Leaked US diplomatic cables show China's frustration with communist ally North Korea and speculate Beijing would accept a future Korean peninsula unified under South Korean rule, according to the documents released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
The memos indicate the major importance American and South Korean diplomats place on China's attitude toward the future survival of the isolated and impoverished hard-line communist regime in Pyongyang.
The release of the documents follows new tensions in the region with North Korea unleashing a fiery artillery barrage on a South Korean island that killed four people a week ago. The regime also warned that joint US-South Korean naval drills this week had pushed the peninsula to the "brink of war."
China "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the US in a 'benign alliance' as long as Korea was not hostile towards China," South Korea's then-vice foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, is quoted as telling US ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, in February.
Economic opportunities in a reunified Korea could further induce Chinese acquiescence, Chun says.
The diplomatic cables warn, however, that China, which fought on North Korea's side in the 1950-53 Korean War, would not accept the presence of US troops in north of the demilitarized zone that currently forms the North-South border.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China had noted the leaked cables but would not comment on specific content.
"China always supports the North and South sides of the Korean peninsula to have dialogue and consultation to improve their relations," Hong said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
In the leaked cable, Chun predicts the government in Pyongyang would last no more than three years following the death of ailing leader Kim Jong Il, who is seeking to transfer power to son Kim Jong Un, a political ingenue in his 20s.
While China favors maintaining the status quo, it has little ability to stop a collapse and less influence over the authorities in Pyongyang than is widely believed, it says.
"Beijing had 'no will' to use its economic leverage to force a change in Pyongyang's policies," Chun says, adding the North Korean leadership would continue refusing to dismantle its nuclear program in the absence of a more forceful Chinese approach.
Chun also dismisses the possibility of Chinese military intervention if North Korea descended into chaos.
Despite that, China is preparing to handle any outbreaks of unrest along the border that could follow a collapse of the regime.