BEIJING — China, North Korea's most important ally, said Tuesday it wants friendly relations and hopes for stability in its neighbor following the purging of a top official considered close to Beijing.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Jang Song Thaek's ouster was an internal affair, but his comments point to Beijing's concerns that the North's opaque politics may have entered a more unpredictable stage.
"We hope North Korea can maintain national stability, the people's well-being and economic growth. China will remain committed to developing the friendly relationship between China and North Korea," Hong said at a regularly scheduled briefing.
Jang's dismissal deprives Beijing of its most important connection to the North Korean leadership, further diminishing China's thin influence with its isolated, hard-line Communist neighbor.
In 2012, Jang led a large delegation to China to discuss construction of special economic zones.
China is North Korea's only significant ally and a key source of trade and aid. Despite such apparent influence, Beijing has been unsuccessful in coaxing North Korea back to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, while its need for stability along its northeastern border keeps it from getting overly tough on its neighbor.
"China doesn't have many connections with (North Korea) at the top level to begin with. Jang's purge means that China lost one of the few conduits they had," said Roger Cavazos, a North Korea watcher at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.
Jang, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Jun, was stripped of his titles for alleged transgressions including instigating party dissent and squandering party funds on drugs, gambling and women.
Under North Korea's policy of collective punishment, all of his associates are likely to be purged along with him, including many members of the 2012 delegation.
While hardly a liberal, Jang was seen as a relative moderate not vehemently opposed to the sort of economic reforms Beijing has sought to encourage. His removal raises new questions for Beijing and others about Kim's attitude toward reform, with the leader offering few clues other than a stated goal of pursuing both nuclear weapons and economic growth, Cavazos said.
While South Korea's intelligence service had reported Jang's rumored purge before North Korea's official announcement, it didn't appear that Beijing had received any warning it was coming, Cavazos said.
"China is likely upset that their ally seemed to have informed China of their actions at the same time it informed the world," he said.