What if worst comes to worst with North Korea? China ‘must be ready’ for war on the peninsula
Beijing should consider talks with other countries to prepare for possible fallout in the region, analyst says
Beijing needs to come up with backup plans – either on its own or with Washington and Seoul – in case the crisis on the Korean peninsula escalates into conflict, a leading Chinese analyst has warned.
But other observers said it was still too early to discuss a post-war Pyongyang with other countries, insisting there is no sign of the North Korean regime falling.
In an article published in Australia-based online magazine East Asia Forum earlier this month, Peking University international relations professor Jia Qingguo called on China to work with the United States and South Korea on contingency plans.
Analysts said it was rare for such a subject to be raised so publicly by a Chinese academic.
In his article, Jia said four major areas needed to be addressed: North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, an influx of refugees, restoration of social order, and post-crisis political arrangements on the peninsula.
“So far Beijing has resisted the idea for fear of upsetting and alienating Pyongyang. But, given recent developments, Beijing may have no better choice than to start talking with Washington and Seoul,” Jia wrote. “When war becomes a real possibility, China must be prepared.”
He said that if the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fell, most likely as a result of a US military strike, either China or the United States should be ready to manage North Korea’s nuclear facilities to prevent the spread of the weapons.
A safety zone should be set up in northeast China to shelter North Korean refugees, and Beijing should talk to Washington about whether to accept a unified Korea.
Sun Xingjie, a North Korea specialist at Jilin University, agreed that preparation was necessary.
“Being well prepared on the border to deal with a possible nuclear or refugee crisis is a good idea,” Sun said.
But he also said the prospect of war was low given that North Korea already had nuclear weapons and there had never been a direct conflict between nuclear-armed nations.
China has taken various steps in recent months to signal its impatience with its neighbour, the latest being an immediate ban on imports of North Korean textiles and a tighter cap on oil supplies from next year.
Nevertheless, China would not be willing to talk to the US about a contingency plan unless the ultimate sanction – a full oil embargo – was imposed, according to Cheng Xiaohe, an international relations researcher at Renmin University.
Cheng said that turning off the oil taps completely would probably trigger an economic or humanitarian crisis or a pre-emptive strike by Pyongyang.
No matter who made the first strike, China must safeguard its own interests, he said. To that end, authorities in the military, civil defence and border control would no doubt have strategies in place.
“[China]must take quick action to minimise damage to China’s own interests and earn a biggest say in the post-crisis arrangement,” he said.
There are signs that some preparations are under way, with Xinhua reporting that Central Military Commission vice-chairman General Xu Qiliang inspected troops from the Northern Theatre Command, which covers China’s border with North Korea.
Cheng said that in a post-crisis Korean peninsula, China’s basis interests were to rid the region of nuclear weapons and to ensure US forces remained south of the 38th parallel. Other key considerations would be a border agreement, repayment of Pyongyang’s debts to China and protection of Chinese commercial holdings in North Korea.
“The Chinese military should move fast to secure important facilities and locations, prevent a refugee crisis and nuclear proliferation, and ensure a good position in the follow-up international settlement,” he said.
Lu Chao, from the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, agreed that a massive influx of refugees from North Korea would be the biggest concern for China and neighbours, but it was still too early to discuss it.
“A precondition of making a contingency plan is the likely collapse of the Kim regime, but up until now we have seen no sign of it,” Lu said.