The recent report of the Japanese Kyodo News agency attracted much attention worldwide. The agency reported that the Chinese military had prepared contingency plans, to be activated in the case of regime collapse in North Korea, and some of these plans were leaked. The leaked plans talk about processing and housing refugees, guarding the border and also ensuring security (and also taking under control) of those key figures of the regime who might move to China.
This reports produced a great fuss in the world media which usually presented it as a proof that “China does not believe in [the] stability of its ally”.
However, there is virtually nothing new in these news – apart from the content of the leaked plans which is, indeed, of moderate interest. For over a decade, Chinese officials and experts have occasionally hinted at the existence of such plans when talking to their foreign colleagues or even delivering presentations at seminars and workshops.
There are chances that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and his entourage will attempt Chinese style reforms and slowly transform his country into a minor version of China, but these chances are slim at best. It appears far more likely that this regime will go down in flames, as a result of a dramatic crisis which might be provoked by elite power struggle, spontaneous popular revolts, military coup…
In some cases, the Chinese side discussed scenarios which would be significantly more dramatic than the relatively modest measures described in the recent leaks – like, say, establishment of a security zone (along the border but inside what used to be North Korea) where the Chinese troops would be in control.
Most of such admissions were made in somewhat confidential surrounding, and clearly were not meant to be reported by the media, but few of the non-Chinese participants of such talks and presentations had a feeling that a great secret had just been divulged. There is a good reason behind such quite attitude: It has been obvious for long time that China does (and should do) such contingency planning. It has nothing to do with the trust between the allies, and has everything to do with the prudence and foresight.
Unstable in the long run
One of the most basic facts about North Korea is that this country seems to be unstable in the long run. In spite of some economic improvements of the recent decade, it still remains very poor if compared to all its neighbours, and this gap keeps growing. The Kim family regime can maintain the stability for long time, but the information about the success of other countries – above all, South Korea – is filtering in, and gradually ferments discontent.
There are chances that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and his entourage will attempt Chinese style reforms and slowly transform his country into a minor version of China, but these chances are slim at best. It appears far more likely that this regime will go down in flames, as a result of a dramatic crisis which might be provoked by elite power struggle, spontaneous popular revolts, military coup – or some combination of all these scenarios.
These basic facts are widely understood not only in countries which are seen as “enemies” of North Korea, but also in countries which are ostensibly its “friends”, like Russia and China. This means that a regime collapse and subsequent outbreak of instability in North Korea are distinct possibilities, so all responsible politicians in the neighbouring countries should draft contingency plans to be activated when and if such crisis strikes.
This is especially true in regard to China which is likely to suffer most if the North Korean regime collapses. China has the longest (some 1,400 kilometres) border with North Korea which generally follows two rivers and is rather difficult to control, let alone seal. The adjacent areas of China have a large population of ethnic Koreans, many of whom have close relatives in North Korea, so the refugees (including highly undesirable people) will have some opportunities to hide. If North Korea disintegrates, China will attract most refugees, and might also become the transit areas for smuggling nuclear technology, WMD, drugs and other very unpleasant substances.
In this regard, two other land neighbours of North Korea – Russia and South Korea – are much luckier. Russia’s border with North Korea is very short, merely 17 kilometres long, and the adjacent parts of Russia are not only sparsely populated, but also have underdeveloped transportation networks, so the number of refugees is not going to be large. The border with South Korea, formally known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, is long, but for decades it has been transformed into a chain of major fortifications. Massive minefields and countless miles of barbed wire will also make crossing difficult even if South Koreans decide to accept the coming refugees unconditionally.
Speaking about geopolitics, China also seems to be positioned to suffer most in the event of a North Korean regime collapse. As it is preoccupied with economic growth, China needs a stable and predictable environment in North East Asia, and a civil war in a neighbouring country, which also happens to have nuclear weapons, is not on the wish list of Beijing strategists.
So, we have a scenario which appears to be probable (and highly likely), but might lead to major threats for China. What would any country do in such a situation? The answer seems obvious: Any responsible government would start planning for contingency. This is perfectly normal, and this is what governments have always done in similar circumstances.
Predictably, soon after Kyodo News leaks the Chinese authorities denied that they are making preparations for a North Korean regime collapse. This was a totally expected reaction: As a matter of fact, if such denials would not be delivered, it might have been seen as a sign of a really grave crisis in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.
Irrespectively of whether the leaked documents are indeed fakes, the Chinese government has to present them as fakes. So, Chinese strategy planners do what they should, and what their colleagues in many other countries are doing as well. One can only wonder why the information about their routine, if necessarily confidential, work created so much fuss recently.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.