By Steven Mufson
The Washington Post
BEIJING — The views posted on Chinese Internet sites about the diplomatic faceoff with longtime ally North Korea have been anything but diplomatic.
"China should make a pre-emptive strike on North Korea instead of waiting until the war happens," said a person using the pseudonym Power Plant of Plug.
Someone identified as Anti-Hurricane declared: "North Korea is an unfaithful wolf which will never be fully fed."
Yet another questioned China's fraternal relations with Pyongyang. "Is the country that threatened to turn another country into a sea of flames worth our help and support?" asked a person using the name Yan Heming.
Six decades after the Korean War ended, North Korea is sounding as bellicose as ever, but the average Chinese citizen has moved on, focusing on living standards, not war and revolution. And as the Chinese grow prosperous, they see little in common with the struggling people of the Marxist state, analysts say.
"It will be big trouble for China once the tide of North Korea refugees including drug dealers, NK agents and currency counterfeiters enters China. They want to destroy everyone," said the writer of Power Plant of Plug.
These days, the sacrifices China made fighting beside the North Koreans against U.S. and South Korean forces in the early 1950s seem distant.
"Several hundred thousand young lives were buried in their land. Did North Korea ever cherish that?" Yan asked. "We should abandon North Korea!"
The first two Kims to lead North Korea, Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, took their own provocative actions — the 1983 bombing of South Korean leaders visiting Rangoon, Burma, the 1987 downing of a South Korean passenger plane and a 1990s uranium enrichment program that violated an agreement freezing nuclear weapons development.
But the recent nuclear threats by Kim Jong Un have raised tension to a new level. "This is really a crazy leadership" in North Korea, said Chu Shulong, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "So dangerous."
Chu has long argued that China has been "too soft, too weak on North Korea" and should be tougher. "We need to do more sanctions," Chu said. "Let them know that we are angry and cannot accept their actions."
Instead, until now, China has sought to draw North Korea close, providing aid and investment and urging it to follow China's lead in opening up for economic modernization. Aid to North Korea grew from a third of China's aid budget a decade ago to half of its now-larger aid budget, according to Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
During visits to China, Kim Jong Il was taken to cellphone and car factories, fiber-optic plants and other showcases of Chinese economic reform. In 2011, the countries agreed to create two special economic zones in North Korea.
The goal was to produce a common interest in stability and development, but it did not work out that way.
"The argument was that we shouldn't give up" on North Korea, Chu said. "A certain group said, 'Everyone knows North Korea is a bad guy, but to isolate it would put us in a more dangerous position, so we should try to change North Korea.' "
Today the relationship is limited. Military sales ended many years ago. China provides about 10,000 barrels of crude oil a day, according to a Reuters report based on Chinese customs data. That modest amount at today's high prices could add up to nearly $400 million a year. China did not provide any oil to North Korea in February, but that was also the case in February in the previous two years.
About five years ago, China focused on extracting mineral resources from North Korea.
But the latest nuclear saber rattling by Kim 3.0 has pushed China's leaders into greater recognition of their failure to sway the youngest Kim.
"The latest escapades by the North — predominantly political theater for domestic purposes but potentially very dangerous — appear to be altering the balance of opinion in Beijing," said Jonathan Pollack, director of the China center at the Brookings Institution. "This issue has been the subject of intermittent Chinese debate since the time of North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, but for the first time, leaders are beginning to acknowledge that the notion of North Korea as a strategic asset is laughable, even if they have yet to fully figure out what to do about it."
China's new president, Xi Jinping, has signaled that shift. Nearly a decade ago, Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao told Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, that their relations were "firm as a monolith."
But on March 7, China backed tighter United Nations sanctions. On April 6, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that "Beijing opposes any provocative words and actions from any party in the region and does not allow troublemaking at the doorsteps of China."
An April 10 editorial in the state-run People's Daily defended North Korea's right to pursue its own domestic policies and bolster its military forces without foreign interference. But it drew the line at a nuclear or missile test. Such sensitive editorials are often penned by senior government officials.
North Korea "is accountable for the escalating intensive situation in the peninsula," the newspaper said, and "if the choice and words of Democratic People's Republic of Korea . . . influence the peace and stability of the region, it becomes an international issue. We can't let the DPRK do whatever it wants."
Chu said, "I think Chinese tolerance is coming to an end."
That's certainly true among the Chinese chatting online, and their language is blunt.
"Once [Kim] draws people's attention, he will make unreasonable requests and act shamelessly, asking for candy," said Zhanbo Weide, who said China should "beat" Kim "and deliver him to his aunt in South Korea for some strict education."