Is China losing faith in North Korea? | World news |

Beijing’s contingency plans for the fall of Kim Jong-un have apparently been leaked to the media. What does this mean for Pyongyang’s relations with its only major ally?

A soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates North Korea and China. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

When Japanese media reported that it had been leaked copies of China’s contingency plans for the collapse of North Korea, some more excitable reports suggested that it could soon be “all over” for Kim Jong-un‘s regime. We asked a panel of North Korean experts whether they thought the documents were genuine and, if so, what could be concluded from a leak of this sort.

Jennifer Lind

One aspect of the leaked Chinese contingency plan is monumental – if it were true. But it is so implausible it suggests this report must be bogus.

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.

Take a step back and think about the scenario on which this plan is based. It suggests that if foreign military forces (presumably the United States and South Korea) invaded North Korea, China would not react by coming to the defence of North Korea (as it is obliged to do as Pyongyang’s ally) but would allow the regime to be conquered and/or collapse. Only after this 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 act in defence of North Korea at the time of an invasion – this is momentous news. But there are two reasons why this makes no sense

If this were true – that China would not act in defence of 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 destabilising behaviour (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’s what we know for sure. North Korea has limped by despite its poverty and weakness, and may continue to do so for decades to come. Or it might collapse next week.

Here’s what we know for sure. North Korea has limped by despite its poverty and weakness, and may continue to do so for decades to come. Or it might collapse next week. If the government does collapse, the Korean peninsula could erupt in a humanitarian, political and military crisis that threatens the broader stability of East Asia.

Bruce W Bennett, of the thinktank Rand, and I modelled the military missions that countries might perform in the event of North Korean collapse. We calculated that stabilising the peninsula could require hundreds of thousands of troops. 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.

Jennifer Lind is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008). Follow on Twitter @profLind

North Koreans sit by their boats on the bank of the Yalu River which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on 26 April, 2014.
North Koreans sit by their boats on the bank of the Yalu River which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on 26 April, 2014. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Paul French

The leaked news that Beijing has drawn up significant contingency plans in the event of a regime collapse in North Korea (DPRK) reflects just how little Kim Jong-un has managed to reassure the Chinese authorities that he is securely in power. Clearly China believes his hold on power to be fragile.

We’ve been here before. Ramping up of contingency plans for a crisis on China’s border with the DPRK has occurred previously when Beijing’s analysts have felt collapse may be imminent. In 2003, in the wake of a failed economic reform programme, initiated by Kim Jong-il, and a growing nuclear crisis, a large contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops were moved into the border region of Yanbian in China’s south-eastern Jilin Province. High voltage fences were erected along portions of the rather porous border to prevent an escalation in defections across the Yalu River.

Clearly China believes Kim Jong-un’s hold on power to be fragile.

China’s plans come hot on the heels of a flurry of renewed interest in the North from Seoul and are, in part, probably a reaction to it.

The South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, recently formed a “committee to prepare for reunification” – really just a polite way of saying South Korea needs to prepare for the worst scenario of forced regime change and ensuing chaos.

Beijing clearly worries about a massive influx of refugees and an ousted Kim3 trying to re-establish his power base from Chinese soil; Seoul knows it would face a humanitarian disaster that would cost multiples of German reunification and perilously threaten the South’s economy.

The presence of 30,000 or so American GIs in the South moving up to China’s borders obviously alarms the PLA, while Seoul wonders what it would do with the DPRK’s 1.2m-man army and the possibility of “last ditch” attacks on its territory.

The fact is though that now is a time to plan for collapse.

The fact is, though, that now is a time to plan for collapse. Kim Jong-un has not achieved the status of his father and grandfather as yet. His purging of senior cadres has led to nervousness among the higher echelons of power in Pyongyang and not consolidation. His half-hearted economic reforms (the so-called “6.28 Policy” of handing more control to agricultural co-operatives and a “Quality of Life” initiative to more widely distribute consumer goods) have both failed. The North remains mired in poverty, food insecurity and with an uncertain leadership.

That China should be heightening its preparations for a collapse across the Yalu, and directly warning the North to avoid “chaos”, is important.

It reveals that Beijing believes the economic and political situation to be worsening and that elements on the North’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party that have been urging more wholesale economic reform (known loosely in Beijing as the Chrysanthemum Group) are distinctly on the back foot, if not now almost wholly purged.

It also indicates that Beijing now believes that any return to the economic reform programme of 2002, instigated by Kim Jong-il, is now off the cards. Those reforms, which ultimately failed, did include the seeds of a Chinese style “reform and opening up” policy but went nowhere near far enough. Kim Jong-un has little to offer in the way of policy except more of the same “Arduous march” North Koreans have had to endure since 1993.

