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China keeps U.S. waiting on North Korea's future

BEIJING — U.S. attempts to draw up a broad contingency plan in case North Korea's government collapses are being complicated by China's refusal to talk about potential chaos engulfing its dysfunctional neighbor.

Both Washington and Beijing are growing more anxious about the stability of the Korean Peninsula, with Pyongyang's recent missile and nuclear tests, uncertainty about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the apparent designation of his 26-year-old son as successor. There's much Washington wants to go over with Beijing in a meltdown scenario: securing North Korea's nuclear weapons, dealing with panicked North Koreans overrunning borders and drawing up ground rules to keep the U.S. and Chinese militaries from clashing as they did in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The U.S. has raised the idea of joint talks in several meetings with senior Chinese officials, most recently during a visit to Beijing last month by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, The Associated Press has learned from foreign diplomats and Chinese scholars briefed on the meetings. Chinese officials rejected the overtures, although they pledged to work constructively with the U.S. on North Korea. Both the scholars and the diplomats asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Chinese foreign ministry sidestepped questions from the AP on the U.S. requests and North Korean contingency plans, saying only that "China has always been engaged in realizing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula." The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and treaty obligations to defend that country and nearby Japan. China too is wary about being drawn into conflict that might destabilize its northeastern areas near the North Korean border, which have struggled economically in the past decade.

Without careful planning with China, the U.S. is concerned that both armed forces could be drawn into conflict accidentally or be ill-prepared to handle attacks by North Korea's army, the world's fourth largest. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is 40 miles from the North Korean border and a tempting target for a dying regime. If North Korea mounts an armed resistance to foreign militaries, a force larger than the U.S. committed to Iraq might be needed, a Council on Foreign Relations study said in January.

"We have to talk about the potential mess because the probability is low but it could be catastrophic," said Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.

However, he said, the Chinese government's unwillingness to discuss North Korea's future with Washington is understandable given the difficulty in sundering longstanding ties. "It's hard to talk about your grandma before she's gone. This is estate planning."

Beijing has ample reasons for not drawing too close to Washington. Should North Korea learn about U.S.-China talks on a post-Kim future, Beijing is worried that its already tetchy ally would become more difficult to deal with. If Kim's regime crumbles, China's communist leadership may want to preserve North Korea as a buffer state, rather than see a unified Korea ruled by U.S.-allied Seoul that could bring a democratic government and American troops to China's doorstep.

"It's most urgent to talk with the U.S. about this future," said Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert at Renmin University in Beijing. But North Korea "will accuse us of being too colonialist for trying to arrange their future," Jin said, and "in the minds of our leaders, there's still a lack of confidence and trust in the United States."