Does China Have a Contingency Plan for North Korea?

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On Saturday, the Japanese agency Kyodo News published what it claimed was a contingency plan for North Koreans collapse issued by China’s People’s Liberation Army. The document was reportedly published last summer by the Chinese military and contained a plan for China’s response to extreme chaos in its neighbor. Daily NK had a detailed run-down of the document’s contents.

The document calls for an increase in surveillance along the border, including “‘reconnaissance groups’ to assess the situation, ‘investigation groups’ to question those who come into [China], ‘blockade groups’ that prevent the influx of threats, and ‘armed groups’ to defend against hostile powers.” There are also plans to set up a number of refugee camps in the border region to handle an expected influx of North Koreans.

The document also dealt with the possibility of “key figures” (North Korean military and political leaders) attempting to regroup within China’s borders. “Key figures must be moved to a separate investigation facility to ensure they cannot command any military activity nor band together with other forces” within China, the document recommended. It also mentioned the need to protect such people from assassination attempts.

Interestingly, the document seemed to imply that this crisis scenario would result from an attack on North Korea by an unnamed third party. “Foreign shows of force are out of our control,” the document noted before running through the potential scenario of North Korean soldiers and refugees fleeing to China.

China’s Foreign Ministry has denied the veracity of the report. “The report made wild guesses, and was groundless and with ulterior motives,” a spokesperson said according to Xinhua. The spokesperson continued, “We hope [for] the Korean Peninsula to maintain stability, and hope [for] the DPRK to achieve economic development and people’s happiness.”

This is undoubtedly true, but hoping for the North Korean state to remain intact doesn’t preclude planning for a worst-case scenario of regime collapse. In fact, the U.S. and China have reportedly discussed their respective plans for such a scenario multiple times, including just prior to Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011.

As John Delury of Yonsei University told The Guardian, if the leaked document is real, it simply means that “the PLA is doing what militaries do – they draw up contingencies.” On that note, Delruy said he “wouldn’t believe China’s denials” but he also wouldn’t “draw too many conclusions from” the document.

Rather than drawing new conclusions from the report (for example, some speculated that it was intentionally leaked to signal Beijing’s displeasure with Pyongyang), it’s more useful to weigh the document against what was already known or assumed about China’s North Korea policy. In this sense, the report meshes well with the assumption that China is extremely concerned about the possibility of North Korean refugees and soldiers flooding its borders in the event of major instability. Accordingly, the major priority in the plan is to maintain control of the China-North Korea border with an increased troop presence.

The document as summarized by Daily NK contained no mention of Chinese soldiers entering North Korea, which is especially interesting given that the report assumes the use of foreign force against Pyongyang. That seems to indicate that China has no interest in becoming militarily involved on behalf of North Korea as it did in the Korean War. Rather, the document is more interested in ensuring that China doesn’t get dragged into the conflict due to North Korean leaders regrouping their forces on Chinese soil. China does not want to become the site of “a foothold of resistance” for North Korean soldiers and refugees.

Finally, the document apparently makes no mention of the fate of whatever nuclear materials North Korea has managed to stockpile. Securing those materials is high on the priority list for U.S. analysts considering the possible collapse of the Kim regime.  Both China and the U.S. would have a strong incentive to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands — or from being used to attack another country as a last act of desperation.

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