Paul French is the author of North Korea: State of Paranoia, published by Zed Books. Follow on Twitter @StateofParanoia

A North Korea soldier sits on a patrol boat on the Yalu River which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong.
A North Korea soldier on a patrol boat on the Yalu River. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

John Everard

This leak of documents outlining how the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would respond to a collapse in North Korea does not necessarily mean that China thinks that such a collapse is now more likely. It is more probable that the leak’s timing was determined by internal Chinese debates.

In late 2013, China was showing signs of greater openness in discussing what to do if North Korea collapsed. But in early spring 2014 this changed, and Chinese officials have since then been very reluctant to discuss the possibility that North Korea might collapse, let alone contingencies for such an event. (Perhaps this was because of rising tensions with Japan and a consequent Chinese reluctance to risk irritating North Korea, its only ally, by discussing that country’s possible demise).

Whatever the reasons for this leak it will infuriate North Korea, whose ties with China are already strained.

This change must have been very frustrating to the PLA, who would have to deal in the first instance with the fallout of any North Korean collapse, and who therefore need clear direction from the civilian political leadership on what they should do.

So perhaps the PLA leaked these documents so as to force the civilian leadership into a proper debate on these difficult issues. (The sharp response to the leak by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, which has no love for the PLA, supports this view. Its Asia directorate has been strongly against allowing even an internal debate on a North Korean collapse, let alone a discussion with foreigners).

I suspect that the PLA’s move will be welcomed in both Washington and Seoul, both of whom have been pressing the Chinese to share thoughts on contingencies so as to avoid possibly dangerous misunderstandings in the inevitable confusion of such a collapse.

The document is significant too for what it does not say. On several occasions South Korea has worried aloud that, should North Korea collapse, Chinese troops might enter North Korea to maintain stability there. As far as I can tell without seeing the full document (which has not been published), these plans envisage no such move. It is possible therefore that the PLA leaked them in part so as to reassure South Korea, a country with which China now enjoys very good relations and with whose president senior Chinese leaders seem to have a warm personal rapport.

Whatever the reasons for this leak it will infuriate North Korea, whose ties with China are already strained. There have been reports of a placard in North Korea’s main military academy reading “The Chinese are traitors and are our enemies” and Chinese attempts to disown the leaked documents are unlikely to persuade North Koreans to change this view.

Sadly this leak may well increase the chances that North Korea does go ahead with a fourth nuclear test.

The Pentagon recently noted what appear to be the final preparations for a detonation at North Korea’s nuclear test site and, sadly, this leak – which will reinforce North Korea’s belief that it is isolated and needs to be strong in a hostile world – may well increase the chances that North Korea does go ahead with a fourth nuclear test.

John Everard was the British ambassador to North Korea from 2006 to 2008

People watch TV reporting North Korea's missile test at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul on 4 March, 2014.
People watch TV reporting North Korea’s missile test at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul on 4 March, 2014. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/AP

John Delury

Kyodo’s report about leaked Chinese military documents outlining what to do in the case of a North Korean collapse raises more questions than it answers.

In the age of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, readers expect maximum transparency. As a leading news agency, if Kyodo really obtained Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planning documents for what to do in case of North Korean collapse, they should post them online.

Barring that, one would naturally expect their news report to quote extensively from the original documents. To my great disappointment, bordering on disbelief, quotation marks are merited only twice in referring to the plans, and for relatively trivial phrases.

However much Kyodo saw of these documents, the next critical question is who showed it to them and why? But the report is frustratingly ambiguous as to how Kyodo learned about the contents of China’s plan. There is one reference to “Chinese military sources say…” – suggesting this was the manner in which the documents were obtained. But this is insinuated rather than explicit.

This is an absolutely critical point. If a Chinese military officer (at what level? Aacting on what authority?) purposefully leaked information, then the story here is that the PLA – or certain elements within the PLA – wants to send a message to Pyongyang. This is a rather indirect means of communication, but not inconceivable as a way to send an ally the unpleasant message that our patience is running thin, so don’t push us too far.

The PLA would be reinforcing recent Chinese foreign ministry warnings against North Korea conducting a fourth nuclear test and “causing turmoil at China’s doorstep” – but in a way that the foreign ministry can still vociferously deny the existence of such documents. Given the recent demotion of Choe Ryong-hae, who acted as Kim Jong-un’s personal envoy to China last year, and the dramatic execution of previous China envoy Jang Song-taek, such circuitous signalling might also be related to Chinese frustration at the lack of direct channels to Pyongyang.

