Beyond OPLAN 5027: Chinese Planning for Disaster Scenarios on the North Korean Frontier

By | January 27, 2012 | No Comments

One of Japan’s great regional security muckrackers, Keiji Minemura, elaborates at length in the Asahi Shimbun (English) on the notion of Chinese military planning for crisis on the Korean peninsula.  The Dong-A Ilbo in Seoul compresses Minemura’s report into a spine-straightening headline: “China Can Enter Pyongyang in Two Hours in Case of Emergency.”  Clearly the notion of Chinese intervention in North Korea is alive and well.  What appears to be largely skirted in these analyses, however, is a broader consideration of Chinese concerns for its Northeast (a subject taken on below) or the idea that North Korea might deny Chinese troops access via a few local nuclear strikes on specific mountain passes within the DPRK itself (an unconventional topic taken on in the “conventional” southern context by Peter Hayes and Scott David Bruce at Nautilus).  Today, Bruno de Paiva, an analyst based in Perth, Australia, sketches some of the relevant considerations on China’s northeastern frontier.   This is his first essay for  — Editor

Beyond OPLAN 0527: Chinese Planning for Disaster Scenarios on the North Korean Frontier

by Bruno de Paiva

With more than a month having passed since the announcement of Kim Jong-Il’s demise and the succession of Kim Jong-Un as the DPRK supreme leader, it appears as if the status quo ante is re-emerging in North Korea. The presence of continuity is particularly clear on the China-DPRK border, where there have been few signs of the kind of instability which virtually every North Korean collapse scenario has, to date, evoked. Given the interest among foreign powers – particularly the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea – in coordinating collapse responses with China, events on the border and China’s response are both seen as especially significant. However, the chasm that appears to persist between China and the US/Japan/ROK in their divergent geostrategic views of the DPRK means that extensive collaboration on disaster scenarios is unlikely to come to fruition.

Neither the ongoing paralysis of coordinated disaster planning nor the ongoing apparent calm on the border, however, precludes a potentially sudden situation of urgency on the northern border. Such a situation, either a Fukushima-like scenario at one of the DPRK’s nuclear facilities or, although unlikely, another sudden currency reform in the DPRK resulting in unrest and an influx in China-bound North Korean refugees, could be a cause of concern for the CCP. Just because Hoeryong is the only city besides Pyongyang to receive a potato ration does not mean that the city’s misery might not spill over into China during destabilizing events.

Military Considerations |  For the CCP, the question in some ways is not so much what happens in North Korea as China’s ability to respond to it by policing the border. As Jende Huang recently described, a nuclear accident at Yongbyon would make deploying elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the border a risky proposition. Scott David Bruce paints an even more dangerous scenario of North Korean local nuclear weapons use in the event of war in Korea. However, it is unclear as to how far the CCP has explored the issue of the worst-case scenario of a collapse in the DPRK with nuclear implications.

In a collapse without nuclear implications, the CCP and the PLA would be able to close the China-DPRK border and control the amount of refugees who cross the border, that is, if they allow any North Korean refugees to cross the border at all.

The key issue of the potential disaster scenario as mentioned here is the nuclear aspect. The Shenyang Military Region, which is the People’s Liberation Army area covering the Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning provinces contains four group armies, three military districts and has an estimated 250,000 military personnel. A large of number of those personnel would be able to be swiftly mobilised to the border following news of collapse in the DPRK. While a Chinese army-policed closure of the border risks also temporarily denting China’s international image, it would also lessen, if not halt, the amount of North Korean refugees seeking to cross the border. Doing this would decrease the possibility of unrest within China as well as stop any major interruption to economic development in the northeastern part of the country.

While Shenyang is the headquarters of the northeastern PLA, the day-to-day Sino-North Korean border security and disaster response issues are run from Jilin province. In recent years, Jilin has made numerous moves in strengthening security along and adjacent to the border to address crime and other illegal acts with a DPRK element. Border sensors and video providing 24-hour monitoring are now being used, along with police vehicles equipped with sophisticated communications equipment.  As Thompson and Freeman have pointed out in their extensive study of changes in China’s disaster-relief capacity on the periphery, a civilian emergency response system has also been developed in Jilin, an element which would surely be of solid use in the event of a post-collapse DPRK refugee influx. These developments show that China views the potential of a DPRK collapse as a serious one and is willing to use its rising economy to undertake major investments to mitigate the effects of such a collapse.

The Economic Element |  While multiple justifications are often given for preventing a catastrophe on the northern border, the interruption of China’s continuing economic growth is the most obvious. Northeast China – its eastern boundary almost entirely taken up by the DPRK – is no longer the central engine of the PRC economy, but it is without a doubt partly responsible for China’s robust growth. Daqing Field, the largest oil field in China, though remote from North Korea, is situated in the region’s Heilongjiang province and is crucial to China’s domestic oil output and energy needs, having produced an average of 803,287 barrels per day of crude oil in 2010.

It is not so much a single crisis that the CCP anticipates or fears, but a concentation of crises: a scenario whereby a refugee influx meets with a brewing and combustible labor unrest, for instance, such as was seen in the border city of Tonghua in 2010, or Daqing and Liaoyang in 2002.  Major instability on the border may in and of itself not interfere with activity at the field, but, to put a Chinese spin on a disaster scenario, if workers were to raise demands concurrent to a crisis in the DPRK-PRC border region, the action could instantly decrease the domestic oil supply China has at its disposal. Given China’s high demand for energy sources, a decrease in production at Daqing Field would be a significant issue for the CCP.

Investment in the Northeast region closest to its border with the DPRK has increased sharply in recent years. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, investment in fixed assets in Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin in 2011 respectively increased by 30.2, 33.7 and 30.3 per cent.  While such investments are not all located in border areas, the investment climate in the region – particularly in ports like Dandong and Dalian — would be exposed to severe risks as a result of unrest on the China-DPRK border. An influx of North Korean refugees seeking to flee domestic instability combined with increasing negative sentiments of Chinese citizens in the regions closest to the border, poses tangible risks China’s international image, much like the unrest in Xinjiang province in 2009. Given the treatment of similarly sensitive issues for China’s image, its economy, and security, as well as the prevalence of the DPRK in global affairs, it seems more than likely that the CCP is devoting a fair amount of attention to mitigating any risks that would arise from a North Korean collapse.



Wan, Z. (2009). ‘Daqing develops new oilfield technologies’, China Daily – 

– National Bureau of Statistics of China. 2011. Investment in Fixed Assets for 2011.

– Global Security. Shenyang Military Region, Shenyang Military Area Command.

– Carla Freeman and Drew Thompson, “China on the Edge: China’s Border Provinces and Chinese Security Policy,” The Center for the National Interest and Johns Hopkins SAIS, April 2011.

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  1. I find the economic aspect intriguing. For both China and the ROK, the status quo seems to be supported. And by status quo, I mean political stability. Neither side wants the collapse of the Kim regime. This, as its been spelled out to me before by not a small number of Korean scholars and students, puts Koreans in an awkward position.

    Of course, from a humanitarian point-of-view, re-unification should come tomorrow morning. However, from an economic point-of-view, the instability that would follow regime collapse (or even loss of control, e.g. revolt/coup) would have major economic consequences. Given the fragility of the global economy, instability on the peninsula could have very negative economic consequences — perhaps more for Korea due to the proximity of the entire country to the DPRK. In any case, it puts knowledgeable Korean in an awkward position: given the economic consequences of instability, one must seemingly favor the political status quo, insofar as it means political stability in the North until more favorable conditions exist. Either that, or favor re-unification with serious economic consequences for the South.

    A couple of sources:

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