Rumors and varied reports on the supposed deteriorating health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent observers into a frenzy Tuesday as analysts and watchers of Pyongyang tried to ascertain the whereabouts and condition of the 36-year-old dictator.
Intelligence agencies, journalists, and researchers are all trying to work out the state of play. The unexpected news—and subsequent speculation—from across the border with North Korea will have been an unwelcome surprise in Beijing, where officials are already grappling with the COVID-19 coronavirus fallout and economic collapse.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Tuesday that the government was aware of the reports but did not know their source, declining to comment further on the matter and providing no clarity on a situation that could destabilize Asia.
North Korea has long been a volatile but useful foreign policy tool for the Chinese. The secretive state provides a handy buffer zone to keep democratic South Korea and tens of thousands of American troops away from its border, an important enough objective for China to commit more than 1 million troops to the Korean War.
Ultimately China values stability on the Korean Peninsula, and at times has shifted from tacit support for Pyongyang to condemnation, for example when the North has tested nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Beijing backed international sanctions on the regime, though is accused of facilitating illegal workarounds.
Nonetheless, reports of Kim's imminent demise risk fomenting unwelcome instability in North Korea. With no clear succession plan, his death or incapacitation could throw a heavily armed and secretive state into chaos right on China's border. With Beijing's hands already full, that is the last thing President Xi Jinping needs.
Xi's grand plan for a global China is taking a beating this year. The Chinese Communist Party, increasingly looking out to the world in recent years, is threading its way through the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, which originated in the city of Wuhan and whose rapid and near-unchecked spread has been blamed, with some justification, on the inaction of Chinese officials.
The subsequent crisis will stretch even the world's richest economies, and already that are murmurs in the West that China should foot at least some of the bill. At the very least, China-skeptics are calling for key production capabilities and supply lines to be reclaimed—a threat to the arrangement that has made Beijing so wealthy.
China's relationships with its Western rivals were already strained before the novel coronavirus. In the U.S., President Donald Trump has driven three years of anti-Beijing policy, plunging both economies into an enormous trade war costing billions of dollars.
Though critics have questioned the president's methods, there is bipartisan recognition that malign Chinese policy, such as industrial espionage, needs to be checked.
Meanwhile, U.S.-Chinese posturing has continued in the South China Sea, while American forces have watched warily as China's footprint in Africa, South America, Europe and even the Arctic has expanded.
China's multi-trillion dollar "Belt and Road" project—designed to create a huge new trade network across Asia, Europe, and Africa—is the manifestation of China's global perspective and economic clout, and for its critics the best evidence yet of Beijing's neocolonial ambitions.
At home, Xi's totalitarian regime has been working hard to stamp out dissent in all its forms. Helped by an unprecedented surveillance network, the CCP has jailed millions of Uighurs and other minority groups in the far-western Xinjiang province in what human rights groups have condemned as a cultural genocide.
Beijing maintains that its measures are not as extreme as the West has made out, and that a large policing operation is needed to stamp out an Islamic insurgency in the restive region.
Some 2,000 miles away on the other side of the country, many citizens in Hong Kong, one of China's jewels, have been railing against the heavy hand of the CCP, demanding democracy and the resignation of the China-backed chief executive.
Hong Kong's government and police violently clamped down on the demonstrations, directed by Beijing. Unrest continues even during the coronavirus pandemic, if at a lower level, and pro-democracy campaigners have vowed to continue their fight.
An ailing or dead Kim would be a volatile element added to an already busy mix. Former special representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun told Newsweek that it would be a "huge deal" for China if Kim's health was deteriorating.
Whatever happens, Yun—now a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace—noted it is "critically important" for Beijing to have leaders in North Korea that they trust and can rely on. "Beijing wants someone who they know, they have a relationship with."
Chaos is the worst case scenario, and threatens a power vacuum that South Korea or the U.S. could exploit, Yun said. China has "more at stake there really than anyone else, except for South Korea," he said. "But South Korea has no leverage. Beijing has plenty of leverage in Pyongyang."
A North Korean civil war or state collapse would mean millions of refugees flooding north and south, seeking refuge in China or South Korea. Many will be malnourished and will carry the scars of decades living under the secretive regime and its immersive propaganda campaign.
Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, told Newsweek that "China's worst nightmare—besides a war with the U.S.—is North Korea becoming somehow destabilized."
"The Chinese Communist Party is no fan of Kim Jong Un despite all of their recent summits, but they would rather deal with the dictator they know then see a power struggle where nuclear weapons would be up for grabs—or even perhaps for sale if things were to get totally out of hand," Kazianis said.
Kazianias suggested that Xi and his top lieutenants are "most likely reaching out to Kim and his sister to see what his real health status is. Unfortunately even Xi may not know until we see Kim watching the latest North Korean missile test—or his death is announced."
If Kim is dead or somehow incapacitated, it is not clear who would take the reins. A member of the dynasty is most likely, though of Kim's two brothers one is already dead—believed assassinated under Kim's orders—and one does not involve himself in politics.
Kim's 31-year-old sister Kim Yo Jong is considered a strong contender, and in recent years has risen through the ranks of the regime to become the dictator's right-hand woman. But her gender would undermine any effort to take power in the conservative and patriarchal country.
Another option is some kind of shared regency until one of Kim's three children are old enough to take charge. This may include Kim Yo Jong and other key figures within the regime.
But the reality is that few outside of Kim's inner circle know his condition or of any plan of succession if he was to die. "Sadly, North Korea is the ultimate intelligence black box, and facts end up looking like a TMZ Kardashians rumor piece most of the time if you go back and look months later at some of the items we believe," Kazianis said.