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Would North Korea Risk the Death of 10,000 Chinese Citizens to Capture Seoul?

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Asia Defense

Would North Korea Risk the Death of 10,000 Chinese Citizens to Capture Seoul?

A Second Korean War would inevitably lead to Chinese civilian casualties.

Would North Korea Risk the Death of 10,000 Chinese Citizens to Capture Seoul?
Credit: Flickr/ Stefan Krasowski

As I outlined in my April 19 piece “What Would the Second Korean War Look Like?“, in the event of a full-scale military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula involving a North Korean invasion of the South, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) will likely attempt to quickly occupy the Republic of Korea’s capital city, Seoul, or at least a sizable portion of it in a blitzkrieg-like operation.

As the South’s capital, seizing parts of Seoul would carry important symbolic weight for the KPA. However, given that the Seoul metropolitan area is the South’s most densely populated region, as well as its political and commercial center, the city is of wide strategic importance and in the event of its capture would offer the North a chance to inflict maximum damage on South Korean civilian and military infrastructure. (Side note: Here is my take on the use of academic and technical euphemism when talking about war.)

While various Korean Peninsula warfighting scenarios have been discussed over the last couple of weeks, less attention has been paid to the collateral political damage a North Korean attack on Seoul could cause.

This is especially true of the China-North Korea relationship and speculations over Beijing’s possible intervention in a Second Korean War on the side of Pyongyang. Although Beijing is not obligated under the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance to come to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) aid in the event of a North Korean surprise attack, many analysts speculate that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will intervene nonetheless.

One possible problem with this scenario, however, is that any Northern surprise attack on the South, followed by heavy urban combat in Seoul, could cause the death of thousands of citizens of the People’s Republic of China, which could result in a political fallout between the two “allies” — if not worse.  There are currently over a million Chinese citizens living in South Korea with over 100,000 living in Seoul alone. While there is a large Chinese community residing in the capital’s southwestern area, Chinese nationals live all over the city.

As a study of the Nautilus Institute points out, many of them are not just average Chinese migrant workers, but hold high ranks in the Communist Party of China or are chief executives of large corporations; a fair amount  are also students — some of China’s best studying at prestigious South Korean academic institutions.

Mass casualties among this elite group of expats could be especially disconcerting for the Chinese leadership. Based on the North’s likely available firepower for countervalue targeting, the initial KPA surprise volley — launched by 170 millimeter Koksan guns and extended range 240/300 millimeter artillery systems — could kill up to 1,000 Chinese nationals within a few minutes.

This casualty figure is based on the assumption that 70 percent of the approximately 500-700 KPA long-range artillery systems are operational and deployed for countervalue targeting, firing approximately 3,000 rounds per minute with 15-25 percent of KPA artillery shells failing to detonate upon impact. Furthermore, I assume that the majority of Chinese will be at home or in the office rather than out in the open where they would be most exposed to artillery fire. It also needs to be emphasized that the casualty figure above assumes the use of conventional rather than chemical shells.

Admittedly, this is a worst case scenario resulting from a conventional attack.

It cannot be stressed enough that these calculations are somewhat speculative and that the KPA will likely use the majority of artillery systems for counterforce targeting (hitting ROK and U.S. installations and troops), given its reliance on Soviet offensive doctrine which calls for massive fire superiority preceding any attack. However, the fact is that any Northern artillery barrage will cause fatalities among PRC citizens residing in Seoul under any scenario within the first minutes of conflict.

Given that ROK and U.S. counterbattery fire has demonstrated the capability to effectively target KPA artillery positions within a five to 15 minute timeframe, Northern artillery would be able to fire at least 15,000 rounds on Seoul before being destroyed. (Again, this assumes that all long-range artillery pieces are zeroed in on Seoul and deployed in close proximity to the DMZ, with very few pieces used for counterforce targeting.)

