Even Pyongyang's friends have proved fickle. Last week, South Korean newspapers reported that China, the North's closest ally, largest trading partner and aid donor, had frozen North Korean assets held in the Macau branch of the Bank of China. Beijing's clampdown, which took place last year, followed a similar freeze on about $24 million of Pyongyang's cash in another Macau bankBanco Delta Asiawhich the U.S. claimed was funneling money the North earns from drug smuggling and counterfeiting.
Is China's clampdown a sign that Beijing has tired of running interference for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and will back U.S. efforts to force Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear weapons? Unlikely, says Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. China and North Korea have been at odds latelyBeijing warned against the missile testsand there are "hurt feelings," he says. But "fundamentally it is a very tight relationship."
Certainly Pyongyang's behavior hasn't changed. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit last week, appeals were made for the North to participate in talks on its missile and nuclear programs. They were spurned; Pyongyang issued a statement calling U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a "political imbecile." Kim seems willing to defy anyone, even his benefactors in Beijing. Paul Carroll of the Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based foundation working on non-proliferation, was in Pyongyang recently with U.S. scholars, where he met with officials including Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan. After the missile launch, Carroll says, Kim observed: "What I hear is big brothers saying to little brother, 'Don't do that,' but we are not a little boy. We have nuclear weapons."