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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Premier Li Keqiang of China during a meeting at Zhongnanhai, the central government compound in Beijing, April 13, 2013. (JASON LEE/NYT Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Premier Li Keqiang of China during a meeting at Zhongnanhai, the central government compound in Beijing, April 13, 2013. (JASON LEE/NYT Pool)

Kerry optimistic China will rein in North Korea but doubts remain Add to ...

China is fed up with Kim Jong-un. After two months of hair-trigger tension on the Korean Peninsula, that much is clear. But will the Communist Party leadership actually do anything to rein in its unpredictable ally in Pyongyang?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to think it will. He emerged this weekend from meetings with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi talking of U.S.-China strategic “synergy” and saying he won a “joint commitment” to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

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To American ears, something new was said Saturday in the Communist Party’s walled leadership compound in central Beijing: China agreed to join the rest of the international community in pressuring North Korea to give up its atomic weapons program.

But while that would be a welcome breakthrough as apprehension continues to grow in and around the two Koreas, it’s not quite the case, at least not yet.

Despite Mr. Kerry’s optimism, the language of the Chinese statements after the Saturday meetings was the same as it has been for years. The problem should be resolved through dialogue, Beijing insisted, preferably via the six-party talks that have been dormant since 2007.

“China’s stance on the Korean Peninsula is consistent. No matter what happens, China will stick to denuclearization and peace on the peninsula and settling the issue through dialogue,” Mr. Wang said, making no mention of any kind of new accord with the United States.

China does want to see a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but in Beijing’s lexicon that means neither Korea should be protected by nuclear weapons. The inclusion by the United States of South Korea under its “nuclear umbrella” is seen to be as much a part of the problem as Pyongyang’s attempts to build its own arsenal.

During his three-country tour of East Asia, which ended on Sunday with a stop in Tokyo, Mr. Kerry repeated the American position that North Korea must take visible steps towards denuclearization before negotiations like the six-party talks could resume. He also held out the possibility – tantalizing for China – that the U.S. might scale down its military presence in the region if the North Korean nuclear threat ceased to exist.

But Mr. Kim’s regime has repeatedly declared it will never give up its nuclear capabilities, pointing to what happened to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi after he gave up his chemical-weapons program in exchange for promises from the West. Instead, Pyongyang, which declared last month that it is no longer bound by the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and has repeatedly warned “thermonuclear war” is imminent, is reportedly ready to fire one or more mid-range missiles off its east coast. The launch could come as early as Monday, which is a major holiday in North Korea marking the birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

Any rocket fired from the east coast site would almost certainly enter either Japanese or South Korean airspace. Both countries were deploying naval destroyers and land-based anti-missile batteries to counter any threat.

Pyongyang also swatted away an offer of dialogue made by South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a “cunning ploy.” Instead, North Korea accused the South of “another unpardonable hideous provocation” for not respecting Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

While Mr. Kerry said he went to Beijing to ask China to rein in its ally, China’s state-controlled media portrayed the United States as the only country that could bring the Korean crisis to an end. “As an ancient Chinese saying goes, let the one who tied the bell on the tiger take it off. In other words, whoever started the trouble should end it,” said an editorial that ran on the Xinhua newswire just before Mr. Kerry’s arrival. “Over the past decades, the United States has wrongfully believed in sanctions and show of power, only to find its hostilities with [North Korea] running ever high and the regional situation further complicated.”

China is nonetheless miffed at North Korea, which ignored warnings from Beijing and went ahead with a Feb. 12 nuclear test that set the current crisis in motion. The test was Pyongyang’s third since 2006, and Beijing has supported ever-tighter United Nations Security Council sanctions in the wake of each of them.

Beijing, which accounts for 80 per cent of North Korea’s external trade, and provides 90 per cent of its energy, feels its neighbour should listen to it on strategic matters.

Beyond the immediate tensions – and the trouble the Kim regime causes for Beijing’s relations with Seoul, a much larger trading partner – Pyongyang has arguably harmed China’s efforts to assert itself as the East Asia’s dominant power. North Korea’s threats have drawn Washington, Tokyo and Seoul closer together at Beijing’s expense, while also providing justification for the Obama Administration’s decision to redeploy military assets from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific, a move interpreted as a response to China’s rise. The Global Times newspaper, which is published by the official People’s Daily, acknowledged Friday that “the North has annoyed most Chinese.” However, it said, the geopolitical situation of the region – often pitting the U.S., Japan and South Korea against China and North Korea – made it “naive” to talk of Beijing abandoning Pyongyang.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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