WikiLeaks: China Is Frustrated With North Korea

Among the latest WikiLeaks documents are memos that reveal growing tensions and frustrations between China and its ally North Korea. The leaked U.S. diplomatic cables suggest that in the event North Korea collapses, Beijing would be willing to accept a unified Korea under the South's control.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's look more closely at what the latest WikiLeaks documents tell us about one of the most dangerous nations on earth. Many of these cables, as they're called, offer the best U.S. information about North Korea, and on its ally, China. NPR's Louisa Lim is covering this story.

Hi, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. What glimpses do you get of him when you look through these documents?

LIM: Well, it's very interesting. We do get some firsthand reports about his own condition since his stroke last year. There was a report from a Chinese councilor, Dai Bingguo, who met with him in September 2009 and said that although Kim Jong-Il had lost weight his mind was still pretty sharp.

But then there was another report from January this year, so a more recent report. And that came from the U.S. consulate up in Jin Yang in northeast China. And that said that Kim Jong-Il was increasingly indecisive.

The sources that spoke to the consulate there described one situation where he recalled all the North Koreans working and studying in China because of the defection of a single student in Beijing. This didn't go down very well with businesses and trade groups in China. They found it difficult to operate, so they pressured him to change his mind. And he then went and reversed his decision.

So sources there were telling the consulate staff that there are different factions competing for his attention, making it difficult for him to set a firm and clear direction. So reading between the lines is - clearly there was some worry about his erratic behavior and whether he's really in control.

INSKEEP: So some insights, there, into the leader of North Korea. Another key factor here, of course, is China - North Korea's neighbor, North Korea's really only ally in the world. What are the Chinese thinking about North Korea according to these documents?

LIM: Reading through these documents, you really get a sense of how fed up China is becoming with North Korea. There's one quote from a Chinese official, He Yafei, who describes North Korea as behaving like a spoiled child by staging a missile test last year to get attention from the U.S.

And then there are also - there's some very interesting cables from the American embassy in Seoul. And they quote the South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister, Chun Yung-woo, at the time. And he's actually been telling them he believes China has far less influence over North Korea than most would believe.

And he believes China would not be able to stop North Korea's collapse after the death of Kim Jong-Il. He says he was also told by two Chinese officials, they believe that if North Korea did collapse China would be comfortable with a reunified Korea under the control of South Korea.

INSKEEP: Let me stop you there, because that is a compelling detail. You're saying that the suggestion here is, at least the suggestion, is that the Chinese would accept the disappearance of the North Korean state and a U.S. ally taking control of the whole peninsula moving up the Chinese border - South Korea.

LIM: What we're talking about is a theoretical situation. This is in the event that the regime collapsed. This is clearly not China's official position right now. China is North Korea's traditional ally. They have always been seen to be as close as lips and teeth. But talking to scholars here who specialize in North Korea, they say that such a scenario in the event of regime collapse, is not impossible.

INSKEEP: NPR's Louisa Lim, thanks very much.

LIM: Thank you.

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