China leaks contingency plan for N. Korea collapse

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.

An expert interviewed by The Telegraph adds, “[T]he more totalitarian the regime, the harder and faster they fall.”  China has since denied the report.

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.

10 Comments

  1. Other reasons China is against further NK nuclear tests:
    1. Fallout/damage to the water table/foreseen and unforeseen geological consequences
    2. Nuclear tests are a destabilizing activity, more likely to end the regime rather than safeguard it
    3. Grief brught about by the local response. Chinese population is four square against such tests on its border.
    4. Oft mentioned possibility of nuclearising the regional arms race
    5. Further cements the US as the indispensable Asia Pacific power
    Add your own.
    There’s no big why here. Seems pretty obvious why you wouldn’t want your buffer state and special forces attack dog nuking itself on an annual basis.

  2. I immediately agreed with the idea of this report being disinformation. After all, years of evidence have pointed towards the Chinese attempting to build legitimacy for a precedence of Chinese dominance of the Korean Peninsula. The idea that Chinese troops would be swift to grab as much land as possible after a collapse and using these fraudulent academic claims is the most reasonable conclusion. And while I’m sure the part about refugee camps is part of the deception, China will indeed face real problems economically in the case of a surge of refugees across the border.

    Also Joshua, my close friend (an attorney in China) has expressed interest in translating some of your static articles (the ones under ‘the camps’ and ‘Google Earth’ tabs) into Chinese so that they might reach a wider audience. Would you be interested? thanks 🙂

  3. Dan, Those are all perfectly valid reasons, but why weren’t they enough to cause China to threaten to cut North Korea off before now? And frankly, no reason, including the potential for sanctions, has been sufficient to get China to actually enforce UN sanctions. I don’t disagree that China’s elite is increasingly ambivalent about North Korea, but China is, at best, playing a double game.

  4. Hunter, I’d hate to be the reason your friend ends up in a Laogai, but any translation and republication for non-commercial use is welcomed.

  5. I was worried about that myself and so was she. Perhaps you might republish them? Did you know OFK isn’t blocked in China? (Yet anyway)…

  6. Yes, it’s weird, but I’m getting a significant amount of traffic from China these days. But it tends to stop around June 4th every year, for some reason.

  7. Pride and prestige come into it too. I doubt any Chinese Communist leader wants to be seen as the man who lightly gave up the fruits of the PLA’s intervention in the Korean War.

  8. The Chinese have been exercising military forces just north of the border on three reported occasions recently. That was a warning. This is another warning shot. It suggests no proles or serfs will be allowed across at all, and only 1500 of the elite. It also says China reserves the right to return undesirables. That means a short list for the Survival Express, a way of controlling those who are already anxious about the future of the parricidal atherosclerotic fat boy.

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