BEIJING — When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.
For decades China has stood by North Korea, and though at times the relationship has soured, it has rarely reached such a low point, Chinese analysts say. The fact that the commentary by Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of an important military region, was published in a state-run newspaper this month and then posted on an official People’s Liberation Army website attested to how much the relationship had deteriorated, the analysts say.
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“China has cleaned up the D.P.R.K.'s mess too many times,” General Wang wrote in The Global Times, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But it doesn’t have to do that in the future.”
Of the government in North Korea, he said: “If an administration isn’t supported by the people, ‘collapse’ is just a matter of time.” Moreover, North Korea had violated the spirit of the mutual defense treaty with China, he said, by failing to consult China on its nuclear weapons program, which has created instability in Northeast Asia.
The significance of General Wang’s article was given greater weight because he wrote it in reply to another Global Times article by a Chinese expert on North Korea, Prof. Li Dunqiu, who took a more traditional approach, arguing that North Korea was a strategic asset that China should not abandon. Mr. Li is a former director of the Office of Korean Affairs at China’s State Council.
In a debate that unfolded among other commentators in the pages of Global Times, a state-run newspaper, after the duel between General Wang and Mr. Li, the general’s point of view — that North Korea represented a strategic liability — got considerable support. General Wang is known as a princeling general: His father, Wang Jianqing, led Mao Zedong’s troops in the fight against the Japanese in Nanjing at the end of World War II.
Efforts to reach General Wang through an intermediary were unsuccessful. The general’s secretary told the intermediary that the views in his article were his own and did not reflect those of the military.
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How widespread his views have become within the military establishment is difficult to gauge, but a Chinese official who is closely involved in China’s diplomacy with North Korea said that General Wang’s disparaging attitude was more prevalent in the Chinese military today than in any previous period.
“General Wang’s views really reflect the views of many Chinese — and within the military views are varied,” said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. Relations between the North Korean and Chinese militaries have never been close even though they fought together during the Korean War, the official said. The two militaries do not conduct joint exercises and remain wary of each other, experts say.
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China has said little about the Obama administration’s charge that North Korea was responsible for the hacking of a film produced by Sony Pictures, “The Interview.” Nevertheless, United States officials said they had reached out to China to help block North Korea’s ability to initiate cyberattacks. China has not yet responded to the request, the officials said.
Despite the disdain for North Korea in official Chinese circles there was probably some secret admiration for what the North Koreans appeared to have done, Zhang Baohui, director of the center for Asian Pacific studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said.
Even in the current cold relationship between China and North Korea there were definite limits to how far China would side with the United States on North Korea, he said. The “mistrust and rivalry” between Washington and Beijing meant China, in the event of a collapse of North Korea, could not tolerate a unified Korean Peninsula allied with Washington.
An editorial Saturday in The Global Times criticized Hollywood for “cultural arrogance,” saying that despite what Americans thought of Kim Jong-un, he remained the country’s leader.
Still, the parlous state of the relationship between North Korea and China was on display again Wednesday when Pyongyang commemorated the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and failed to invite a senior Chinese official.
The last time a Chinese leader visited North Korea was in July 2013 when Vice President Li Yuanchao tried to patch up relations, and pressed North Korea, after its third nuclear test in February 2013, to slow down its nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Li failed in that quest. The North Korean nuclear program “is continuing full speed ahead,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, a professor at Stanford University and former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory. North Korea had produced enough highly enriched uranium for six nuclear devices, and it may have enough for an additional four devices a year from now, an assessment the Chinese concurred with, Dr. Hecker said.
After the vice president’s visit, relations plummeted further, entering the icebox last December when China’s main conduit within the North Korean government, Jang Song-thaek, a senior official and the uncle of Kim Jong-un, was executed in a purge. In July, President Xi Jinping snubbed North Korea, visiting South Korea instead. Mr. Xi has yet to visit North Korea, and is said to have been infuriated by a third nuclear test by North Korea in February 2013, soon after Kim Jong-un came to power.
Though they have not met as presidents, Mr. Xi was vice president of China and met Mr. Kim when he accompanied his father to China, several Chinese analysts said.
What happened in that exchange is not known, but Mr. Xi, an experienced and prominent member of the Chinese political hierarchy, was unlikely to have been impressed with the young Mr. Kim, who at that stage was not long out of a Swiss boarding school, the analysts said.
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“It’s very obvious that there is a very significant change in attitudes,” said Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor of Study Times, the Central Party School journal, who was dismissed in early 2013 for writing a negative piece about North Korea.
In a sign of more public questioning about North Korea, Mr. Deng, who went to Britain after losing his job, is back in China and said he had no problem in organizing a debate two months ago about the problems with North Korea on Phoenix television, a satellite station based in Hong Kong that is shown on the mainland.
“North Korea will ultimately fail no matter how much you throw money at it, and it is in the process of collapse,” Mr. Deng said.
The heightened debate in China is spurred in part by fears that North Korea could collapse even though economic conditions in the agriculture sector seemed ready to improve, several Chinese analysts said. Indeed, one of the tricky balancing acts for China is how much to curtail fuel supplies and other financial support without provoking a collapse that could send refugees into China’s northeastern provinces, and result in a unified Korean Peninsula loyal to the United States.
“The general state of relations between North Korea and China is hard,” said Zheng Jiyong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University, who just returned to China after four months in Pyongyang.
“If China presses D.P.R.K. too hard it could collapse,” he said. “But if it doesn’t press hard enough it will become uncontrolled and do more things like nuclear tests.”
For his part, General Wang, who is now a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, seems unfazed by a possible collapse.
“China isn’t a savior, so it cannot save the D.P.R.K. if it is really going to collapse,” he wrote in the article. “All that China can do is to make precautions accordingly. Even if the D.P.R.K.'s collapse affects northeast China to some extent, that will in no way disrupt China’s journey of modernization.”
Correction: December 21, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a North Korean senior official and uncle to Kim Jong-un who was executed by the state. He was Jang Song-thaek, not Jang Son Taek.