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China's criticism suggests changed tone, not interests, on North Korea

WASHINGTON -- China's unusually forceful criticism of North Korea shows the rising power is eager to distance itself from a pariah, but experts doubt Beijing would ultimately put the regime's survival at risk.

The Global Times, a state-run newspaper close to China's ruling Communist Party, said in an editorial that if North Korea goes ahead with plans to test a nuclear bomb, Beijing “will not hesitate to reduce its assistance.”

The newspaper, which normally takes a nationalistic tone on foreign policy, voiced exasperation with North Korea and accused Kim Jong Un's regime of failing to appreciate China's efforts on its behalf.

North Korea vowed to carry out its third nuclear test after the U.N. Security Council condemned its Dec. 12 rocket launch. The resolution was a compromise with China, which resisted U.S. calls to impose new forms of sanctions but agreed to put more North Koreans on existing blacklists.

Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that China may have concluded that North Korea would respond angrily no matter what and decided, “Why should we take the hit if it's not going to make a difference?”

Snyder said that China may have been upset not as much by the planned nuclear test but by North Korea's simultaneous vow to leave six-nation talks on denuclearization, a main means of Chinese leverage in regional diplomacy.

But Snyder said there was no evidence that China's leadership under President-in-waiting Xi Jinping has conducted a fundamental rethink on North Korea.

“Until there is some evidence of that, I think we have to presume that China's core objective remains stability and that they are still in North Korea's corner, even though North Korea makes it very hard for them,” he said.

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