China’s War Plans for Pyongyang

By | March 10, 2012 | No Comments

SinoNK’s Analyst for Chinese Geostrategy, Nick Miller, arrives with “three doubts” corresponding to China’s military planning with regard to North Korea. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

China’s War Plans for Pyongyang

by Nick Miller

“In order to attack the strong, you must nurture them to make them even stronger.”  – Tai Kung[1] Among Western analysts, the question is a pressing one: How would the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) handle a potential full collapse of the North Korean regime? The United States and South Korea have their own strategy for this scenario, the latest version of which is known as OPLAN 5029. The plan was developed in 2008 and is prepared to be set into place if a coup were to occur within Kim regime, a civil war, a massive natural disaster, a large movement of defectors to China, or an outflow of nuclear weapons from North Korea.[2] The Chinese version is known only as “the Chick Plan” for, just as a hen protects its eggs, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) protects North Korea. The supposed “chick plan” was discussed at the trial of the South Korean spy, Park Chae-seo, who leaked military secrets to North Korea. At his trial, Park said that he was told of China’s plans by a high ranking Chinese official who conveyed that the plan would only be enacted if the situation in North Korea had deteriorated beyond repair.[3]

Between and Around Kim Jong Il and the Successor: PLA General Li Jinai and Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Pyongyang, November 2011 | Image via NK Leadership Watch

The PLA and the North Korean Leadership- In 2011, South Korean news reports asserted that China had sent more troops to guard the Chinese-North Korean border after the sudden death of Kim Jong Il.  Though the Chinese government rapidly denied the charges,[4] reports about Chinese military buildup around North Korea are nothing new. Dong-A Ilbo reported in October 2010 that China had sent 2,000-3,000 troops to North Korea to help modernize the North Korean Army, said to arrive as Kim Jong Un was named a four-star general and elected Vice Chairman of the Military Commission at a rare meeting of the Workers Party Congress. Again, Beijing denied the reports but did nothing to impede their spread in the PRC media.[5] During Kim Jong Il’s visit to China in May 2010, the ‘Dear Leader’ had promised to keep the Chinese leadership informed on North Korean domestic issues. It is through the PLA General Staff Department that the Chinese leadership is kept in the loop on North Korean domestic issues. Though the PLA were put on alert after the death of Kim Jong Il for fear that the North Korean leadership would escalate possible military actions or initiate another nuclear test, Chinese officials fears were assuaged once they saw that Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong il’s brother-in-law- and the Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, had control of the North Korean military and no such action was going to be allowed while he had control.[6]

The Global Times’ Death Page for Kim Jong Il — Note the lack of specific birth date given | Via Huanqiu Shibao

PLA Contingency Plans –The border between Northeast China and North Korea is only 866 miles in length. According to the Dong-A Ilbo’s account: In 2007, the Academy of Military Science (中国军事科学院,the highest think tank within the PLA) established a Korean task force to handle the potential scenarios surrounding North Korea and what to do if Kim Jong Il were to die unexpectedly. Within the report it was highlighted that, in the eyes of the PLA, North Korea is critical for maintaining Chinese national security within the region because it protects China from South Korean and American troops. If a disaster were to occur, the PLA have stated that it could reach Pyongyang in two hours.[7] The PLA has three types of contingency plans for the DPRK: 1) humanitarian for when a refugee crisis were to break out along the Chinese-North Korean border; 2) peacekeeping to serve as civil police if the country collapsed and PLA troops had to be sent in as a temporary peace force; and 3) “environmental control.” The third is a euphemism for the PLA plan to prevent nuclear proliferation along the Chinese-North Korea border and to prevent the spread of nuclear contamination if one of North Korea’s nuclear facilities were destroyed.  The level of coordination with China’s environmental and nuclear power agencies in these activities is unclear, but certainly more than likely.