But what if Kyodo’s report is not based on a PLA leak? Then we have to ask where they got what purports to be highly classified information. The most nearby source of course would be Japanese; South Korean or American origin would also be logical, and the purpose would probably be to sow doubt about North Korean stability (even their ally, the Chinese, are preparing for imminent collapse!) and/or destabilise the China-North Korea relationship. The Chinese foreign ministry suggested as much when asked about the Kyodo report.

It would be woefully irresponsible of the PLA not to have drafted contingency plans for numerous scenarios on their northeast border

On the one hand, Beijing’s denial of such plans is hard to believe – it would be woefully irresponsible of the PLA not to have drafted and periodically revise contingency plans for numerous scenarios on their north-east border (North Korean collapse being just one of those scenarios). On the other hand, the foreign ministry’s contention that the story was planted “for ulterior motives” could very well be true.

By revealing so little of the supposed documents and obfuscating the facts of their acquisition, the Kyodo report in the end tells us very little about Chinese assessments of North Korea’s stability or its planning process for how to deal with various destabilising scenarios that could occur along their 800 mile border.

The sparse details mentioned in the report about setting up refugee camps, dispatching reconnaissance teams, and offering safe haven to exiled North Korean leaders are too vague to be of much edification. Does Kyodo actually have these documents in hand? Did a PLA source leak them as a warning to Pyongyang? Or did a third party disclose a few details from “documents” for their own reasons? Without more extensive reporting from Kyodo, there is no way to tell.

And until then, there is not much to learn here, except another reminder that just about every catchy North Korea headline should add a warning – Caution: Contents May Have Shifted During Flight.

John Delury is an assistant professor at Yonsei University GSIS and author of Wealth & Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century. Follow on Twitter @johndelury


A North Korean soldier patrols on the banks of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite Dandong.
A North Korean soldier patrols on the banks of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite Dandong. Photograph: Jacky Chen/Reuters

Adam Cathcart

One of the things you quickly realise from travelling along the full length of the Chinese border with North Korea is just how much of North Korea there is. China’s boundary stretches along four northern frontier provinces of the DPRK, stretching for hundreds of kilometres along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Along those tributaries, there are at least five good-sized North Korean cities (Sinuiju, Manpo, Hyesan, Musan, and Hoeryong) which could easily absorb China’s attention during a crisis.

Whilst we tend to imagine a wholesale collapse scenario where chaos radiates outward from Pyongyang, we might better examine the possibility of chaos farther from the bright and labyrinthine capital city – and far closer to China. For instance, we might see a chemical accident in Sinuiju“terrorism” directed at Kimist monuments in Hyesan, theforcible expropriation of Chinese mining concerns within the DPRK, anuclear accident or even a volcanic eruption.

China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time.

China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time. Documents in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive describe China’s intensive interactions with the DPRK during the last full-scale collapse scenario in 1950. China was able to absorb about 10,000 North Korean refugees on either end of the border, and the DPRK waspressing to set up consulates up and down the frontier so that they could themselves keep track of the outflow. At that time, North Korean military units moved into Chinese territory to escape bombing by US planes – such as happened in Hyesan.

The North Koreans have hardly forgotten the war or China’s massive aid and stationing of troops until 1958, but the recent warming between Seoul and Beijing is clearly troubling; Kim Jong-un’s level of trust in Chinese comrades is as limited as his contact with them. The international community needs to understand that North Korea doesn’t simply fear American nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers; the country’s leadership also is concerned about falling unwillingly into the embrace of its huge northern neighbour.

Travels to the frontier region, and conversations with China’s own North Korea experts, help to contextualise that the real struggle along that frontier is likely to be above all economic and cultural. But China does need to be ready for a catastrophe; appearing helpless before its own population in the face of the North Korean equivalent of Fukushima is not a scenario the Chinese Communist Party wants to face.

Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese History at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of

Jang Jin-sung

How can China not be preparing for the possible collapse of the North Korean regime?

Especially now, when things are so different compared to how they were under Kim Jong-il. The Pyongyang power structures have changed so much, and China knows this more than any other country. Kim Jong-un does not have the same level of control as his father did. It is like North Korea is wearing full-frontal Kevlar riot gear, but at the back it is naked. All the world focuses on the Kevlar, and does not seem to see the extreme weakness.

I believe that within the next five years we will see major changes in North Korea, and how China responds to this in particular will have great bearing on North Korea’s future. The borders [between the two countries] are already more porous – of course China must prepare for the what the regime’s collapse could bring. In the meantime, the international community should be focussing on the human rights situation within North Korea, and trying to understand the country better. This is key to bringing real change to the people.

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