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China 'ready to abandon' its old ally North Korea

As the prospect of a collapse of the regime in North Korea has seemed increasingly real to the worldwide diplomatic community, the Chinese government has begun to acknowledge in private that it would no longer consider the creation of a unified Korean peninsula under the control of Seoul anathema.

Some long-held myths about China's attitudes towards the hermit regime in Pyongyang are blown apart in the latest trove of previously secret cables plucked from traffic between America's diplomatic missions abroad and the State Department in Washington.

They reveal, for example, senior Chinese envoys revealing, if not directly to US counterparts then to opposite numbers in Seoul, that they sometimes are as flummoxed and as irritated with Pyongyang as the West, saying on one occasion that it was behaving like "a spoilt child" trying to get everyone's attention.

The US envoy to Seoul also told her superiors in Washington that she was hearing from South Korean officials in Seoul that they fully expect to see the final collapse of the regime to the north and unification within "two to three years" by its current – and by all accounts ailing – leader, Kim Jong-il.

The cables confirm that among China's greatest concerns is that an implosion of North Korea would lead to a mass exodus of the country's citizens across the border into China. However, it is not entirely unprepared for such an event. It considers itself ready to absorb 300,000 refugees even now. Beyond that number, Beijing might move to seal the border with its military.

Some of the new information is contained in an account of a 2009 conversation held by the US envoy ambassador Kathleen Stephens, with Chun Yung-woo, then vice-foreign minister of South Korea. He had relayed to her what he had learnt from two high-level Chinese foreign ministry officials on the fringes of currently stalled six-party talks on halting North Korea's nuclear programme.

Chun said he had been told that the younger members of China's leadership no longer considered a unified Korea to be out of the question but rather considered it a serious possibility in the future. This new attitude had come, they said, with the realisation also that North Korea could no longer be relied upon, even by China.

"The two officials, Chun said, were ready to 'face the new reality' that the DPRK [North Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state", Ms Stephens says in her cable to Washington. She says the Chinese officials informed Chun that Beijing's Chinese leaders "would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance".

At the same time, there was an assumption that in the event of reunification, China would not want to see a significant number of US soldiers stationed north of what is now the border between the two countries and therefore closer to its own border area.

Coming just days after a new crisis erupted in the area with shells fired by North Korean forces landing on an island in the territory of the South, killing two citizens and instant evacuations and putting in motion significant new joint military manoeuvres of the US and South Korea, these revelations are certain to draw intense scrutiny. The aggression has been seen by some as the last flailings of a dying monster.

Caution will doubtless be urged about these cables. Nothing here could possibly be described as China's official position. Scholars will recall that when Kim Jong-il's father, North Korea's founder, passed away in 1994, a similar wave of wishful thinking broke out.

Some satisfaction will be drawn from passages in the cables suggesting that while China has always been regarded as the only country with any meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang, even it has admitted often to being in the dark about its intentions, particularly when it comes to nuclear matters.

It was after Pyongyang fired rockets over the Sea of Japan last year claiming they were trying to send satellites into space, that a Chinese official made his allusion to juvenile behaviour.

In a meeting with another senior diplomat in the region, He Yafei, a Chinese chargé d'affaires with the foreign ministry, observed that "North Korea wanted to engage directly with the United States and was therefore acting like a 'spoilt child' in order to get the attention of the 'adult'".

Beijing's influence in North Korea

1950 Chinese soldiers cross the border to support the North in the Korean War against the American-backed South.

1961 The two countries sign a treaty agreeing to support each other militarily and economically should they come under attack. It is later renewed for 20 years in 2001.

1982 Kim Jong-il authors a statement on self-reliance that sees North Korea further distance itself from China and its only other major ally, the USSR.

2006 Chinese officials publicly rebuke North Korea for test-firing missiles despite warnings from them not to do so and support UN sanctions following a nuclear test.

2009 Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits North Korea, which says it might be willing to resume talks on its nuclear programme.

2010 Officials travel from Pyongyang to China seeking approval for anointment of Kim Jong-il's son as the country's new leader.