BEIJING (Reuters) - Reckless, ungrateful, a security threat: these are not terms that China has traditionally directed at North Korea, but they have become increasingly common in state-run media, suggesting a budding re-think of old ties.
Since North Korea conducted a second nuclear test on May 25, China has mostly stuck to its customary even-handed rhetoric on the dispute, but its officials, including a senior military officer, have been pointedly open in their worries about their much smaller neighbour.
Bleak commentary on North Korea has also multiplied in the government-controlled press, some of it going well beyond the usual official rhetoric.
"Judging from current trends, I believe a military conflict could well break out on the Korean Peninsula, first at sea and then possibly pushing towards the 38th Parallel," Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School in Beijing, wrote this month in a Chinese-language magazine, World Affairs.
The 38th Parallel is the line of latitude dividing North and South Korea.
Zhang said fresh international sanctions against North Korea are unlikely to work unless backed by the threat of force.
"In North Korea, economic and political sanctions cannot influence the concrete interests of its decision-makers. Only sanctions against North Korea backed by force will get enough attention from it," he wrote in the magazine, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Such talk may presage a tougher stance towards the hermit state on China's doorstep, partly narrowing a policy gap with Washington and its allies, several experts said.
Other recent assessments in China's press have branded the six-country nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea -- hosted by Beijing but now in the deep freeze -- an outright failure.
China's news media are not always an unfailing mirror of the leadership's thinking, but the openly worried discussion of the North marks a shift -- especially in a year when the two countries are supposed to be celebrating 60 years of official friendship.
For Drew Thompson, an expert at the Nixon Center in Washington who has studied Beijing's ties with Pyongyang, the overt expression of disenchantment suggests the Chinese government wants to prepare public opinion for harsher policies towards a country long lauded as a plucky communist friend.
"They're trying to shape elite opinion so it's not an unconditional relationship ... What they're doing is creating options for themselves," Thompson said of China's leaders.
That said, rew expect Beijing to opt for tougher pressure against Pyongyang soon.
China backed a U.N. resolution condemning the North's nuclear test and imposing fresh sanctions, but Beijing has long been reluctant to press for more. Last week, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference that sanctions should not damage ordinary trade and aid.
Chinese commentators have, nonetheless, become increasingly blunt in dismissing the six-party talks aimed at eventually ending North Korea's nuclear arms programme.
"Compared with this sense of failure, many Chinese experts and advisers are more concerned with the threat Pyongyang's nuclear weapons poses to China's security," stated the English-language China Daily last week.
"Such an attitude on the part of Pyongyang is a warning that China should reconsider its national interests."
Chinese experts and policy-makers increasingly believe they have reached an impasse with the North, said Susan Shirk, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego, and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.
"I think they recognise that North Korea has subverted the six-party talks without any good cause," said Shirk, author of 'Fragile Superpower', which examines the impact of public opinion on Chinese foreign policy.
"But they have no new ideas about how to deal with North Korea," said Shirk, who recently visited China.
Thompson said tools China could use to put pressure on North Korea included "limited disruptions" to oil supplies, refusing right of passage to North Korean ships, or downgrading the ceremonial events marking the two countries' year of friendship.
Still, the surge of negative commentary from China did not mean such steps were imminent, Thompson stressed.
"Until public opinion shifts away from China's historic ties and obligations to the DPRK ... China will have fewer options to influence Pyongyang's behaviour," he said.
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