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The United States has been prodding China on another matter in recent weeks -reining in North Korea. China has now sent an envoy to North Korea with the aim of defusing the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. All this comes at a time when relations between the U.S. and China are strained, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Over the past few months, Washington has watched with growing alarm as North Korea has taken a series of provocative actions. It's been blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. Last month, Pyongyang announced it had a uranium enrichment program. And just before Thanksgiving, North Korea launched an artillery barrage on a South Korean island, killing four people, including two civilians.

David Shambaugh, the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, says the incidents have heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula and eroded relations between the U.S. and North Korea's traditional ally, China.

Professor DAVID SHAMBAUGH (George Washington University): It's an extremely serious situation and in the context of U.S./China relations, only adds further friction and tensions to an already stressful relationship.

NORTHAM: After each incident, Washington has pressed China to intervene, but with little success. Shambaugh says there has been growing mistrust between Beijing and Washington for more than a year over a series of issues, such as human rights and currency manipulation, and the United States' good relations with Taiwan.

Prof. SHAMBAUGH: So when Washington goes to them to say do something on North Korea, restrain this state, you are the only one that seem to have any leverage. And then the Chinese sit on their hands and stick their head in the sand and do nothing. Its irritating, to put it mildly.

NORTHAM: Meanwhile, the situation on the Korean peninsula has grown more serious after last month's attack. Then, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea and staged joint naval exercises in the region. South Korea has vowed to retaliate the next time its attacked from the North.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan have created a united front. And as the days wear on, Beijing and Washington are exchanging barbed statements about how to handle North Korea.

Ken Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says both sides want to defuse the Korean crisis; they just go about it in different ways.

Mr. KEN LIEBERTHAL (Brookings Institution): The United States and South Korea believe that you have to deter North Korea to demonstrate that we are prepared to take very tough actions, military actions. To Beijing, the way to calm things down is to engage in talks, not challenge North Korea, try to just tamp it down.

NORTHAM: Michael Green served in George W. Bush's White House and is now a senior Asia advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says China has real fears about North Korea collapsing.

Mr. MICHAEL GREEN (Senior Asia advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies): They worry, legitimately, about instability leading to massive refugees into China and destabilizing their own domestic situation. They also, I think, at a strategic level, have no stomach for unification under the south, which would put a democratic, unified nation of 75 million people, aligned with the United States, right on their border.

NORTHAM: China has been encouraging the resumption of six-party talks involving North Korea and regional powers.

But Deputy Secretary of State, Jim Steinberg, says the U.S. sees that as simply a reward for bad behavior.

Deputy Secretary JIM STEINBERG (U.S. State Department): What we've seen in the past, is that talks for the sake of talks do not produce the kinds of results that we all need to see to move the Korean peninsula in a more stable and peaceful direction.

NORTHAM: Steinberg will lead an American delegation to China, next week, to talk with officials there about North Korea. Yesterday, a top Chinese envoy and North Koreas ailing leader, Kim Jong Il, met to discuss the situation on the Korean peninsula. The talks were described as candid and in-depth.

The Brookings Institution's Lieberthal, says no doubt Beijing has been telling Pyongyang to stop engaging in provocations. But Lieberthal says that's no guarantee North Korea will listen.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: Pyongyang has a habit of not listening to advice. And if they feel pressured by China, or in the past, by the United States, as often as not, their response to pressure is to do the opposite of what you're asking and to escalate.

NORTHAM: Lieberthal says the chances of escalation on the Korean peninsula are very real, in part, because Kim Jong Il is trying to arrange for his youngest son to succeed him - and the young Kim will have to show hes tough enough to take over the reins from his father.

Jackie Northam, NPR News Washington.

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