China is anxious to preserve its status as North Korea's only mentor and friend, but even with Kim Il Sung, an ally of Peking for more than four decades, the relationship had become increasingly uneasy in recent years. His dynastic ambitions, personality cult and nuclear programme were all distasteful to the Chinese leadership, which has its own problems with nepotism, uncomfortable memories of the hysterical adulation of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and little desire to see any of its neighbours, especially one as unpredictable as North Korea, obtain nuclear weapons.
Despite this, the Chinese government has lost no time in endorsing the wish of the 'Great Leader' to see power pass to his son, Kim Jong Il. The New China News Agency reported Mr Jiang as saying: 'I believe that the Korean people. . .rallying around the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party, headed by Kim Jong Il, will carry forward the glorious cause started by President Kim Il Sung.'
But Peking's guarded attitude has been reflected by sparse coverage of the succession in the official media. While the Peking Youth News published Kim Jong Il's life story yesterday, and carried a photograph of him with his father, Chinese television has not shown any of the scenes of mourning in Pyongyang. 'One might have expected more warmth from a country that for ages has been declaring itself as close to North Korea as lips and teeth,' said a Western diplomat.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese who fought for the North in the Korean war regarded Kim Il Sung as a 'comrade in arms', but younger leaders who have transformed the Chinese economy considered him a dinosaur. His failure to heed Peking's advice and adapt his policies not only held North Korea back, but was bad for the image of the dwindling band of Communist states, in their view.
'In the 1950s we used to be close friends with North Korea,' a taxi driver told a Western reporter. 'But North Korea has become a backward country and fallen behind China. You never see North Korean goods in the shops, but they are full of goods from South Korea. We do not want relations with countries that have nothing to give us. We want something in return.'
Despite protestations of solidarity with Pyongyang, China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, and forced the impoverished North to pay for an increasing proportion of its imports in hard currency. Chinese impatience was heightened by Kim Il Sung's intransigent nuclear stance, which threatened to leave it isolated in the UN Security Council. Peking appeared to be on the point of allowing a sanctions vote to go ahead when the regime agreed to talks with the US, now suspended because of the dictator's death.
A recent South Korean study concluded that for the time being China was likely to pursue 'equidistant' diplomacy between the two halves of the peninsula, 'by trying to expand economic links with the South on the one hand and on the other to continue to maintain existing political and military ties with the North unharmed'. It was notable that even at the height of the nuclear crisis, senior North Korean military delegations were being welcomed in Peking - if there is a military challenge to Kim Jong Il, as many believe will happen at some point, China will probably be the only country aware of who the main players are, let alone having any chance of influencing them.
Peking's main interest, however, is to ensure the stability of the new regime in Pyongyang. For the moment it appears that the younger Kim has secured the succession, and China will support him whatever its misgivings.