Last week, North Korea unexpectedly announced that Hwang Pyong So had replaced Choe Ryong-Hae as North Korea’s top military officer and number two official. Choe had held this status since the December purge of Jang Song-Thaek. It may be a complete coincidence that Kyodo News has since reported on allegedly leaked contingency plans by the Chinese Army to seal the border and protect North Korean officials from, shall we say, summarized judicial proceedings in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, possibly due to “an attack … by foreign forces.”
Specifically, China’s plans call for setting up refugee camps just inside its border, and “for special groups be sent to border areas to ascertain the situation, investigate new arrivals, block entry to any deemed dangerous or undesirable, and counter oppositional forces.” The Chinese plans reportedly plan for camps to accommodate up to 1,500 people, which seems grossly inadequate in light of past estimates that at the peak of the famine, between 50,000 and 300,000 North Koreans may have crossed into China.
Also, Kim Jong Un’s surviving cronies may suffer a substantial degradation in their standards of living:
According to the documents, any important North Korean political or military figures who could be targeted for assassination should be given protection. But at the same time, they should be placed in special camps where their activities could be monitored to prevent them from directing military operations or engaging in other activities that could be detrimental to China’s interests.
There are also veiled threats against us:
Another scenario involves a “military power,” presumably a reference to the United States, crossing the China-North Korea border on some pretext such as countering terrorism. If diplomatic negotiations were to fail to resolve the problem, the documents say, other steps that could be taken include closing the border or carrying out cyberattacks to disrupt information networks. [Kyodo News]
Really, China? And I thought we were friends.
Like Walter Russell Mead, I suspect the report was probably leaked deliberately, most likely by China. It would be good news if the Chinese Army really doesn’t intend to cross the border, but at the risk of sounding like Stalin in the late 30’s, the story has the whiff of disinformation about it. Most of it seems to be aimed at the North Koreans, but some of it also aimed at us. I’d be very pleasantly surprised if China didn’t also have plans to seize certain parts of North Korea — Rajin, maybe Hoeryong, Sinuiju, and the mines at Musan, in which China is heavily invested — perhaps as a bargaining chip to secure its economic investments, a guarantee of access to the Pacific ports, or a promise to keep U.S. forces out of the North.
Or, perhaps just because it wants those places and thinks it can get away with making a temporary “humanitarian” occupation into a permanent autonomous zone-slash-buffer state. This isn’t just my speculation, in case you’re wondering. It all depends on what Xi Jinping thinks he can get away with, and whether China faces enough credible threats to deter that. Aside from the risk of conflict, China could face harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but in the long term, no deterrent would be more effective than a credible threat of an anti-Chinese insurgency by the North Koreans, supported by foreign powers.
Still, China does sound uncharacteristically serious about dissuading Kim Jong Un from nuking off, given that China has spent the last eight years not enforcing North Korea sanctions. Why? I can only speculate, but one reason could be that for the first time in approximately ever, China stands to lose a great deal economically if North Korea tests. A test would likely mean a swift election-year passage of H.R. 1771, which would carry severe economic consequences for Chinese businesses and banks with financial ties to North Korea, unless they cut their links to the North immediately. The close temporal link between the introduction of H.R. 1771 (April 26, 2013) and a series of actions by big Chinese banks to distance themselves from North Korea (May 7, 2013) could be a case of either coincidence or causation, but does lend some support to my speculation.
Mead also links to Adam Garfinkle, who suggests that regional powers might one day cooperate to plot a “modulated, controlled euthanasia for the North Korean regime.” That’s one of the better diplomatic outcomes we can hope to achieve, but it’s implausible until (1) our own policy becomes clearer and more coherent, (2) we align with our allies in the region, which continue to vacillate between policies of economic pressure and economic subsidy, (3) join with them in an effective coalition to use our combined economic and diplomatic power against China and Russia, and secure their cooperation through a combination of targeted sanctions, military pressure, and diplomacy that recognizes their basic security and economic interests.