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China's Influence Over North Korea in Question

Barry Newhouse

North Korea's weapons programs are expected to dominate Friday's regional security forum in Malaysia. But as diplomats look to China to promote flexibility by its communist neighbor North Korea, the United States and its allies are wondering how much political and economic influence Beijing really has over decision-making in Pyongyang. As VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Beijing, the answer may be, not very much.

The United Nations says in a July report that China was the world's third-largest food donor in 2005. China gave 577,000 metric tons to the U.N.'s World Food Program last year - and 92 percent of that, 531,000 tons, was earmarked for the impoverished and isolated North Korea.

In fact, analysts have estimated that China supplies a third of North Korea's total food donations, and as much as 70 to 90 percent of its fuel aid. It is also North Korea's number-one trading partner. The South Korean government, which studies its northern neighbor carefully, says Sino-North Korean trade rose 14 percent in 2005, to a record of more than $1.5 billion.

All this as Pyongyang's other sources of economic aid are drying up. Japan, the North's second-largest trading partner up to 2001, has cut its trade and imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. South Korea suspended its sizable food aid after Pyongyang defied international warnings and test-fired seven missiles on July 5.

So China's importance to North Korea would seem to give Beijing no small amount of influence over decision-making in Pyongyang. But analysts, such as Professor Andrei Lankov of the Australian National University, say that China's sway is limited.

"Right now in the summer of 2006, I think the actual Chinese ability to influence decision-making processes and the foreign policy of North Korea is very low," he said.

Beijing had joined other nations in warning North Korea against the missile tests. Shortly after the North's launches, the Chinese then sent a high-level delegation to Pyongyang to ask North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons programs, which China has hosted since 2003.

In both cases, Pyongyang rebuffed the requests of its ally and benefactor.

That led Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks, to question whether China has the ability to influence North Korea after all.

Professor Yan Xuetong of Qinghua University in Beijing says it is a good question.

"China's investment in North Korea and the economic relations between the two countries has indeed been increasing. However, China's political influence on North Korea obviously has not kept up with it," he said. "I think this is a common phenomenon after the Cold War. Economic relations don't necessarily mean that the political relations of the two countries will be good or one has more political influence on the other."

Still, China has a vested interest in preserving leader Kim Jong Il's North Korea. The Chinese fear that a regime collapse in the North could send huge numbers of refugees flooding across the border into Northeastern China.

As Australian National University's Andrei Lankov says, that is a burden Beijing does not need.

"Of course they would be very happy to have some control over decision-making processes in Pyongyang. However on that case, they are probably quite satisfied in preventing North Korea's collapse," he said.

That is for now. But the future Sino-North Korea relationship may shift if Pyongyang continues to defy international diplomatic overtures. Shi Yinhong, a professor at the People's University of China, says there are signs the Chinese leadership recognizes a need to change policies.

"In the last three years, China has almost solely favored a soft approach to persuade North Korea," he said. "This method may have prevented some dangerous situations but it has been proved comparatively ineffective in terms of achieving a nuclear-free Korea and preventing North Korea from firing missiles."

During the Cold War, China and North Korea maintained a united front in public. But analysts say their shared communist ideology no longer ties them together.

Ralph Cossa, of the Center for Strategic and International Security in Hawaii, says Beijing recognizes its future is more closely tied to South Korea - which, like China, is a growing economic power.

"I think the Chinese believe at the end of the day that the prize on the Korean Peninsula is not North Korea, but South Korea. But right now the Chinese at least want to keep the North Koreans propped up, as they continue to work on increasing their influence with the South," he said.

Professor Ken Boutin of Australia's Deacon University predicts China's strong relations with South Korea, will eventually override its obligations to Pyongyang.

"I think in the long-term, China has no commitment to the North Korean regime, or the governing system there," he said.

Experts seem to agree that China will continue to be North Korea's most important foreign partner as it keeps trying to promote stability in the region. But with waning influence with the North and China's global economic interests at stake, experts suggest Beijing is bound to shift its focus away from its isolated communist neighbor. The two nations are no longer, as they once boasted, "as close as lips and teeth."

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