John S. Park, via EIAS

Before Wikileaks: PRC Officials on Collapse Scenarios |  In 2007, American scholars Bonnie Glaser, Scott Snyder, and John S. Park went to the PRC to meet with a variety of Chinese government and PLA officials to discuss China’s North Korea strategies. In these meetings, Chinese officials (never with named attribution) stressed that if was deemed necessary by the Politburo and instability was enough of a threat to China’s national security, PLA forces would be authorized to enter North Korea. However, China would prefer to coordinate such a maneuver with formal authorization from the UN. If the international community failed to act in a prompt manner ,China would be willing to take unilateral action with regional stability in mind.[8] Chinese scholars do not want South Korea to inherit North Korea’s nuclear weapons after the DPRK has collapsed. One of China’s chief strategic goals is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a nuclear-armed South Korea would be just as much of a threat to Chinese interest as a nuclear-armed North Korea. Chinese scholars view it is the joint responsibility of the United States and China to prevent North Korean nuclear materials from proliferating and this means ensuring South Korea does gain access to the DPRK nuclear program.[9] Scholars within the PLA have expressed concerns that China could be drawn into a situation with South Korea once Korea is unified.[10] Shen Dingli argued that once North Korea collapsed and absorbed by South Korea it would lead to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan aligning itself against China.[11] While the exact details of the PLA’s plans for the collapse of the DPRK remain a national secret, the PLA is prepared for the contingency of when the event occurs. As to how the North Korean state will collapse that will remain a mystery as it the North Korean leadership have proven themselves to be a resilient force in keeping the North Koreans state alive despite the decades of predictions from Western analysts that Kim Jong Il’s grip on power was not strong enough after his father, Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 and the massive famine that killed millions of its citizens in the 1990s. While the PLA’s plan are meant to secure stability once the collapse has occurred one of the concerns for the Chinese leadership is how South Korea will handle its relations with China as it will likely remember that it was China who allowed North Korea to survive. A unified Korea will create a new set of obstacles and challenges for Chinese foreign policy within the region, as it will lead to a loss of a critical buffer zone and nations that do not align with China’s desire to seek hegemony within East Asia.


[1] Tai Kung, “Six Secret Teachings,” in Ralph D. Sawyer and Mei-chun Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Westview Press, Boulder, 1993, pp.58-59. The full quote: King Wu inquired of the T’ai Kung: “I want to attain our aim (of overthrowing the Shang), but I have three doubts. I am afraid that our strength will be inadequate to attack the strong, to estrange his close supporters within the court, and disperse the people. What should I do? The T’ai Kung replied: “ … In order to attack the strong, you must nurture them to make them even stronger, and increase them to make them even more extensive. What is too strong will certainly                   break; what is too extended must have deficiencies. … Cause the estrangement of his favored officials by using his favorites, and disperse his people by means of the people. Now, in the Tao of planning, thoroughness, and secrecy are treasured. … Appear to support him and draw him into your trap. Do not let him become aware of what is happening for only then can your plan be successful.
[2] “Operation 5029- Collapse of North Korea,” Global Security,, accessed February 19, 2012.
[3] Kim Jog-dae, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Taedonggang north or north occupation,” Hankyroeh Defense 21, October 25, 2011,, accessed February 20, 2012.
[4] “Reports about Chinese army in DPRK “totally groundless”: Defense Ministry spokesman,” People’s Daily Online, December 28, 2011., accessed February 20, 2012.
[5] “No troops going to North Korea,” Global Times, October 21, 2010,, accessed February 20, 2012.; “North Korean leader named Kim Jong-il’s son ‘made a general’,” BBC, September 28, 2010,, accessed February 20, 2012.
[6] Kenji Minemura, “Analysis: Chinese military on edge after the death of Kim Jong Il,” The Asahi Shimbun, January 23, 2012,, accessed February 20, 2012.
[7] “China can enter P’yang in 2 hours in case of contingency,” The Dong-A Ilbo, January 25, 2012., accessed February 19, 2012
[8] Bonnie Glaser, Scott Snyder, John Park, “Keeping an Eye on an Unruly Neighbor: Chinese Views of Economic Reform and Stability in North Korea,” United States Institute of Peace, January 3, 2008, p. 19.  
[9] Kurt M. Campbell, “Nuclear Proliferation Beyond Rogues,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2003, p. 13; Bonnie Glaser, “China’s Policy in the Wake of the Second DPRK Nuclear Test,” China Security, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2009, p. 6.
[10] Private interviews with Bonnie Glaser and Scott Snyder in 2009 in Bonnie Glaser and Scott Snyder, “Responding to Change on the Korean Peninsula: Impediments to U.S. – South Korea – China Coordination,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010, p. 15.

[11] Shen Dingli, “North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China,” China Security, 2006, p. 47.

Shen Dingli at Fudan University, photo Daniele Mattoili | Image and link courtesy American Review

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