A near-famine in North Korea has triggered alarm that its Communist leadership, or at least its Soviet-style economy, might collapse soon, creating a crisis in northeast Asia.
That has put a global spotlight on talks to send food to the self-isolated North and its unwillingness to take part in talks to formally end the Korean War. In the wings of the drama are informal diplomatic talks on the future of the divided peninsula.
China is urging its former wartime ally to save its Communist political system by adopting market-oriented economic reforms, say officials and scholars in Beijing.
Yet in recent months, South Korea has launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade China to back a reunified Korea under the South's blueprint for a free-market democracy.
"South Korea sees the popular demoralization that has followed the worsening famine as the first stage of North Korea's collapse," says a senior South Korean official. "If widespread discontent hits the [ruling] Workers' Party, and then the military, the leadership of North Korea could fall."
"The South would want to maintain the current border for a transitionary period as economic and political reforms are introduced into the North," says the South Korean official, who requested anonymity. "We have been trying to convince China that a unified, democratic Korea would play a stabilizing role in the region."
History of old ties, new ties
In one of the first battles of the cold war, Chinese troops fought alongside their North Korean allies against the South and an American-led coalition of United Nations forces until a 1953 cease-fire. China's forging of trade ties with the global community and the end of the cold war opened the doors to Beijing's forming diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992, a move that angered the North.
Although China has maintained close contacts with the communist North, South Korea is trying to build on its new and strong economic bonds with China to gain backing for the peaceful resolution of the crises threatening the peninsula.
"There are increasing reports from North Korea of hungry farmers breaking into government grain-storage sites," says Kongdan Oh, a Korea analyst based in Washington. "Japan, South Korea, and the US are all preparing for a mass exodus from North Korea or for some form of civil unrest resulting from the famine." Yesterday, the US, South Korea, and Japan held talks in Tokyo on the general situation in the North, part of a regular coordination of their policies.
Seoul seeks China's OK
Seoul's low-profile campaign to press Beijing to give its blessing for the North and South to move toward a common democratic leadership and integrated market economy so far has shown no sign of success.
Han Zhenshe, a Korea expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explains that "a socialist North serves China's security and strategic interests, and Beijing does not want to see the entire Korean Peninsula ruled under a democratic government."
Beijing has made it clear that it regards the North as a buffer zone between China and the capitalist South, which still hosts more than 35,000 American troops.
The advance of US forces toward North Korea's border with China triggered Beijing's entry into the Korean War, and the prospect of an American military presence at the edge of Chinese territory still worries China's leaders.
Yet China eventually may be forced to choose between that prospect and other scenarios, such as war between the Koreas or the effects of thousands of North Korean refugees disrupting China's industrialized northeast region.
"North Korea has made a number of veiled threats to destroy the South in a sea of fire," says the South Korean official. "Any attack with weapons of mass destruction would harm not only South Korea, but also nearby China and Japan."
The future of US troops at issue
He adds, though, that any talks on a Korean union would have to cover the future of American troops on the peninsula. "The removal of the North Korean threat would reduce the South's need for American military protection," he says.
Meanwhile, as famine creeps across North Korea, the South is trying to lay the groundwork to solve a number of worst-case scenarios, in part by preparing to build large-scale refugee camps in the South, says the South Korean official.
He adds that longer-term "preparations include persuading China that South Korea would be a more reliable neighbor than the volatile North."
There are already signs that reformists in Beijing have moderated China's support for North Korea.
A Chinese government worker says that Beijing initially detained refugees who crossed into China from North Korea under its treaty with the North, but ended that practice following reports that some were executed upon their return.
To avoid angering North Korea by openly refusing to return defectors, China has begun stating that not a single refugee has crossed the border from North Korea, say the Chinese and South Korean officials. "China is afraid that a desperate North Korea could launch an attack against the South," Ms. Oh says. "It also fears that the famine could spark a power struggle between reformists and the military in North Korea," she adds.
The South Korean official says the "breakup of the North Korean leadership would depend on high-level party members turning against the isolationist policies backed by [President] Kim Jong-il and the Army," adding, "The recent defection of [leading ideologue] Hwang Jang Yop points toward dissent among North Korea's ruling elite over the famine."
Yet other analysts question whether the rising famine will ever translate into the decline of the North Korean leadership.
The Chinese official likened the North to a theater where people have been trapped for decades watching films of a "socialist paradise" at home and an inferno in the outside world. "Until the doors of the theater are open, North Koreans will not even realize that what they have seen is not reality," he says.