When the US pushed China to participate in an Asian coalition to halt North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Beijing demurred. It claimed little influence over Kim Jong Il.
But in fact, for nearly two months, China has been quietly "getting North Korea's attention," as a well-placed Western source puts it - halting oil pipeline shipments to Pyongyang for three days due to "technical difficulties," and using its wide diplomatic channels to urge North Korea down a nonnuclear path.
Now, since the start of the US-led Iraq war, Chinese efforts have increased and taken firmer shape in response to the Bush administration's "doctrine of preemption," now on display in the Gulf.
"The Iraq war has brought a change," says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international studies at People's University in Beijing. "Before Iraq, there was a stalemate in the Chinese position, and fragmentation. Now there is some recognition of a possible time sequence in the US approach to North Korea, and that has created a sense of urgency in China."
At the highest levels, Chinese officials have been closely studying ways of bringing about a "verifiable" denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, sources say. They're coming to the conclusion that without a firm common policy among Northeast Asian states and the US, verification may not be possible - and the US might step in. "We have never been opposed to multilateral talks," says one high-level Chinese source, somewhat belying the fact that since October China has ardently advocated direct talks between the US and the North.
The Iraq war itself seems to have strengthened the position of an influential minority of bolder, more pro-active Beijing analysts and party and government foreign policy experts - the scholarly class that traditionally advised the emperor in Chinese society. In their view, China should use its diplomatic capital to urge the North into the kind of multilateral talks that the White House has advocated to stop Kim Jong Il from bringing his enriched uranium and plutonium programs to fruition.
Unlike their South Korean counterparts, some of these advisers even echo Bush team hard-liners - expressing a willingness to keep military options on the table, and considering sanctions against North Korea. (Seoul is closer to North Korean artillery than is Beijing, a Western source notes.)
Yet while China wants to cultivate improved relations with the US, it is incorrect to say that Beijing's recent pressure on Pyongyang is simply serving American attempts to deal with Mr. Kim. Rather, new Chinese efforts are articulated in terms of self-interest. They are attempting to outflank the new US doctrine, and what Beijing sees as potential chaos on the Korean peninsula and a refugee calamity on China's border, if US bids to deal with the unpredictable Kim later take a turn toward the extreme.
It would also be incorrect, sources say, to assume a bolder Chinese approach to the North has taken hold here as policy. What Chinese diplomats actually say to their North Korean colleagues at the various levels of contact is a closely held secret.
Ties between old Communist Party comrades, and at the military level where Chinese memories of aiding the North in the Korean War are intact - have a powerful sway. In some readings, the scholars' view is a minority view - that internal dynamics in China have not ripened at least yet toward a bold stance, and that the pressuring of Pyongyang is simply a tactical or experimental position, and not to be read as a pro-US helpmeet.
China has only reluctantly agreed to back UN Security Council talks to be held Wednesday on North Korea's January withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Officially, Beijing is vehemently opposed to sanctions on North Korea. China said little during Kim's escalations - kicking out UN weapons inspectors, withdrawing from treaties, intercepting a US reconnaissance plane - in the six months since he admitted having a secret nuclear program.
Still, Western reporters have confirmed that Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made clear representations to North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Namsung to resolve the crisis. Even the willingness of Chinese sources such as Dr. Shi at the People's University to be quoted by Western journalists indicates a stronger position in Beijing.
Zhang Liangui, an influential policy advisor at the Central Party School in Beijing, where progressive young Party officials attend, for example, says that he cannot confirm whether or not China had cut off oil from its Da Qing pipeline - to send a message to North Korea. But he says that, "if it wasn't an intentional warning, still, Beijing should conduct such acts as part of a package of [sticks and carrots] in dealing with Korea."
Mr. Zhang is one of four scholars who have openly advocated a tougher Chinese position toward the North in official media here, something that indicates backing in high government echelons. At the same time, the Zhang position advocates that China take a friendly approach to North Korea, use its channels of communication with Pyongyang as an asset - while leaving Washington to play "bad cop."
Some experts in Seoul believe Kim's 55-day hiatus from public appearances, and the recent relative absence of North Korean provocations along the DMZ, suggest he has been reconsidering his strategy.
But he has reemerged with a blast of new and often contradictory positions and rhetoric. Mr. Kim accused the US of plotting his overthrow, but in another venue said that direct talks with the US were the only means toward settling the crisis.
Some Chinese scholars are already staking out a post-Kim position. What China wants, according to Chinese sources, are assurances in high-level meetings that in a "worse case scenario" - a collapse of North Korea - that China's border would be secure, and that the international community would take care of refugees. "We would want any US forces to quickly withdraw from the Chinese border, to be replaced by an international force - and guarantees that the UN would handle the refugees," one source says.