The leak of U.S. diplomatic cables shows a possible motive for recent belligerence by North Korea. The documents are part of a massive distribution of confidential information posted online by WikiLeaks.
The cable traffic shows that, in February, South Korea's deputy foreign minister told the U.S. ambassador that "sophisticated" Chinese officials now think Korea should be unified under Seoul's control, if North Korea collapses.
The official, Chun Yung-woo, is quoted as saying that while the Chinese would not want U.S. troops in what is now North Korea, they would accept a unified Korea in a "benign" alliance with the United States.
Chun, now the presidential national security advisor, says younger leaders in the Chinese Communist Party are not willing to risk war on the peninsula to aid a North Korea they no longer see as useful or reliable.
In addition, Chun says his government thinks the North's government could collapse within two or three years after the death of leader Kim Jong Il.
Professor Brian Myers at Dongseo University in Busan is a specialist on North Korean ideology. He says its leadership has always distrusted China.
"I don't think these revelations are going to come as a complete shock to a regime that always thinks the worst of foreigners anyway," Myers noted. "They will come as a shock to the North Korean people when it gets to the people, and, it will, because they have so much access now to outside sources of information. It's going to add to what looks like a growing crisis of confidence inside North Korea."
And, Myers says, that could actually become the biggest threat to survival of North Korea.
"I think the average North Korean is well aware that, if you take the Kim family out of power, then that republic loses all reason to exist. Its very legitimacy derives from the myth of Kim Il Sung's heroism and his great love for the people," Myers said.
The late Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader, Kim Jong Il, was North Korea's first leader.
Myers and other Pyongyang watchers say a crisis of confidence inside North Korea could prompt Kim Jong Il to act more aggressively against the South as he establishes his son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul says it is a matter of policy not to comment on documents that may contain classified information. The U.S. government has condemned the WikiLeaks web site for obtaining and releasing 250,000 classified diplomatic documents this week. The White House and State Department say the release could harm international relations and endanger diplomats and their contacts.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen dramatically this year. A South Korean navy ship exploded and sank in the Yellow Sea in March, and international investigators say it was hit by a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang denies responsibility.
Last week, for the first time since the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korea shelled South Korean civilians. Four people died on Yeonpyeong island. Pyongyang says it was responding to South Korean artillery firing near the disputed maritime border.
The U.S. and South Korean navies on Sunday began a four-day exercise in the Yellow Sea.
A navy spokesman aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier says the drill is not meant to provoke Pyongyang.
Navy Commander Jeff Davis says U.S. ships will not fire guns during the exercise. And, he says, they are not operating near the Northern Limit Line, a maritime border North Korea does not recognize.
"We're in the Yellow Sea, we're well south of the NLL. It's not related to this latest incident that happened up near NLL. This is actually an exercise that was planned for several months," Davis said. "It was scheduled and rescheduled. There's nothing that we have scheduled as part of the exercise that involves the firing of live ammunition."
North Korea says the exercise has brought the peninsula to the brink of war.
The cables released on WikiLeaks also show that the U.S. thinks North Korea has sold missile technology to Iran, giving Tehran the ability to strike well into Europe.
Also Tuesday, an official North Korean newspaper boasted that the country now operates thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium to eventually generate electricity for the impoverished nation. But security analysts say North Korea could use the material to build more nuclear bombs. North Korea is already believed to have several nuclear weapons fueled with plutonium.