Kim's characteristically belligerent behavior has heightened security tensions in North Asia and lent fresh urgency to the question of how to reign him in. Iraq-obsessed U.S. diplomats, who would prefer Kim wait his turn as global bad guy, have chosen to cut off dialogue with North Korea, as well as 500,000 tons of heavy oil provided yearly under a 1994 accord. But the hard-line stance favored by Washington is worrisome to Japan and South Korea, who are within striking distance of North Korean missiles and artillery and fear Kim might act rashly if backed into a corner.
The details of Armitage's meeting aren't known, but there are plenty of other signs that China's patience is running thin. In October, when North Korea disclosed that it was pursuing nuclear weapons development, China's Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi presented a stern position paper to the all-powerful Politburo. In the past, such memorandums have cast North Korean behavior as reasonable. This time, however, Wang introduced the damning phrase "diplomatic adventurism" to describe Pyongyang's tactics, according to a Chinese policymaker familiar with the contents.
The wording shows that China is growing antsy about Kim's efforts to coerce the U.S. back to the negotiating table by rattling sabers. Kim wants a new dialogue, in part to get oil shipments and other aid—help he desperately needs to keep his citizens from starving—but also to wrestle a nonaggression treaty from the U.S. Kim figures he will have to get it while Washington remains occupied with Iraq. Last week's announcement that the country would reactivate its five-megawatt nuclear reactor in Yongbyon appeared to be another page from Kim's script. The facility was shut down under a 1994 agreement because it was capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. But with the American government suspending oil shipments, the North claims its obligations to the U.S. are now null and void.
For China, the situation looks increasingly ominous. If North Korea has nukes, South Korea and possibly Japan will feel pressured to develop nuclear strike capabilities of their own to deter the North, say diplomats. That raises the prospect of China—which already shares borders with nuclear powers India, Pakistan and Russia—facing ancient adversaries armed with weapons of mass destruction on its eastern flank, too. Last month, during a regular meeting of senior foreign ministry diplomats at a luxury compound east of Beijing, a group of about fifteen department heads and other officials discussed a request from Washington that Beijing use its influence to convince Pyongyang to halt nuclear weapons development. According to one of the meeting's participants, "officials suggested cutting energy and food aid, and even opening the border to let more refugees in"—radical moves more aligned with Washington's "axis of evil" playbook than traditional Chinese policy. "I was stunned," the insider says.
China has already fired warning shots across Kim's bow. During a summit this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin put North Korea high on their agenda, and afterwards issued a joint statement urging Pyongyang to drop its nuclear weapons program. Last week, Beijing signaled that Kim, who has visited China twice in the last three years, is for the moment persona non grata on the mainland. Asked about reports that a sit-down between Kim and Chinese leaders was imminent, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said: "There is no such thing." "The idea that China will support North Korea whatever it does is over now," says Victor Cha, an Asia specialist at Georgetown University. Adds Kenneth Lieberthal, a University of Michigan professor who served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 1998 to 2000: "It's quite clear that the level of exasperation is high. They are talking openly that this government really needs to change the way it behaves."
To China, the greatest fear is of a destabilized North Korea, perhaps leading to what the Bush Administration calls "regime change." A breakdown in the North's government could send a flood of millions of starving North Koreans into China, a situation that can be avoided if Kim remains in control. China also dreads a scenario whereby North and South Korea become unified. That could bring a staunch American ally, or even American troops, straight to China's border—exactly what propelled China to war 52 years ago. With that in mind, "China will never support a regime change in North Korea," insists Chu Shulong, a Tsinghua University professor and foreign policy advisor to China's leaders.
That leaves senior Chinese officials, while probably unwilling to make any major policy changes, considering curtailing aid to Pyongyang to modify its behavior. "The U.S. wants to isolate them," says Don Oberdorfer, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "But the Chinese and North Koreans [will continue] to have lots of back-and-forth" dialogue.
Meanwhile, some U.S. politicians have hatched a new plan to thwart Kim: encouraging massive North Korean defections, in hopes of repeating the kind of exodus that hastened the collapse of East Germany. A refugee crisis seems to be exactly what China doesn't want. Yet Beijing last week allowed U.S. Senator Sam Brownback—a vocal critic of China's practice of sending refugees back home to face imprisonment or even execution—into the country to inspect the refugee situation along China's border with the North. Some U.S. Congressmen are calling for America to share costs for the resettlement of refugees with South Korea, Russia, China and other Asian countries, which might make the tactic more palatable to the mainland. But diplomats say by approving Brownback's visit, Beijing may merely be warning North Korea to shape up or risk losing its support.
For now, it appears the U.S. will continue to discuss options with China, South Korea and Japan, and will not precipitate a showdown with Kim. "This is the policy of the moment," says Oberdorfer. South Korea has a presidential election this week that could be disrupted by bellicose behavior, he notes. Moreover, the U.S. has Iraq to worry about: "It's not time for another big crisis."
China's leaders can only hope that the North heeds their wishes. During the October summit in Crawford, Texas, Jiang told President Bush he did not have frequent contact with Kim. Bush said he had never met North Korea's "Dear Leader," and asked if, in Jiang's more informed opinion, Kim is a "peaceful man." Jiang, according to an American official, leaned forward and broke into English to reply, "Honestly, I don't know."