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N. Korea nuke program a test for China

From Jaime FlorCruz
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

Pyongyang has signaled attempts to reform and make up with its former enemies, in exchange for economic aid
Pyongyang has signaled attempts to reform and make up with its former enemies, in exchange for economic aid

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China is struggling in trying to unilaterally convince North Korea to disarm its nuclear program. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz reports.
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- When North Korea admitted in October it has an active nuclear weapons program, Chinese officials were caught off-guard.

"As for the nuclear issue of North Korea, we have learned about this through media reports. We are not aware of any details. Our position has always been to support the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Zhang Qiyue, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said after North Korea's shock admission.

Pyongyang's disclosure has prompted a major diplomatic dilemma for Beijing and a delicate juggling act to honor ties with its traditional ally as well as promote stability in the region.

China is arguably North Korea's strongest ally and its major source of economic aid.

Consequently, it exerts significant influence on Pyongyang and is keen to maintain a healthy relationship.

Economic goals

"North Korea is a very close neighbor, and we'd like to see stability of the peninsula, and we'd like to see economic improvement of North Korea," explains Fu Ying, China's Foreign Ministry Asia Department Director.

Chinese leaders have hosted visits by North Korean leaders, bringing them on guided tours to places in China, which highlight the benefits of market reforms.

Economically and diplomatically, Pyongyang has recently signaled attempts to reform and make up with its former enemies -- but in exchange for much needed economic aid.

Still, paranoia and resentment toward America run deep, especially after U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" last January.

That compounded already tense bitterness towards the United States which remains -- along with tens of thousands of U.S. troops across the border in South Korea -- from the 1950-53 Korean War.

Danger on the doorstep

The recent nuclear admission, while not in any way a direct threat, has caused a headache for China with Beijing aware of the danger on its doorstep if North Korea possesses nuclear weapons.

"Well, China is really located in a very very difficult position. And China is almost surrounded by many nuclear countries, not like the U.S. or like the U.K. or France. So China is most sensitive to the nuclear situation." Said Yan Xuetong, Professor at China's Tsinghua University.

The United States, Japan, and South Korea hope China can persuade North Korea to de-nuclearize.

When the U.S. and Chinese presidents met in Texas last month, they agreed on the importance of maintaining a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula.

"In fact, North Korea's nuclear program presents China and the United States with an opportunity to work together towards a common, mutually beneficial goal," said Clark Randt, U.S. Ambassador to China.

For China, the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons is a welcome chance to show its importance and unique role in global diplomacy.

But North Korea's pride and determination to deal directly with the U.S. leave the international community wondering if Pyongyang will even listen to Beijing.

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