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China mute in outcry over North Korea missiles

Written by: Staff

BEIJING, July 5 (Reuters) North Korea's missile launches today drew an instant outcry from every major capital -- except Beijing, whose silence underlined China's dilemma as it struggles to both prop up and pressure Pyongyang.

China has been an ally of the North since the 1950s and Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu is due to visit Pyongyang next week to mark a friendship treaty between the Communist brothers-in-arms.

Only last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao added his voice to those warning North Korean leader Kim Jong-il not to launch the missiles.

But unlike other regional powers, China's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment after the missiles were fired and Chinese media reports were muted.

While North Korea's long-range Taepodong-2 missile appeared to be a literal flop, dropping out of the sky after 40 seconds, Chinese analysts said international uproar over the tests would make it even more difficult for China to juggle its North Korea ties with its hopes for smooth relations with Washington and its partners.

''The test showed that North Korea has made no technological progress in the past 10 years, but this was a political step that will impose more pressure on China than the United States,'' said Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

''Washington will pressure Beijing to act against Pyongyang, but Pyongyang also wants China to act to lift the financial embargo,'' he added.

OVERSHADOWED BY IRAN China has proudly hosted six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions. The other participants are the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

But those talks have foundered since November, with North Korea refusing to take part while Washington threatens financial sanctions based on claims the North laundered money earned from drug trafficking and counterfeiting US bills.

North Korea may have used the test to draw attention to its demands for US concessions, which have been overshadowed by Iran's nuclear standoff, said observers in Beijing.

''North Korea probably feels it's been ignored, while Iran has received offers,'' said Jin Canrong, an international relations expert at the People's University of China.

''But without doubt, this is a big blow to China's efforts to revive the six-party talks.'' Yet several Beijing observers said they did not expect China to change its softly-softly diplomacy with North Korea. China considers its ties with Pyongyang too important -- and too brittle -- to risk a public rift, they said.

''China will be privately angry, but it won't change its approach; it will call for restraint from all sides,'' said Yuan Tiecheng, a Beijing-based researcher for the Shanghai Pacific Institute for International Strategy.

Chinese President Hu Jintao was feted by Kim Jong-il when he visited Pyongyang in October. In January, Hu chaperoned Kim for much of a secretive nine-day tour of China. China is now the North's main trading partner, and it contributes the lion's share of foreign investment into the North's struggling economy.

But China's sway over Pyongyang's secretive regime is much more limited than many in Washington believe, said Yan, the security expert.

''Maybe China has the biggest foreign impact on North Korea, but while 1 percent impact may be bigger than 0.1, that doesn't mean it can ever be enough,'' he said.

Reuters CH GC1550

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