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Why China is reluctant to rein in North Korea's bellicose behavior

North Korea is fueling a debate in ruling circles in Beijing over how far China should go in backing the regime in Pyongyang.

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North Korean leader Kim Jung-il (left) met with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Beijing in May.

lan Hongguang/Xinhua/AP

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Despite China's growing impatience with North Korea's provocative actions, Beijing is not likely to exert dramatic pressure on Pyongyang to check its behavior in the immediate future.

That's because, for the moment at least, North Korea's stability remains a more important concern in China than any international outrage over North Korea's latest bellicose act toward South Korea.

Yet with each erratic and violent outburst, North Korea is fueling a debate in ruling circles in Beijing over how far China should go in backing the regime in Pyongyang. Over time, those in China who argue that strategic economic interests should take precedence over security ones, thus tipping China more toward South Korea and the West, could lead to an erosion of its reflexive support for Pyongyang. Beijing is not there yet, though.

"China uses its leverage cautiously because it wants to keep the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] stable," says Cai Jian, deputy head of the Koreas Research Center at Shanghai's Fudan University. "If the pressure were too strong, it might lead to the country's rapid collapse."

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