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China's North Korea dilemma grows worse: experts
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Feb 15, 2013

Graduation day in the 'scariest place on Earth'
Demilitarised Zone, South Korea (AFP) Feb 15, 2013 - Shadowed by a nuclear test, guarded by armed soldiers and with a two-star general handing out prizes, Kim Min-Jung's elementary school graduation was a moment to savour.

"I knew that despite the event, our graduation would take place as planned, and I'm happy I got so many presents and awards," Kim told reporters after the ceremony Friday.

The "event" was a 6-7 kiloton nuclear test by North Korea three days before, which triggered global outrage but failed to scupper graduation day at Kim's school, despite its unique location slap in the middle of the world's last Cold War frontier.

Daeseongdong village and its elementary school lie inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea -- once described by former US president Bill Clinton as "the scariest place on Earth".

Four kilometres (2.5 miles) wide and 248 kilometres long, the DMZ is a largely depopulated no-man's land of heavily-fortified fences, bristling with the landmines and listening posts of two nations that technically remain at war.

Daeseongdong ("Freedom Village") is one of only two villages inside the DMZ, which extends two kilometres each side of the actual borderline.

North Korea has its own showcase village inside the zone, but on the other side, which flies the communist state's emblem on what is claimed as the world's tallest supported flagpole.

The 200 or so villagers living in Daeseongdong benefit from various incentives, including exemption from military service and tax-free income from their rice and ginseng farms.

But life in the village involves numerous restrictions, including a midnight curfew following an evening roll call.

Education-wise, there is only the elementary school and Kim and the five children who graduated with him on Friday must leave the village to continue their studies.

Dressed in traditional costumes, that clashed with the army fatigues of the ever-present soldiers, the six pupils were plied with gifts and awards from military and civilian organisations that attend the graduation ceremony each year.

Journalists were allowed in for the ceremony, but told they could not ask questions related to Tuesday's nuclear test.

Mass rally in Pyongyang celebrates nuclear test
Seoul (AFP) Feb 15, 2013 - More than 100,000 troops and civilians staged a mass rally in Pyongyang to celebrate North Korea's nuclear test and praise the "matchless" bravery of leader Kim Jong-Un, state media said Friday.

The rally in the capital's sprawling Kim Il-Sung square on Thursday was attended by top party and military officials, as well as police workers and students, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

A number of speakers addressed the rally, praising Tuesday's test as the "brilliant fruition of the extraordinary decision and matchless gut of the dear respected Kim Jong-Un", KCNA said, in reference to the leader's courage.

The young leader, who took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, did not attend the rally.

It was the North's third test, following previous detonations in 2006 and 2009, and seismic data suggested it was significantly more powerful.

"It serves as a striking demonstration of the might of a scientific and technological power and a military power capable of manufacturing any strike," KCNA said.

North Korea said the test -- widely condemned by the international community -- was a direct response to UN sanctions imposed on Pyongyang after its long-range rocket launch in December.

Pyongyang accused the United States of leading the sanctions charge in the UN Security Council, and speakers at Thursday's rally threatened "merciless retaliatory blows" if the US pushed tougher sanctions after the nuclear test.

North Korea's third nuclear test presents China under its new leader Xi Jinping with an unwelcome choice -- confront its defiant ally or accept having an uncontrollable atomic state on its border.

Beijing is the North's most important backer, providing its neighbour with trade and aid that have enabled the regime to survive since the 1950-53 Korean War, which historians estimate killed as many as 400,000 Chinese troops.

In China's strategic thinking, North Korea is a "buffer zone" that prevents the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea encroaching on its own border.

But with Kim Jong-Un's government again the subject of international fury, the relationship risks increasingly becoming an irritant for Beijing, analysts say.

"More and more people realise that North Korea is more like a security liability than a security asset to China," said Jia Qingguo, an expert on China's foreign relations at Peking University.

"China treasures stability in the Korean peninsula. But the problem is, North Korea's action is very destabilising."

He added that Beijing's thinking on the North would not "change overnight" and that Xi's ascent -- he now heads the Communist Party, and is due to become state president next month -- was unlikely to drive a new approach in itself.

Many social media users in China want a tougher line against North Korea. One this week likened Pyongyang to a "crazy dog" that had humiliated Beijing.

But while expressing "firm opposition" to Tuesday's blast, China's foreign ministry reiterated calls for calm and restraint and did not mention potential reprisals, echoing its statements after the North's tests in 2006 and 2009.

As then, it stated its support for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula and backed a six-party dialogue that groups China, the United States, both Koreas, Japan and Russia. However, the forum has been moribund since 2009.

Meanwhile the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary that the latest blast was an attempt by a "desperate DPRK" (North Korea) to keep a perceived external threat at bay, stressing its "strong sense of insecurity".

"I think China probably needs to act somehow, at least do something to show that this time China is serious," said Jing-Dong Yuan, an Asia security expert at the University of Sydney.

"There also needs to be serious discussion within Chinese leadership" about the strategic value of their wayward neighbour, he added.

Relations with the North are largely the preserve of the Communist Party's international liaison department and the People's Liberation Army. Both are believed to back the longstanding policy of support, despite the strains.

As Pyongyang's primary energy supplier, any move by Beijing to turn off the taps, even partially and temporarily, would have immediate impact.

But China fears that a crisis in North Korea would bring refugees flooding across the border, a US-backed escalation in the region, or even ultimately a unified Korea with a US military presence on its doorstep.

Authorities might only feel compelled to act if tensions escalated dramatically, for example, if Japan and South Korea began to consider their own nuclear options, Yuan said.

Yet seeking to wind down the situation at such a late stage might prove too little too late, he continued, and in the meantime Beijing was effectively giving Pyongyang a green light on its nuclear ambitions.

"It has issued strong statements but it has not really seriously followed up with specific actions," he said.

"North Korea knows pretty well that China is concerned about instability and uncertainty, so they basically continue with their own policy, disregarding Chinese pleas or whatever internal message they send to the North Korean leaders."

Beijing voted for a resolution last month by the UN Security Council, where it has a veto, expanding sanctions against Pyongyang for a rocket launch in December, but only after lengthy negotiations to soften the punishment.

Jia said support in China for a tougher line on North Korea was growing, and he expected Beijing to show more backing for international measures against Pyongyang, but it would still look to balance that with stability.

"The international community should not expect too much from China," he said.


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