China shifting stance on old friend North Korea?

No one is suggesting China will abandon the regime of leader Kim Jong-un or even implement the new sanctions to the letter, but China’s frustration grows. An exasperated China appears to have run out of patience after years of trying to coax Pyongyang out of isolation and to embrace economic reform.

To top it off, Kim Jong-un has failed to pay fealty to China, his country’s only major ally, as his father and grandfather did. He has not visited China since taking over when his father Kim Jong-il died at the end of 2011.

Even the modicum of affection Chinese used to feel towards North Koreans, brothers-in-arms during the 1950-53 Korean War, has all but vanished, the country and its leader becoming an object of derision and incomprehension, especially as China powers ahead economically and rises in global stature.

The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, has called for China to cut North Korea off completely. It warned on Friday that Pyongyang should not underestimate China’s anger.

Signs of unhappiness with Pyongyang have seeped out of China’s military establishment too, although it is hard to know for certain what the top brass are thinking. “It does not matter if you were a comrade and brother-in-arms in the past, if you harm our national interest then we’ll get even with you,” retired major-general Luo Yuan, a prominent foreign policy hawk, wrote on his blog on Saturday.

Kim Jong Un’s actions have also become an unwanted headache for incoming Chinese president Xi Jinping, who is already facing a host of domestic problems from corruption to pollution. China’s new leadership, including Xi, do not have the emotional ties to North Korea that their predecessors had. Visits then used to be marked with smiles and bear hugs. Xi also understands there is little public sympathy at home for Pyongyang.

To be sure, China will not cut North Korea off completely. The country is a useful buffer from U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Japan too. China also does not want North Korea to go the same route as Myanmar, once a staunch ally of Beijing but which is now rapidly expanding ties with Washington.

And if China turns the screws too much then North Korea could collapse — Beijing’s ultimate nightmare scenario. Not only would that release a flood of refugees into northeastern China, it would also raise the question of what would happen to North Korea’s nuclear material.

[Excerpted from Reuters analysis

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