PLA General on “Incalculable Damage” of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

By | December 20, 2013 | No Comments

Since Fukushima, nuclear power in North Korea has become more of a concern for China, especially on the Sino-NK border. Here, a power plant near Beijing. | Image: Brett Arnett

Since Fukushima, nuclear power in North Korea has become more of a concern for China, especially on the Sino-NK border. Here, a power plant near Beijing. | Image: Brett Arnett

The number and variety of Chinese statements on North Korea since the bureaucratic fall and psychologically brutal execution of Jang Sung-taek has increased markedly. After Jang’s death–or what one Chinese essay called “the long-rumored political earthquake” in North Korea–the Chinese Communist Party is trying to avoid the contagion of blame while preserving freedom of action.  One of the most striking op-eds to appear in recent days was by Wang Hongguang, a retired PLA general whose essay was briefly featured on Huanqiu Shibao‘s front webpage.

While previous Chinese commentators have expressed concern over a North Korean nuclear accident and the country’s missile launches, General Wang goes a step further, noting the danger of falling North Korean ballistic missile parts over China and critiquing Pyongyang’s Byungjin line, while asserting that Kim Jong-il really desired North Korea to “open up and reform” but simply lacked the resources to do so.

As Chinese commentators try on various justifications for a change in policy toward Pyongyang, and the public reframing of North Korea debate in the PRC continues, General Wang’s essay adds further fuel to the fire:

Wang Hongguang, “If North Korea’s Nuclear Facilities Suffer an Attack By the United States and South Korea, the Nuclear Pollution Will Be A Disaster for China” [朝核设施若遭美韩打击核污染将是中国灾难!], Huanqiu Shibao, December 16, 2013.

As recent Huanqiu Shibao editorials have  pointed out, North Korea’s stability is in accordance with China’s interests. The author supports [赞同] this viewpoint, and, at the same time, goes further in believing that  North Korean denuclearization is more in accordance with China’s interests, because denuclearization is the precondition for stability.

[The unresolved issue of] North Korean denuclearization is the main reason for the fundamental lack of stable progress on resolving the Korean Peninsula. In spite of the opposition expressed by the international community , North Korea conducted three nuclear tests while also conducting tests on delivery vehicles [运载工具]. The foreign media believes that North Korea will conduct a fourth nuclear test. North Korea’s nuclear program is steadily progressing; this is the undeniable current state of affairs [不能视而不见的现实情况].

North Korea believes itself to be a “nuclear state [核国家]” and wants to negotiate the Korean Peninsula nuclear question on equal footing with the United States. China is in the very awkward position of merely acting as the middleman between the United States and North Korea. The United States has united with Japan and South Korea, mobilizing the international community to adopt a position of strong pressure against North Korea.

The two sides [i.e., North Korea vs. US-Japan-ROK] have irreconcilable differences and use military force to threaten each other; with the slightest “wind blowing through the grass,” both sides are at knifepoint [一有风吹草动,双方剑拔弩张].  This is the root reason which creates instability on the Korean Peninsula.

During the March 2013 meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party, the DPRK confirmed the “advance economic development and nuclear weapons together” general line [i.e., the byungjin line], reflecting North Korea’s resolve to possess nuclear weapons. This signifies that on the question of denuclearization there is still no way out and instability on the Korean Peninsula will continue.

With respect to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, China is the primary country threatened. North Korea’s nuclear testing site is located and does its work basically alongside the China-North Korea border; the relatively distant Punggye-ri site is just 70 some kilometers from China’s frontline at Mt. Changbai [i.e., Mt. Baekdu]. The radioactive leak from regular nuclear testing can blow across the border into China [飘到中国境内].

The damage to China’s northeastern area along the border would be incalculable if a nuclear test fails and causes a radioactive leak. The earthquake caused by North Korea’s third nuclear test already resulted in noticeable tremors in China’s Yanbian region. If this yield is increased a bit with a bigger nuclear explosion, the tremors will be even stronger and we can’t rule out the possibility that this earthquake will be a disaster.

