The Chinese are openly debating “regime change” in Pyongyang after last week’s nuclear test by their confrontational neighbour.
Diplomats in Beijing said at the weekend that China and all the major US allies believed North Korea’s claim that it had detonated a nuclear device. US director of national intelligence John Negroponte circulated a report that radiation had been detected at a site not far from the Chinese border.
The US may have employed highly classified satellite technology to detect tiny leaks of gas or elements associated with nuclear detonation, according to a diplomatic source in the Chinese capital. This would explain Washington’s reluctance to explain the findings in public.
The Washington Times disclosed that US spy satellites photographed North Koreans playing volleyball just a few hundred metres from a test site tunnel after the underground explosion.
The Chinese Government has been ultra-cautious in its reaction. However, since Monday, Foreign Ministry officials have started to make a point of distinguishing between the North Korean people and their Government in conversations with diplomats.
Ahead of yesterday’s Security Council vote, some in Beijing argued against heavy sanctions on North Korea for fear that these would destroy what remains of a pro-Chinese “reformist” faction inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“In today’s DPRK Government, there are two factions, sinophile and royalist,” one Chinese analyst wrote online. “The objective of the sinophiles is reform, Chinese-style, and then to bring down Kim Jong-il’s royal family. That’s why Kim is against reform. He’s not stupid.”
More than one Chinese academic agreed that China yearned for an uprising similar to the one that swept away the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 and replaced him with communist reformers and generals. The Chinese made an intense political study of the Romanian revolution and even questioned president Ion Iliescu, who took over, about how it was done and what roles were played by the KGB and by Russia.
Mr Kim, for his part, ordered North Korean leaders to watch videos of the swift and chaotic trial and execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, the vice-prime minister, as a salutary exercise.
The balance of risk between reform and chaos dominated arguments within China’s ruling elite. The Chinese have also permitted an astonishing range of vituperative internet comment about an ally with which Beijing maintains a treaty of friendship and co-operation. Academic Wu Jianguo published an article in a Singapore newspaper – available online in China – bluntly saying: “I suggest China should make an end of Kim’s Government.”
“The Chinese have given up on Kim Jong-il,” commented one diplomat. “The question is, what are they going to do about it?”
Hinting at the options, Chinese online military commentators have exposed plots and purges inside North Korea that were previously unknown or unconfirmed. They have described three attempted coups that ended in bloodshed. In 1996, the Sixth Field Army was planning to revolt but the scheme was betrayed by a new commander. One or two plotters got away but Kim Jong-il’s personal guards arrested senior officers and the Sixth Field Army’s political commissars.
On March 12, 1998, Kim suddenly announced a martial law “exercise” in Pyongyang and there was gunfire in the streets of the city. The Chinese later learned that two ministries were involved in a coup attempt, and that more than 20 ministerial-level officials were killed after it was crushed.
In October 1999, a company of the Third Field Army rebelled in dissatisfaction over grain distribution during the nation’s prolonged famine, which may have killed a million people.
There are rumours that Kim’s eldest son, Jong-nam, is estranged from his father and living in the Chinese capital, where he enjoys a reputation as a capricious imbiber of whisky. A younger son, Jong-chol, has emerged as heir apparent.
Meanwhile, some of the North Korean elite are seeking their boltholes in China.
Xin Cheng, an estate agent in the high-rise district of Wang Jing, which is popular with resident South Korean businessmen, said many high-ranking North Koreans were buying property there.