Nonetheless, the much-talked-about artillery barrage is only part of what will cause Chinese fatalities. Many recent analyses neglect to describe the impact of intense urban combat on the civilian population of Seoul. Assuming that despite heavy casualties, conventional KPA forces manage to break through ROK/U.S. defenses (a possible but not very likely scenario) and occupy parts of Seoul within the first 24 hours of offensive operations, a significant percentage of the urban population will remain stuck in the city — at least initially.

With ROK and U.S. forces rushing to the frontlines, civilian refugees clogging up major traffic arteries — not to mention KPA Special Operations Forces (SOF) spreading confusion and terror — the likelihood of substantial civilian casualties during the initial phase of urban combat in the city is high. KPA SOF in particular could manage to severely undercut evacuation efforts. Out of North Korea’s 200,000 SOF, only a few hundred to a few thousand would suffice to paralyze most civilian movement in the city. All of this is amplified by the geographical disposition of the city and its many natural bottlenecks prohibiting civilians from escaping south.

Throughout the history of warfare — from the siege of Carthage to the battle over Aleppo — urban combat has been especially horrendous for the civilian population caught in the crosshairs. Given the KPA offensive doctrine and reliance on Soviet military thought emphasizing massive firepower and little regard for casualties, the civilian death toll caused by howitzers, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, sniper fire, machine guns, mines, unguided aerial bombs and rockets, and any other weapons could quickly reach into the thousands.

The KPA would not be able distinguish between ROK civilians and foreign nationals in all likelihood. Even if they were to receive orders from above to protect Chinese nationals, the perplexing and deadly nature of urban combat would make civilian deaths irrespectively unavoidable. Consequently, unless the majority of Chinese nationals were to be evacuated within hours after the beginning of hostilities, a significant death toll among the Chinese expat community in Seoul is a given during urban combat in the city.

Considering the KPA’s conventional weaknesses, one of its major goals would almost certainly be to launch an urban guerrilla-style campaign where one of the objectives indeed would be to inflict maximum civilian casualties to destabilize the ROK’s economic as well as political system. An ideologically indoctrinated force dug into an urban environment, highly mobile and supported by conventional elements (main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery), and determined to stand their ground will be hard to dislodge in a few days and more likely would require a few weeks.

There are also around 6,000 Chinese nationals are currently residing in North Korea. South Korea’s Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan calls for the targeted destruction of sections of Pyongyang in the event of war, which could cost the lives of tens of thousands in the North Korean capital, including Chinese nationals residing there. However, looking at the basic arithmetic, Chinese civilian casualties in the North’s capital and other parts of the country would not reach the level caused by a North Korean artillery barrage followed by intensive urban combat in Seoul.

While the scenario outlined in this article may appear to exaggerate the human destruction in the event of conflict, it does not include the use of chemical weapons — something I previously assumed would be very likely in a full-scale military invasion of the South — let alone the use of nuclear weapons. It goes without saying that chemical and nuclear warfare would in all probability kill thousands of additional Chinese nationals on the Korean Peninsula, not to mention the tens of thousand South Korean casualties. (South Korea is also home to 140,000 U.S. expats, mostly residing in Seoul.)

China has publicly expressed concern over the safety of its citizens in the Korean Peninsula and according to media reports the PRC’s Embassy in Pyongyang has recently called on Chinese citizens to return home (the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, denied this). Contingency plans for the evacuation of Chinese nationals are in place in both North and South Korea, according to Chinese officials. Protecting its citizens remains a top priority for the Chinese leadership and it has repeatedly pressed the issue with the North Korean regime over the last years as tensions have been heating up.

The political implications of Chinese citizens being killed by North Korean — and to a lesser extend by U.S. and ROK — actions are far from certain. On the one hand, speculations that the PLA will open up a second front and confront the KPA are farfetched at best. On the other hand, Xi Jinping would find himself hard pressed to make a public case for a Chinese military intervention on the side of DPRK following the death of hundreds if not thousands of Chinese nationals at the hands of North Korean artillerymen.

The plain fact that North Korea appears to have no scruples about vicariously threatening the lives of a million Chinese nationals residing in South Korea perhaps shows the genuine limits of Chinese influence on Pyongyang.