Nobody likes dealing with Kim Jong Il anymore, including those countries closestto Pyongyang. South Korea, which has for years tried to placate the North, nowadays casts a more jaundiced eye on its communist brother. Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon--the leading candidate to replace Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations--said last week that he was "frustrated and disappointed" over Pyongyang's refusal to resume talks on its suspected nuclear-weapons program. And Seoul wasn't too happy with the missile tests conducted by the North in July, which embarrassed the government of Roh Moo Hyun. Ban urged Pyongyang to be "realistic" and to "start thinking about its future."
Kim is not a realist (or a pragmatist), and that's why he's got another worry. China is also losing patience with him. Beijing, too, wants the North to return to the nuclear negotiating table--and to liberalize and expand its economy, as the People's Republic has done. North Korea's intransigence on both issues has seriously strained relations--so much so that Beijing could prove as much a threat to Kim's leadership position as the United States.
Signs of deteriorating ties abound. China has been beefing up forces and fortifications along its border with the North. Some 2,000 troops have been sent to the area in recent weeks, says a Tokyo-based analyst who asked for anonymity to protect his sources. Earlier, the Chinese military conducted its own series of missile launches in the border region not long after the North's. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have been cracking down on North Korean economic migrants, many of them working in factories in the Chinese border town of Dandong. Business people in Dandong, who wish to remain unnamed to avoid angering the Chinese authorities, say that over the past few weeks, stepped-up customs checks have reduced the erstwhile torrent of North Korean traders to a trickle.
And then there's the hot-button issue of North Korean defectors. The Chinese authorities are usually quick to send them back. But a few weeks after Pyongyang's missile tests, Beijing allowed three North Koreans who had sought asylum in a U.S. Consulate in Shenyang to leave the country--a clear sign of Chinese displeasure, say diplomats. "China is allowing North Koreans to defect to the U.S. to put more pressure on Pyongyang," says Lee Sang Hyun of South Korea's Sejong Institute. Officially, Chinese leaders still reiterate their commitment to the Beijing-Pyongyang alliance. But, says Park Yong Ho, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-run think tank, "unofficially, liberal bureaucrats are expressing their dissatisfaction with the North."
Small wonder, then, that Kim recently described China (and Russia) as "untrustworthy" during a recent meeting with North Korean ambassadors in Pyongyang, according to diplomats in the region. That mistrust goes even deeper than the spat over the missile tests. North Korean military leaders are said to be suspicious of China's rapidly expanding investment in North Korean mines and infrastructure (one reason, perhaps, that Pyongyang introduced a visa requirement for Chinese businessmen earlier this year).
Far worse, in Kim's eyes, is China's recently revealed co-operation with U.S. financial sanctions that have crippled the North's business dealings abroad. China, desperate to preserve its access to the U.S. financial system, has been cracking down on some of the North's more dubious financial practices--including its suspected counterfeiting of Chinese currency. (A North Korean diplomat last week denounced the U.S.-led financial sanctions as "intolerable," and said they were the reason Pyongyang refuses to resume nuclear talks.)
No one is expecting a complete break between Pyongyang and Beijing. Indeed, last week Wu Dawei, China's envoy to North Korea, said he supported a new plan by Seoul and Washington to bring Pyongyang back to the nuclear talks, though no one has said yet what the proposal involves. North Korea can't survive without Chinese aid, and China doesn't want to confront the consequences of a possible North Korean collapse--which could trigger not only vast refugee flows but also military involvement by South Korea and the United States. But the recent signals of dissatisfaction may have a more immediate motive: to prevent Pyongyang from conducting a nuclear test. That's the last thing China wants--and this time around, it's going to make sure that North Korea is hearing the message.