China's Reaction: Tightening the Screws

Once upon a time Beijing officials and scholars would have scoffed at the idea of effecting Chinese-style regime change in Pyongyang. But in the wake of Kim's nuke test, an unprecedented debate has broken out over Beijing's North Korea policies. Last Friday four major Chinese banks stopped making financial transfers to North Korea--a tactic that could quickly pinch a weak economy that relies on China as a link to the international financial system. And this year China has reduced food exports to Pyongyang by two thirds. "I've never seen the Chinese leadership so resolved to be tougher towards North Korea," says Zhu Feng, head of Peking University's international-security program.

Among some close advisers to the government, the idea of a Beijing-friendly palace coup has gained new currency. China certainly has the means: it provides 11,000 barrels of oil to North Korea every day , accounting for more than 70 percent of Pyongyang's total energy supply. Beijing stopped oil deliveries for three days in early 2003 to pressure Pyongyang to join the Six-Party Talks. (Later Chinese apparatchiks insisted there had been a mechanical malfunction.) Chinese authorities insist they want Kim to return to the talks again, but some scholars, furious at Kim's recalcitrance, are calling on their government to pull the oil plug instead. "Chinese diplomacy has been a failure," says Prof. Zhang Liangui, a foreign-policy analyst at the influential Central Party School. "To not stop oil [deliveries] would be baffling from a moral point of view."

According to a former U.S. Pentagon official and Korea watcher, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, the likely pool of moderate North Koreans who could succeed Kim includes Sinophile military officers and technocrats who have come to believe that Chinese-style economic reforms will help transform North Korea. The presence in China of high-level defectors, including military officers, has sparked rumors of a Beijing supported "Chrysanthemum group" who could be the backbone of a new regime, the source says, though "the Chinese never talk about it." South Korean experts on the North recall similar, albeit "theoretical" talk of a Chinese shadow cabinet in 2003-2004.

A successful coup, while farfetched, would ease Beijing's fears of anarchy and a flood of refugees on its border. But the crucial question is how the interests of China diverge from the United States' and South Korea's when it comes to post-Kim scenarios. Beijing would prefer to maintain a friendly, ideally socialist, buffer state on its periphery, which could keep U.S. soldiers based in South Korea at arm's length. Seoul isn't seeking instant reunification with the North, either--too expensive--but South Korean strategists may want to move troops into the North to prevent its being absorbed by China. Replacing Kim might not be any easier than dealing with him now.