BEIJING // US documents indicating China is willing to see North Korea merged into its southern rival prompted a cautious response yesterday from analysts sceptical about whether the diplomatic cables reflected Beijing's thinking.
The documents were leaked as Pyongyang confirmed the uranium enrichment facilities seen recently by a US scientist were operational.
According to the classified US diplomatic cables, earlier this year the then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told the US ambassador to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, that the Chinese leadership was not keen on propping up the regime in Pyongyang.
Mr Chun is said to have indicated there was "a generational difference in Chinese attitudes towards North Korea".
However, Mr Chun allegedly said Beijing had "no will" to use its economic clout to rein in North Korea and its nuclear programme.
Mr Chun told Ms Stephens that North Korea "had already collapsed economically and would collapse politically two to three years after the death of [the current leader] Kim Jong-il".
The cables also indicate that even Beijing, which is Pyongyang's closest ally, has often had sketchy knowledge about events in North Korea ranging from the country's uranium-enrichment programme to the leadership succession.
In a further apparent indication of Beijing's frustration with Pyongyang, He Yafei, the Chinese vice-foreign minister, apparently said last year that North Korea was behaving like a "spoiled child" in staging a missile test to force the United States to engage in bilateral talks.
Wong Yiuchung, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said despite the documents' contents, it was unlikely Beijing would be willing to see the Koreas unified.
"Right now, China would not consider such a move beneficial to its security," he said.
Similarly, Alan Chong, an associate professor in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Beijing would continue to want North Korea's current regime as a buffer to a US-allied South Korea.
In further revelations yesterday, North Korea's KCNA news agency said the country was "operating a modern uranium enrichment system with many thousands of centrifuges" to supply a light water reactor it was "actively building". It insisted the project was for electricity generation, not nuclear-weapons production.
A week after the shelling by North Korea of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in which four people died, military exercises between South Korea and the United States continued in the Yellow Sea.
The manoeuvres, involving a series of South Korean naval vessels and aircraft, and five US warships including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, end today.
While South Korea, the United States and Japan appear reluctant to take up Beijing's offer earlier this week to stage emergency six-party talks amid the crisis on the peninsula, the three allies will instead meet in Washington to discuss how to deal with North Korea. The six-party discussions involving the US, both Koreas, Japan, China and Russia, have been on hold since April 2009.
However, a Japanese envoy is heading for China for talks, after Beijing's continued reluctance to criticise its ally North Korea, despite calls from Tokyo, Seoul and Washington for it to do so.
Choe Thae-bok, the chairman of North Korea's parliament, is also travelling to Beijing for discussions with the Chinese leadership.
Anger in South Korea yesterday at both Pyongyang and the leadership in Seoul over what was seen as a weak response to last week's shellfire from North Korea showed no signs of waning.
Thousands of protesters in Seoul burned North Korean flags, demanded that the country apologise for the barrage last week and called for the overthrow of the leadership in North Korea.
"We've had enough," said one 64-year-old protester, Kim Jin-gyu. "We should just smash it up."
To deflect criticism that has also been levelled at him, the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, replaced the defence minister and indicated Seoul would react more forcefully in future. Additional weaponry has been sent to Yeonpyeong.
The outgoing defence minister, Kim Tae-young, yesterday said there was "ample possibility" North Korea would launch more strikes against its southern neighbour.
* With additional reporting by The Associated Press