, an important factor for Chinese officials who worry that America is trying to contain Beijing's power in the region.

Observers both in the West and China fear that the problems could worsen if the 69-year-old Kim Jong-il, reportedly slowed by a stroke in 2008, dies soon.

In late-September, Kim all but anointed his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor with a promotion to four-star general and appointment to senior political positions. Because of Kim Jong-un's young age — he's thought to be in his late 20s — and lack of experience, there are worries that he could be pushed aside by older relatives or military officials after his father's death, starting a potentially violent struggle for power.

Many North Korea watchers suspect that the motive behind the North's attacks this year is an effort to establish Kim Jong-un's standing with the military, thereby allowing the whim of byzantine domestic politics to threaten regional stability and risk war on the peninsula.

A State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks website suggested that a newer generation of Chinese officials is incensed by the amount of trouble North Korea has caused. In fact, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai and Liu Jieyi, a foreign affairs official for the Chinese Communist Party's central committee, were reported to have said they'd be willing to see the entire Korean Peninsula governed by the South. Chun Yung-woo, the South Korean Vice Foreign Minister at the time and now the South's national security adviser, relayed the account to the U.S. ambassador in Seoul in February.

While Cui and Liu's names were redacted on WikiLeaks' website, the Spanish newspaper El Pais, one of the publications to receive the cables from WikiLeaks, posted them on the Internet.

Spokespeople for the Chinese foreign ministry have declined to discuss the cables in detail during press briefings, and observers in Beijing voiced strong doubts that China would turn its back on North Korea.

Despite the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which an international investigation blamed on a North Korean torpedo, Chinese President Hu Jintao gave Kim Jong-il an audience twice in China this year.

Su, the senior analyst, said that even if Cui and Liu had made the remarks in the first place, which he doubted, they weren't speaking for the top Chinese leadership.

Others, though, acknowledged the underlining tensions.

"Young Chinese leaders see North Korea in two ways — one way is that North Korea's stability is very important to China, the second opinion is that North Korea is a big burden on China, that North Korea keeps making problems for China," said Shi Yuanhua, director of a Korean studies center at Fudan University in Shanghai.

That said, Shi emphasized that the overriding concern for Chinese officials is maintaining a stable North Korea.

Xu Wenji, a professor of Northeast Asian studies at a university not far from the China-North Korea border, agreed there was no sign that Chinese officials were moving away from Pyongyang.

Asked whether that could change, Xu seemed to hedge slightly.

"China's interests may change, future generations will make decisions based on China's interests at that time," said Xu, who teaches at Jilin University. "It's very hard to predict."


Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog

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