While Kim has made improving the economy a hallmark of his nascent rule, many analysts doubt that he will go too far with reforms for fear that change could lead to a loss of control, in turn threatening his authoritarian rule.
"There's nothing going on around here. North Korea is fine with taking Chinese aid and doing some trade, but its economy doesn't seem to be changing at all," said a Dandong businessman who trades with North Korea AND asked to be identified only by his surname, Qu.
That leaves the new fence as the dominant feature along the border. Topped with rolls of barbed wire, it doubles up in places to form both an inner and an outer perimeter, with a strip of concrete in between for guards to patrol along.
The intimidating barrier seeks to block the flow of illegal border crossers, typically those seeking food and work in China or an escape route to South Korea. It also symbolizes China's fears of instability in North Korea, a steel barrier to contain the chaos.
China is widely credited with keeping its neighbor afloat, providing an estimated half million tons of oil to North Korea a year, along with copious amounts of food aid. Officially tolerated smuggling buttresses the formal trade between them, while North Korea earns much-needed hard currency from thousands of North Koreans who work in northeast China and a similar number of Chinese tourists and advisers visiting the other side. Chinese companies are also investing in North Korea's mines, although many complain of corruption and a lack of respect for contracts.
Yet it remains unclear how much influence China has with North Korea. Despite Beijing's entreaties, Pyongyang has refused to return to Chinese-hosted six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that had won China credit as a responsible international power.
In a sign of China's rising pique, the Foreign Ministry recently took an unusual swipe at North Korea for spending on defense, rocket and nuclear programs instead of the economy. "We would also like to actively encourage the relevant country to develop economy and improve people's living conditions," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters late last month.
Chinese media have also been running commentaries suggesting Chinese interests need not be held hostage by its desire for a stable North Korea.
"If North Korea ignores the persuasion and eventually carries out a third nuclear bomb test, it must pay a heavy price for it. The various kinds of aid it receives from China will be decreased for good reasons. Of this, we hope the Chinese government will warn North Korea in advance, so that they will not have other fantasies," the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid that often airs controversial views, said in a commentary last week.
The latest test may not be enough to push the new leadership into casting North Korea adrift, but China may employ tougher measures, given that it has already upped the ante by agreeing to the tightened U.N. sanctions. If it does, North Korea can't say it wasn't warned.
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler and researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report from Beijing.
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