Listen: that sound you hear coming out of Beijing is a deep sigh of relief. Like practically everybody, China's leaders have been fretting over North Korea. Beijing's policy has been to hope for the best by subsidizing Kim Jong Il's weak regime with food and fuel, and prepare for the worst, the potential implosion of its communist ally. China's military even planned a number of huge refugee "reception centers"--each capable of accommodating as many as 100,000 migrants--in the event desperate North Koreans began streaming across the border into China's own "rust belt." President Jiang Zemin has personally met with top South Korean intelligence officials for briefings, NEWSWEEK has learned. "They presumably compared notes on what they each know about the North--and what to do if it collapsed," says Bob Manning, a Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. "China is a major player on the peninsula, and it has a helluva lot at stake."
In PR terms at least, Beijing's gamble on Korea seems to have paid off. The Foreign Ministry declared that China "rejoices at the success of the summit." With Kim Jong Il gaining new respectability, and with more financial aid coming from South Korea, government officials last week were beaming proudly like the mentors of a mischief-maker who'd become the most popular kid in his class. China now envisions a more stable, though still like-minded, neighbor. "It is in China's national interest to have a socialist buffer zone, no matter how obnoxious," says Jim Lilley, former ambassador to both Seoul and Beijing.
There is one fly in the ointment. In the wake of the dramatic summit, the leaders of the North and South are preparing to strike out on an unpredictable journey toward reunification. That prospect makes everyone a little jittery, because a shifting Korean dynamic could affect the entire security architecture in Northeast Asia. Aside from the Koreans themselves, no one has more to lose than the Chinese. A new race for influence could commence. Vladimir Putin, the new Russian president, will visit Pyongyang next month. "Many Koreans see themselves as 'shrimp among whales,' and historically they've felt the need for a protector," says Doug Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington. China certainly knows how to play that role. Kim sought China's counsel less than two weeks before the summit, when he made a secretive trip to Beijing--his first known venture abroad in 17 years. "China was visibly pleased with the 'face' it gained from Kim's visit," notes a Western diplomat in Beijing. Kim praised the "success" of China's market reforms, raising hopes that the North Korean leader might embark on a Chinese-style makeover of his country's ravaged economy.
At the same time, Beijing has managed to build a robust relationship with the South. Since China established diplomatic relations with Seoul, trade has grown seven-fold and "South Koreans have a much more favorable attitude to China than in 1991," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. Bilateral ties are so important that South Korea's newly named ambassador to Beijing, Hong Soon-young, is one of the country's top diplomats and a former foreign minister--while its new ambassador to Washington is a lower-ranking academic and ex-parliamentarian. "It's not exactly a snub to the United States," says Snyder, "but it does signify something important: that the South's 'U.S.-only' attitude of the 1980s is beginning to change. Washington can't assume South Korea is in its pocket anymore." That pleases China, as does the probability that Korea is not going to establish a unified capital in Seoul any time soon. Even if both sides commit rhetorically to something called reunification, the process is apt to drag out for a very long time.