Chinese Contingency Plan: An Improbable Scenario

By | May 18, 2014 | 1 Comment

The Sino-North Korean border at Tumen-Namyang | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The Sino-North Korean border at Tumen-Namyang | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Along the Chinese-North Korean frontier, a porous border and stark development gap spells potential problem for Beijing. It is no surprise that the Chinese have a contingency plan for government collapse in North Korea. But what, exactly, is that plan? Recently, part of a Chinese contingency plan was “leaked,” sparking debate about China’s post-collapse role as well as the veracity of the document’s supposed claims. In this article, Dr. Jennifer Lind, Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, engages both parts of the debate. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Chinese Contingency Plan: An Improbable Scenario*

by Jennifer Lind

Recent reports of a leaked Chinese contingency plan for a collapsed North Korea triggered widespread discussion about the implications of this leak and of the contents of the plan. As I described in a panel assembled by the Guardian, aspects of the plan were so improbable as to cast doubt on the validity of the leak.

We have heard only vague details about the plan. Apparently it envisions a scenario in which North Korea’s government collapses after foreign military forces enter the country. As the Guardian reported, “The possible causes of upheaval in the North include an attack by an unnamed foreign force that triggers the collapse of the regime, sending civilians and soldiers across the border with China.” The plan then apparently goes on to discuss various Chinese responses, such as setting up refugee camps, detaining North Korean elites, and preventing armed members of the North Korean military from entering China.

Faux Report? The Facts of the Situation | Take a step back and think about the scenario on which this plan is based. It holds that if foreign military forces (presumably the United States and South Korea) invaded North Korea, China would not react by coming to the defense of North Korea (as it is obliged to do as North Korea’s ally) but by allowing North Korea to get conquered and/or collapse. Only after collapse would China act—not on North Korea’s behalf, but to ensure that instability does not spread into China.

If this were true—that China would not defend North Korea at the time of an invasion—this is momentous news indeed. But there are two reasons why this makes no sense, thus suggesting that the report is bogus.

First, if China did decide to abandon its military alliance with North Korea, it would not announce this through a leak in this odd way. Putting aside whether or not China might actually do this (which is a whole other issue), the way in which Beijing would go about this momentous policy change would be to convey it very privately to US and South Korean leaders.

Secondly, the United States and South Korea have long urged China to pressure the North Korean government, to punish or deter it from engaging in destabilizing behavior (missile and nuclear tests, the use of force, and so forth). A Chinese abrogation of its alliance with North Korea would be quite welcome news to those countries—and thus presumably Beijing would never do it without negotiating significant concessions from Seoul and Washington. China would never, in other words, give this away for free. Thus the sheer improbability of what would constitute a truly monumental policy change—let alone the way the change was communicated—casts  doubt on the veracity of the leaked report.

Here is what we know for sure. The state of North Korea has limped by despite its poverty and weakness, and may live on–to abuse its people and plague its neighbors–for decades to come. The Kim family has cannily and viciously employed powerful tools of authoritarian control that have kept them in power for three generations. Those tools will continue to work—until they do not. Judging from previous cases of coups and revolutions that blindsided leaders and analysts (remember Hillary Clinton proclaiming the strength of Egypt’s Mubarak regime shortly before its toppling?), we may have little notice when North Korea’s government is about to fall.

Post-Collapse Scenario | In discussions of North Korea’s demise, it is important to remember that, as in the case of East and West Germany, the Korean standoff could be resolved without a government collapse—in other words, through a negotiated solution. (In my view, analysts are far too quick to scoff at this as impossible—despite the fact that analysts all scoffed at this prior to German unification too.)

If the North Korean government does collapse, we know that would be a dangerous time. The peninsula could erupt in a humanitarian, political and military crisis that threatens the broader stability of East Asia.

RAND’s Bruce W. Bennett and I modeled the military missions that countries might perform in the event of North Korean collapse. We analyzed the force requirements of several different missions, including: control of North Korea’s borders, a humanitarian stability operation, demilitarization, and the securing of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.

We calculated that these missions would require hundreds of thousands of troops. If they ever need to be performed, ideally this would be done in a multilateral, coordinated fashion, and ideally planning for this would start now. Drawing up contingency plans (as the United States, South Korea and, yes, also China have all been doing) is therefore vital. But even more importantly, those countries need to have a dialogue about this contingency, to mitigate the dangers that it might create in East Asian international relations.

*A variation of this piece first appeared on the Guardian North Korea network on May 9, 2014, in a panel entitled “Is China losing faith in North Korea?” It is republished here with full permission.

One Comment

  1. Improbable scenario, idiotic and silly.(Why? Chinese would sit idle and do nothing when outside forces, i.e. the U.S. and South Korea, cross the Chinese border into N. Korea? – stupid).

    Why would any intelligent person waste time on a stupid mental exercise like this, inspite of the fact that contingency plans are necessary.

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