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Analysts: Alliance Between China, North Korea Strained Over Nuclear Issue

Over the past few years, China has been a major player in the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. The next round is scheduled to begin February 8 in Beijing. The first round took place in August 2003. In this background report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the relationship between China and North Korea.

The conventional wisdom is that China is North Korea's staunchest ally and its greatest source of support in the international community.

Economically, Beijing is Pyongyang's major supplier of food and energy. Roughly 80 percent of consumer goods found in North Korea are made in China. Politically, for the past several years, China has been the host of the six-party talks bringing together, in addition to Beijing, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. The aim of these negotiations is to persuade Pyongyang to eliminate its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Jim Walsh, a security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, says China's role is crucial.

"They are the country closest to North Korea politically and otherwise, in terms of an ally in these talks. And frankly, the North Koreans need an ally. The North Koreans aren't going to agree to opening up their country to inspections or putting themselves at risk unless they've got someone to watch their back - and that's the role of the Chinese. The Chinese are both convener of these meetings and also gentle encourager - sometimes more gentle, sometimes less gentle encourager - of North Korea to make progress. So I think they are very, very important," he said.

Experts say despite North Korea's close political, economic and historical ties with China, Pyongyang has attempted to show some independence from Beijing.

Daryl Kimball is head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization.

"China has been embarrassed, just in the last year, by the North Koreans. North Korea conducted missile tests in July 2006 in defiance of the Chinese, just days after a high-level visit from a Chinese diplomat to North Korea. North Korea conducted this October a [nuclear] test explosion in defiance of China's publicly stated wishes for it not to do so. So - China's influence is strong, but it does appear to have its limits," he said.

Kimball says there is a lot of debate as to how much pressure China can exert on North Korea.

Walsh says Beijing has a different view of what constitutes "pressure." "China would say it does pressure North Korea, but it has a different definition of 'pressure.' When the U.S. talks about pressure, it talks about cutting off fuel oil or economic sanctions, that sort of thing. The Chinese emphasize political pressure, not economic pressure. And they don't even use the word 'pressure', they say 'influence.'"

Pyongyang's missile launches last July prompted China to vote for a United Nations resolution condemning the tests. But China agreed to the text only after an original draft was watered down.

Bruce Bennett from the RAND Corporation says both China and South Korea are in a difficult position, because they fear that putting too much pressure on North Korea would destabilize the region.

"If the regime suddenly collapsed in North Korea, you would have a horrendous situation for both China and South Korea - and so both governments are very reluctant to put too much pressure on North Korea, fearing a mass of refugees, a collapsed economic system, a military that's out of control and so forth. So at this stage, China is doing some things in trying to put a little of pressure on, but they are afraid that if they go too far, they could wind up with an incredible mess that they don't want to have to deal with," he said.

Analysts say China still does have some leverage, especially in the economic sphere. But they also say the Chinese leadership must figure out how much pressure it can exert and how far it can go before it triggers instability in North Korea and, potentially, an even greater crisis.