North Korea's best friend? The Chinese aren't so sure



Beds shook and teacups clattered in this town bordering North Korea, less than 100 miles from the site where the North said it detonated a nuclear test that exploded midmorning in the midst of Chinese New Year festivities.

"I'm worried about radiation," a 26-year-old woman said as she served customers in a bookstore here. "My family lives in the mountains close to the border. They felt the bed shake on the day of the test. I have no idea whether it is safe or not, though the government says it is."

At home and abroad, China has long been regarded as North Korea's best friend, but at home that sense of fraternity appears to be souring as ordinary people express anxiety about possible fallout from the test last Tuesday. The fact that North Korea detonated the device on a special Chinese holiday did not sit well either.

Among Chinese officials, the mood toward the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has darkened. "The public does not want China to be the only friend of an evil regime, and we're not even recognised by North Korea as a friend," said Jin Qiangyi, director of the Center for North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji City.

With its site near the border, Yanji City has long been a hub of North Korean affairs inside China and where people have a relatively good understanding of their opaque and recalcitrant neighbour. This is often where desperate defectors from the impoverished police state first seek shelter, where legal and illegal cross-border trade thrives and where much of the population has roots in North Korea.

The test detonated at Punggye-ri near North Korea's northern coast last week was considerably more powerful than its first nuclear test in 2006 and as large as, or larger than, one in 2009, according to Western and Chinese experts. It remained unclear whether the test was fuelled by plutonium or uranium; a uranium test would exacerbate tensions, suggesting that the North had a new and faster way of building its nuclear fuel stockpile.

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