Pyongyang is sending up an ominous flare again, this time, the threat to commence a "merciless sacred war" against South Korea. And viewing from Washington, North Korea poses a "very real" threat to peace and stability in East Asia.
North Korea launched two attacks against the South in 2010 and they may attack again, according to Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. "North Korea shows no sign of relenting in pursuit of its nuclear capabilities and I am not convinced they won't provoke again," America's highest ranking military officer warned in Seoul on July 14, "I have said for a long time the only thing that is predictable about North Korea is their unpredictability. The U.S. and South Korean forces have a sense of urgency to work on planning to deter the North from further provocations. And the expectation is that unless the leadership in the North is deterred, they will continue to attack."
To deter North Korea, Mullen urged Chinese leaders "to play a leadership role" in restraining its ally, during his recent four-day visit to Beijing. China is North Korea's major ally and its economic lifeline, "I believe that China certainly has influence in Pyongyang," Mullen stressed, "with Beijing's growing power and capabilities comes responsibility for regional and global stability."
Looking from the outside in, the longtime ties between Beijing and Pyongyang are enduring and everything is rosy in a relationship that, says Chinese President Hu Jintao, "has stood the test of history." Most recently, in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the North Korea-China Mutual Assistance Treaty, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il vowed to strengthen ties with Beijing, "the conclusion of the treaty marked an epoch-making event which provided a permanent basis for the DPRK-China cooperative relations sealed on the road of struggle for independence against imperialism and for socialism." His Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, also reassured the Kims that "it is the unshakable strategic policy of the Chinese party and government to steadily consolidate and develop the Sino-DPRK cooperative relations"
Looking beyond the surface, however, the debate is raging in China on its bond with North Korea and the relationship is becoming an increasingly difficult one.
"As an estranged couple in the middle of a divorce who smile and hold hands to keep up appearances for the cameras," Sunny Lee of Asia Times describes, "a similar description serves well to characterize ties between China and North Korea."
It is true that China is North Korea's most important (and virtually only) ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food and fuel. Since the Korean War divided the Peninsula, China has lent political support to three generations of the Kim Dynasty: Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and now Kim the 3rd, Kim Jong-Un.
But China, as an emerging world power with increasing international responsibilities and prestige, does not welcome Pyongyang's military provocations and does not endorse the Kims' nuclear adventurism.
China, in fact, is angry at North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship, especially after Pyongyang's 2009 nuclear test. As Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times writes, "North Korea's latest nuclear test raises the question of just how long the bonds forged between old communist allies will endure. The test was conducted barely 50 miles from the Chinese border. The ground rumbled in northeast China and schools were evacuated because of fears of an earthquake. It was quite shocking-the location where the North did the test was a lot closer to China than to where Kim Jong-Il is living in Pyongyang."
China's North Korea policy experts are divided on how to handle North Korea. Beijing's official mouthpiece, Global Times, surveyed 20 of China's top foreign policy experts and found them split down the middle-10 arguing for tough policy on North Korea, 10 opposed. "Traditionally, China has been very forthcoming to North Korea, but now there is a feeling that Pyongyang is causing us too much trouble," Zhang Liangui, China's leading Korea expert, told the Global Times.
Divided on its policy toward its "lips and teeth" ally, China is alarmed that North Korea, if not managed, may become a threat to China itself. Consequently, as Andrew Scobell of Texas A&M University points out, "No action by China should be ruled out where North Korea is concerned," including stopping propping up Pyongyang and allowing the North to fall, and a contingency plan to dispatch troops to North Korea in case of instability.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.