North Korea's leader appears poised to travel to China, as his country reels from what regional analysts describe as an economic policy fiasco. China has long been a generous patron of Pyongyang, but at least one Beijing scholar warns in blunt terms that China will not rescue the North this time.
A spokeswoman for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Wednesday there is a "high possibility" that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will make a rare trip outside his country to visit China.
Mr. Kim's government is believed to be undergoing extreme strain because of the fallout from failed currency and market reforms. South Korean media speculated he may go to China to seek help in bolstering the economy.
At a forum devoted to the North Korean economy Wednesday in Seoul, regional political analysts warned the North's economic policy blunders are pushing the totalitarian system to the brink of a collapse.
Peking University Professor Zhu Feng, one of the forum participants, issued a frank warning to the North not to expect any large handouts from China.
"Bailing out North Korea's economy [is] easy. We have the capability. We have no intention," said Zhu.
Three decades after opening its economy and encouraging market activity, Beijing is one of the three largest economies in the world. In November, Pyongyang enacted what economists say is the mirror opposite of the Chinese reforms; clamping down on markets, and extinguishing the savings of small traders with a surprise currency revaluation.
Reports from North Korea indicate the measures strangled economic activity and sparked hyperinflation in prices for basic foods.
Zhu says Pyongyang needs to adjust its course, and unless it does, China will not help.
"Offering North Korea sizable aid, and keeping it [afloat], without any change to their very bizarre policy, is detrimental to the China national interest," said Zhu.
Soon after North Korea invaded the South in 1950, China sent hundreds of thousands of troops to aid the North. In the past, the two countries have said their relationship was as close as "lips and teeth." Zhu says times have changed.
"The Korean War is over. Beijing changed tremendously. Our relation also altered almost completely," he said.
Zhu says China will continue to engage with the North on humanitarian issues to prevent mass starvation. However, he says Beijing's North Korea policy is not centered on preserving Kim Jong Il's rule.
"China is now ready for any form of very substantive change in North Korea - including collapse," he said.
It is not clear if the Chinese government backs Zhu's comments. But such blunt language from China about North Korea is unusual. Beijing has been Pyongyang's biggest economic supporter for nearly 20 years, and, regional security experts say, it wants to avoid an economic collapse in North Korea that would send hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border.