China’s concerns are, of course, that an implosion of the Kim regime would lead to a refugee outflow into the People’s Republic and a movement of American troops up to the Chinese border. Beijing also always wants to defend the principle of sovereignty in international affairs, since it does not want other countries criticizing China’s own rights abuses.
But over time, China’s lack of real influence has become clearer and clearer, no matter what Crowley or McCain might think. Rather than exerting leverage, China has been played for a fool, revealing that China is not yet ready for the great power status to which it aspires. Over and over, Kim has apparently offered just enough reforms to convince China that he might be on the road to real change, but then pulled back after winning new tranches of aid, embarrassing Beijing yet again. And when China uses its diplomatic leverage to defend Pyongyang at the United Nations, or in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, held in Beijing, Pyongyang often seems to go out of its way to embarrass its benefactor.
Indeed, after initially allowing some economic openness, in recent years Kim has slammed the door on reforms, cracking down on private markets and forcing North Koreans and even foreign merchants operating in the country to convert their foreign currencies to the worthless North Korean won, costing them huge sums of money. (An obvious slap in the face to China.) Kim also seems to have kept China in the dark about many of the details of his nuclear program, so that Beijing winds up embarrassed when the United States uncovers them, as when Kim recently revealed his highly enriched uranium program to visiting American scientists. In the recently released Wikileaks cables, Chinese officials come off as uninformed about the state of the uranium program, telling their American counterparts it was only “in an initial phase.” In another cable, Chinese officials’ knowledge of plans for North Korean succession appears minimal. In yet another, a Chinese ambassador admits to his American counterpart that their efforts to pressure North Korea to negotiate with the rest of the world “had had no effect.”