As for the delivery vehicles North Korea is testing: If they deviate from their flight path and fall–in part or in total–within Chinese territory, this could potentially cause human, property and environmental damage. The impact of the above scenario on China’s security is enough to shock Chinese society. China must prepare for this scenario and work hard to respond [中国必须要未雨绸缪,力争万全的应对措施].

Regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons (including the research and development of long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles), the United States, South Korea (南韩), and Japan are currently deploying sea-based and land-based anti-missile systems [i.e., ballistic missile defense]. Since North Korea’s missile technology capabilities still have no way to reach American soil, the United States’ preemptive deployment is actually targeted at China’s limited strategic nuclear counterstrike capability. This erases China’s minimum nuclear deterrence against the United States and severally threatens China’s strategic security.

We also need to consider the scenario of a high intensity earthquake, or, in the event of the peninsula’s spiraling out of control, a situation in which the United States and South Korea launch a strike on North Korean nuclear facilities. In either case, the nuclear pollution resulting from the damage nuclear facilities would be worse than Japan’s Fukushima. That would be a disaster for China!

China should utilize all of its resources to strongly urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, or at least not conduct a fourth nuclear test. North Korea’s nuclear program not only threatens China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia, but the country most harmed is precisely North Korea itself.

North Korea’s “economic development and nuclear weapons” [ “经济建设和拥核”/ byungjin line] is difficult to advance. Possessing nuclear weapons invites international condemnation, isolation and sanctions, leaving North Korea unable to access advanced technology as well as aid for human, financial and physical resources. This makes opening up to the rest of the world difficult to achieve real results and internal reform lack a relaxed political, economic and social environment.

Developing nuclear weapons and delivery rockets uses a large amount of resources and maintains the disproportionately large scale military, which also uses a large amount of resources. From an overall resource perspective, this significantly reduces the strength of economic construction and reform progress. This is also the fundamental reason the last two generations of North Korean leaders made halting progress and were not as strong as they wished [而步履维艰、力不从心] despite wanting to develop the economy and achieve reform and opening-up.

China needs to adopt one single understanding and will that, for China’s interest and for North Korea’s interests, and even more for the stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, China must utilize all of its political, diplomatic, economic, social, governmental and non-governmental resources to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.

As a responsible stakeholder, China should earnestly and publicly enforce the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions regarding North Korean sanctions with no leniency [不打任何折扣], and put it all on the table. China should exhaust its options [所有的手段用到穷尽], since North Korea’s denuclearization affects China’s core interests.

China’s stance of “being friendly to North Korea while opposing its development of nuclear weapons” is not a balancing act but rather a causal relationship. Only when North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons will this cause lead to the effect that China-North Korea relations can finally develop smoothly in the future. This is the real test for Chinese diplomacy. At the same time, China should also request the United States and South Korea to not move nuclear weapons onto the Korean Peninsula and also to not use nuclear weapons on North Korea.

Currently, no matter how Chinese diplomacy views this question or resolves it, both the international community and domestic public opinion will still believe that when it comes to China and North Korea’s decades of traditional friendship, China’s support and assistance to North Korea is the largest so China has special influence.

Thus, China must make the largest show of its influence to make the international community and Chinese public see the Chinese government as acting in good faith and expending the most energy to win their understanding. China should speak the “un-pleasantries” up front with North Korea [对朝鲜也要把“丑话”说在前面] to make them recognize that a fourth nuclear test will have severe consequences. As for which path North Korea choses to walk, this is for it alone to decide, not for China to have the final say.

The author Wang Hongguang [王洪光], is the Former Deputy Commander of the PRC’s Nanjing Military Region [南京军区原副司令员中将]. The author’s original title of this essay  as submitted to Huanqiu Shibao was  “North Korean Denuclearization Is More In Accordance with China’s Interests” [朝鲜弃核更符合中国的利益].

Source: Wang Hongguang, “If North Korea’s Nuclear Facilities Suffer an Attack By the United States and South Korea, the Nuclear Pollution Will Be A Disaster for China” [朝核设施若遭美韩打击核污染将是中国灾难!], Huanqiu Shibao, December 16, 2013. Translation by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, with assistance from Adam Cathcart.