Economic conflict boils on the Chinese-North Korean border

After North Korea's third nuclear test, Chinese leaders are feeling the public's smoldering discontent over their relationship with the country's reclusive, bombastic neighbor.

Things are quiet on China's northern front. Eerily quiet.

In an area normally humming with tourism and trade between North Korea and China, activity has slowed to a palpable crawl after North Korea's Feb. 12 nuclear test, the third successful launch by the reclusive country in three months.

The Chinese — who've politely asked the North Koreans in the past to halt missile launches — see the recent test as North Korea thumbing its nose at China, even as the Chinese government supplies Pyongyang with billions of dollars' worth of food and oil.

The Chinese are also smarting that the North Koreans detonated the device on a national holiday.

"The test is a very public slap at China and an embarrassment for the new Chinese regime," Robert Hathaway, the Asia program director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told MSN News.

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In the test's aftermath, it's unlikely that China will divorce itself from its northern neighbor, though both sides have much to fear in a potential split. If China were to halt shipments of fuel and food to North Korea, the government in Pyongyang could easily collapse, and North Koreans could starve as a result.

"A Chinese withdrawal of aid would be catastrophic," says Jacques deLisle, director of the Asia program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "North Korea is fatally dependent on China."

On the Chinese side, there's a heightened fear that North Korea's instability and potential collapse could bring thousands of Koreans fleeing to the border.

"They live next door, and they're terrified that if North Korea collapses, people will rush into China," says Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for Foreign Relations.

Robbins stresses that China's security concerns about North Korea are relatively shortsighted. China, she says, is concerned about border security and its economic clout within the region. It's especially displeased when North Korea destabilizes Asia by using its launches to flex its muscles at the West. Doing so decreases the chances of a United States departure from South Korea and emboldens the rhetoric of Japan and South Korea — both of which are rivals that China jockeys with for regional supremacy.  

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Closer to the ground, in Chinese towns along the two countries' 880-mile border, residents worry about possible radiation fallout from their neighbor's launch, believed to be a nuclear test. Some Chinese towns lie fewer than 100 miles from the site of the North Korean launch.

While the Chinese close to the launch area have been assured they face no risk of radiation poisoning, that they have to worry at all has prompted their leaders to reassess their relationship with North Korea.

"The public does not want China to be the only friend of the North Korean government, and we're not even recognized by North Korea as a friend,” Jin Qiangyi, director of China's Center for North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji City, told The New York Times.

"For the first time, the Chinese government has felt the pressure of public opinion not to be too friendly with North Korea."

While Chinese leaders are not known to issue public denunciations as Western leaders do, Hathaway says discontent is smoldering within Beijing.

"The general sense in Beijing is that they've been embarrassed too many times by North Korea, and they've reached a point where they're unwilling to tolerate North Korean actions that increasingly degrade Chinese security," Hathaway said. 

"We have growing evidence that China is increasingly losing patience with getting jerked around."

In its current state, the Chinese-North Korean trade pulse is faint at best. North Korean leadership is irked by the exorbitant rate the Chinese charge for oil — the highest it asks of any nation — while Chinese businesses are angered by demands that they build their own roads and supply electricity for their projects in North Korea.  

Most of the Chinese oil that travels into North Korea is piped from Dandong, a trading port of 800,000 people, including some 30,000 North Koreans, in northern China. While tourism has slowed in the massive port city, illicit business has not — for now at least.

According to The Economist, Dandong is a conduit for prohibited goods to pass between the two nations. In addition to legal cargo such as minerals, coal and scrap metal, much prohibited trade occurs, including the importation of methamphetamine by Chinese drug dealers.

The illicit trade goes both ways, as North Korean border guards have been known to solicit bribes in exchange for the unbothered importation of consumer goods into the republic.

People also flow heavily from the North Korean side of the border, The Economist reports. While many go to work in North Korean restaurants in Dandong with the intention of returning to their homeland, others venture elsewhere, settling in China or traveling on to South Korea.

In the current arrangement, both sides turn a blind eye at times, USA Today reports. The North Koreans allow for an open torrent of Chinese goods and crops, and the Chinese — while expelling some North Koreans — have yet to undertake swift and widespread deportation tactics.  

"Chinese authorities most often react by keeping one eye open, one eye shut," Ibell Liu, a local, told USA Today.

That of course could change as China ponders what to do with an increasingly bellicose North Korea.

"It's not likely we'll see all ties cut, but before the tests there were episodic customs crackdowns at the border, and we could continue to see that as China tightens pressures on North Korea," Hathaway said.

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