North Korea Militarizes China Border?

Reports that North Korea has deployed tanks and armored vehicles to its border with China are likely untrue.

Zachary Keck
North Korea Militarizes China Border?
Credit: Flickr (stevenmcg)

North Korea is militarizing its border with China, according to a report in a South Korean daily.

Earlier this week, the Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea is moving “scores of tanks and armored vehicles” to the 12th Corps and 42nd Brigade located in Ryanggang Province, near the border with China. Specifically, the report said that the 12th Corps has recently received 80 tanks (up from the previous grand total of zero tanks), an armored infantry unit, a unit of multiple rocket launchers, and a special warfare and sharpshooter brigade. Because of these new arrivals, the 12th Corps have “turned into an attack force,” according to Chosun Ilbo’s source (more on that later.)

Moreover, the 42nd Brigade will reportedly soon receive 80 new armored vehicles, which top out at 80 kilometers per hour and can carry 10 to 15 troops. Already, the 42nd Brigade has received “10 new tanks with an automatic fire-control system and a computer monitor.” The Chosun Ilbo’s source claimed that these moves had been taken because Pyongyang fears China will “betray” it over its nuclear program.

Since the Chosun Ilbo first ran the report on Tuesday, numerous international media outlets have picked up the story, including the London Telegraph, Business Insider, the National Post (which picked up the Telegraph report) and The Week magazine. Although The Week report expressed some skepticism, many of these reports actually went beyond the original report to sensationalize the story further. For example, they claimed that North Korea had deployed some of its most advanced weaponry away from the DMZ and towards the Chinese border, and that the “12th Corps is one of the North’s most modern units.”

Although the Chosun Ilbo is one of South Korea’s largest newspapers and one which The Diplomat sometimes relies on, there is good reason to question the credibility of this particular report. To begin with, according to China’s Global Times, Chosun Ilbo only posted the story in English and Japanese and not in Korean or Chinese. If true, that is suggestive to say the least.

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More importantly, the entire story is attribute to “a source.” No additional information about the source is given, which leads one to think that other identifying information would have likely made readers doubt his/her reliability. The fact that the story only cited one source is also perplexing. After all, if North Korea really did deploy this amount of troops and equipment to the Chinese border, it would hardly be a tightly kept secret in the South Korean, Chinese or American militaries or governments.

The actual quotes attributed to the source do little to strengthen his/her credibility. For example, as noted above, the source says that the 12th Corps has been turned into an “attack force” after receiving the reinforcements. It’s hard to imagine a reliable military or diplomatic source engaging in this kind of loose talk. More tellingly, it’s incredible to think “an armored infantry unit, a unit of multiple rocket launchers, and a special warfare and sharpshooter brigade” would transform a unit into a force North Korea would use to attack China. This is especially true for the 12th Corps. As KGS Nightwatch notes, “The 12th Corps is an understrength reserve infantry corps” and “a rear area shell organization for managing the local territorial forces responsible for homeland defense and internal security. It would require mobilization of reserves and resources to reach full combat readiness. It is not a first-line combat unit.”

KGS Nightwatch casts further doubt on the report when noting: “The Yalu and Tumen Rivers and Mount Paektu separate Yanggang [Editor’s note: South Korea refers to Ryanggang as Yanggang] from China. The region is mountainous and most of it is not suitable for tanks or for Chinese forces to cross into North Korea in strength. Yanggang Province leads nowhere because its infrastructure is poorly developed and the terrain is difficult to traverse. It is not an invasion corridor into North Korea.”

On the other hand, Chinese-North Korean relations have bottomed out under President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Chinese forces have reportedly held a number of recent military drills along the border. Moreover, China and North Korea have an ongoing sovereignty dispute over Baekdu (Paektu) Mountain and, as The Diplomat noted back in 2012: “In recent years Beijing has been rapidly developing the area including building an airport and ski resort, moves that some believe are aimed at bolstering its claims of sovereignty over the area. China stirred up further controversy in 2008 when it applied for the region to be considered a UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.”

Thus, even if the area isn’t an “invasion corridor into North Korea,” Pyongyang could be building up its forces in an effort to deter China from further developing the area or encroaching on the part North Korea administers. This would certainly make more sense than the forces being deployed there because Kim Jong-un fears China will “betray” North Korea over its nuclear program, as the Chosun Ilbo’s source apparently believes. It’s unclear why North Korea deploying force along the border would make Xi and the Chinese leadership any less likely to condemn Pyongyang over its nuclear program. If anything, it would have the opposite effect.

An “anonymous source familiar with defense in both China and North Korea,” on the other hand, told China’s Global Times: “These moves are mainly aimed inward, not outward, particularly in a bid to prevent anyone leaving North Korea.” It doesn’t seem like 80 armored vehicles carrying 10 to 15 troops each would be particularly necessary or useful for preventing people from crossing the border. On the other hand, some of the units described in the Chosun Ilbo article could be useful in mounting cross-border operations aimed at capturing North Koreans that escape into China.