STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Few people around the world were sorry that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died last month. The exceptions include North Korea's neighbor, China. The state-run Chinese press ran a smiling photo of Kim and mourned the loss of a friend. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains why China backed one of the world's most loathed dictators and is now supporting his youngest son.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Chinese leaders made a rare condolence visit to North Korea's embassy in Beijing last month. Broadcast on China Central Television, the leaders – dressed in black suits - bowed in unison towards the portrait of Kim Jong Il. Why show so much respect to a man who had caused so much misery? One reason: fear of something worse. Shi Yuanhua runs the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
SHI YUANHUA: (Through Translator) China's objective is there must be stability in Korean peninsula. We will do whatever it takes, or maintain stability at all cost. I think China cannot allow an Arab spring and an eastern European-style color revolution to take place in this area.
LANGFITT: China supports the Kim family regime – now lead by Kim Jong Un – because it fears the country would collapse without it. In the case of civil war, China worries who would control North Korea's nuclear weapons. And what might happen along the 880 mile border China shares with the Stalinist state. Again, Shi Yuanhua.
YUANHUA: (Through Translator) If chaos occurs in this region, there may be refugee problems. Large numbers of refugees may swarm into China, which will affect the economic development of China's northeast.
LANGFITT: Chung Jaeho says China also sees its fellow communist neighbor as a useful barrier with democratic South Korea and the approximately 28,000 American troops stationed there. Chung is an international relations professor at Seoul National University.
CHUNG JAEHO: North Korea provides a perfect place as a buffer state. That sort of thinking has been there for a long time in China. You can actually go back to see the books in the Ming Dynasty. They already talk about the Korean Peninsula as a fence.
LANGFITT: While China officially backs North Korea's regime, some of its citizens don't. In recent weeks, thousands of Chinese have ripped into their government on China's version of twitter. Quote, "It is a shame that a big country like China sides with the biggest villain on earth," one online critic wrote. A Ph.D. student surnamed Ling at Fudan University had nothing but contempt for North Korea's leaders.
LING: (Through Translator) I don't support the regime. It's a dictatorship, a personality cult, an isolated country which doesn't care enough about people's lives.
LANGFITT: China's tried to get North Korea to adopt some of the market reforms that have transformed the Chinese economy. But Evans Revere, a retired top U.S. diplomat who has served in Seoul and Beijing, says North Korea has been extremely slow to change.
EVANS REVERE: Kim Jong Il, back in the day, would visit factories and visit farms and visit industrial plants – all of which were being shown to him as examples of economic transformation. And he and his entourage would take copious notes and say the right things to the Chinese and then they would go home and nothing much would happen.
LANGFITT: With North Korea unable to support itself, China has become the country's benefactor. Last year, North Korea – formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK– did about $5 billion in trade.
LEE CHUNG-MIN: The lion's share of that was with the Chinese. Seventy percent was consumed by importing Chinese oil and food.
LANGFITT: Lee Chung-min is the dean of the graduate school of international studies at South Korea's Yonsei University.
CHUNG-MIN: Without Chinese largesse or support, the DPRK, as we know it, simply would not exist.
LANGFITT: Lee says continued support of North Korea will cost China – not just in aid, but also in prestige. As a rising power and now the world's second-largest economy, China craves international respect - but not enough to press change on an old ally and risk instability on its own border.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.