China and North Korea's New Dynasty

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il talks to Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to China in May 2010.

Even by brisk North China standards, Dandong, a city of 800,000 bordering North Korea across the Yalu River, is forbiddingly cold throughout the winter. Year-round, however, it is an economic hotbed through which much of the 90 percent of trade from the world's most isolated country passes.

Flanked by North Korean restaurants, the Yalu is a focus for foreign tourists, too. Chartered speedboats allow them a glimpse of the "Hermit Kingdom" and a chance to throw cigarettes and food to people on its shores. Those desperate on the other side, meanwhile, see an escape across the freezing, heavily patrolled 1,040-mile border, if one fraught with peril—including banishment to Soviet-style gulags housing as many as 200,000 people.

Now, with President Kim Jong-il dead and the Dandong crossings shuttered, China faces a watershed moment, having officially endorsed his untested youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Moreover, since a divided Korea is key given a U.S. military presence in the South—and potential waves of refugees from a collapse—North Korea's closest ally will take the spotlight by maintaining stability at all costs.

Beijing had been offering the Democratic People's Republic of Korea lessons in free-market reforms to improve its economy, reduce its nuclear and long-range ballistic missile arsenal, and soften relations with South Korea, with which it has been technically at war since 1953. In fact, in the 18 months preceding his death, the reclusive Kim Jong-il visited China a record four times.

Trade statistics remain elusive, but in 2010 the U.S. Congressional Research Service reported exports from North Korea to China increasing to $800 million, although Chinese exports fell to $1.9 billion. Likewise, North Korea has sought a free-trade zone on its northern border, along with investment in its virtually non-existent tourism sector.

None of this, though, has provided an opening to the West. Since North Korea's second dynastic ruler suffered a stroke in 2008, China has consistently spurned Washington's efforts to understand Pyongyang, owing to regional military tensions. Today, Beijing is likely using its contacts to rally the junta behind its new ruler, reportedly in his late 20s, while retraining it from lasing out at South Korea to consolidate short-term power.

Overall, in China three narratives among the Communist Party's 70 million members, its elite and ordinary citizens prevail, even as leaders remain surprisingly in the dark. In the first, the North Koreans are seen ambivalently: Support to Pyongyang's 1.1 million-strong military—the fifth largest in the world—elicits understanding given China's modern history.

"Many in the Chinese government hierarchy see the North Koreans as an embarrassment—like an alcoholic younger brother at Thanksgiving dinner," said one American China analyst. "Have some whiskey, sit down and shut up." 

Since China's mass media has close government ties, Pyongyang frequently offers junkets to its reporters. In addition to free food and accommodation, naturally, the journalists also get heavily propagandized tours through the capital—and, as with all foreigners, the countryside is off limits.

Many of these reporters openly scorn attempts to glorify, or gloss over, the untoward ways of the repressive government. They also see North Korean jingoism especially distasteful, since 2 million people died of starvation in the "Arduous March" of the late 1990s.

Other Chinese, however, see in North Korea a more benign place, a staunch ally with a common history bullied unfairly by the West. It is a torchbearer, in this line of thinking, of the virtues of China's revolutionary years, with resoluteness in the face of foreign threats.

This was evident last year when the North lobbed 70 artillery shells onto South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, killing four and injuring 18. Murmurs among the Chinese media suggested Seoul provoked the attack. Then, after the sinking of a South Korean destroyer, leading to the death of 46 crewmen, also that year, Beijing even joined Pyongyang in denying North Korean involvement

But outright annoyance among China's government leaders has flared, according to diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, in particular over its nuclear weapons. In one incident a Beijing envoy called North Korea a "child" over disarmament in light of the Six-Party Talks—partly hosted by China—after North Korea became the eighth country to conduct a nuclear test. Following North Korea's first nuclear test, China reacted by temporarily severing oil supplies and other exports.

Irrespective of Chinese patience with their troubled neighbor, Beijing must surely be in an acute state of panic. It has been widely reported that Chinese party officials expected at least another two years to pass before a transfer of power could be readied.

Nonetheless China, to the best of its ability, remains the only country that has a chance at calling the shots in North Korea while North Asia—and much of the world beyond—waits with baited breath.

Joseph Kirschke is an American writer and a former editor at China Daily, the biggest-circulating English-language newspaper in China, based in Beijing.