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North Korea's missile launch puts focus on China
Updated 4/13/2012 10:55 AM ET
BEIJING — North Korea's launch of what appears to be a ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States puts a spotlight on China, the North's closest ally and benefactor.

The launch ended in failure Friday when the rocket disintegrated over the Yellow Sea, but North Korea has warned that it intends to go forward with a test of a nuclear device in violation of U.N. sanctions and a deal it reached with the Obama administration.

Given the North's history of refusing to abide by previous pacts, the White house and other Western nations have been looking to China to bring the North to heel. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier this week that she hoped China would step in, and President Obama has asked China to stop turning a "blind eye" toward provocations by North Korea.

But China has insisted publicly to the U.S. that it has little influence over the weapons programs of its reclusive neighbor, even though it is the North's largest provider of food, fuel, and industrial machinery, according to the Congressional Research Service. Foreign policy experts say China is declining to get involved because its aims differ from the USA.

"China has less influence than we think, but more than it uses," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group.

The West's priority is for North Korea to stop threatening its neighbors and end an illegal nuclear program that is suspected of transferring nuclear technology to other states, such as Syria. But China's communist leadership's priority is to ensure the impoverished dictatorship does not erupt in revolution or uprisings, experts say.

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North Korea readies rocket for imminent liftoff

China fears a flood of refugees more than North Korea's uranium-enrichment program or missile technology, and sees the North as a useful buffer between it and U.S.-backed democratic South Korea, Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.

Even for Chinese researchers, the nation's dealings with North Korea are "like a black hole," said Shen Dingli, a foreign policy specialist at Shanghai's Fudan University.

"We don't know how the government and parties of the two countries actually interact, but the reality is that North Korea is not persuaded (to abandon the launch), so we do not have effective influence," said Shen Dingli, a foreign policy specialist at Shanghai's Fudan University.

Shen said he believes the West will eventually be forced to accept North Korea's nuclear-missile capability, given China's stance. That does not mean China is in favor of North Korea's actions, some experts said.

"China wants most a calm Asia to improve its own economy," and North Korea's actions threaten that priority, said Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA's Korea branch and now an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Klingner said a rift has appeared among China's leadership over how to handle the North. He says "old school" leaders see North Korea as an ally going back to the 1950s-era Korean War that must be defended. They feel China must prop up North Korea's communist regime to maintain a buffer from South Korea, which many younger Chinese admire for its pop culture, he said.

Klingner said "new school" leaders see China's future on the Korean Peninsula more aligned with South Korea, whose strong economy can help China maintain the economic growth it needs to absorb new workers in the job market and avoid unrest that would result from a stalled economy.

"The new school sees North Korea as an anachronism, an irksome ally that could drag China into a crisis it doesn't want," he said.

As a result, Chinese policy is "on both sides of the fence at once, openly condemning North Korea's actions as it has in the past, but not going too far, at least publicly, in punishing North Korea," Klingner said.

Zhang Li, 32, was looking at captured U.S. military vehicles from the Korean War inside Beijing's Military Museum when asked about China's relationship with the North. "The war doesn't seem worthwhile today, but at the time it was necessary as China feared U.S. designs," Zhang said. "North Korea's satellite and nuclear tests are not good for China's security. I doubt China has as much influence now as it once had."

Contributing: Oren Dorell in McLean, Va.

Posted 4/11/2012 8:13 PM ET
Updated 4/13/2012 10:55 AM ET
A man looks down from a balcony at North Korea's space agency's General Launch Command Center on the outskirts of Pyongyang on Wednesday.
By David Guttenfelder, AP
A man looks down from a balcony at North Korea's space agency's General Launch Command Center on the outskirts of Pyongyang on Wednesday.
A North Korean soldier stands guard in front of an Unha-3 rocket at Tangachai-ri space center on Sunday.A North Korean soldier stands guard in front of an Unha-3 rocket at Tangachai-ri space center on Sunday.

By Pedro Ugarte, AFP/Getty Images