By: Annie Kowalewski
Photo Credit: South China Morning Post
Multilateral contingency planning regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains largely underdeveloped, but any effort to stabilize the region after a complete collapse of the DPRK will require cooperation between the United States, China, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). This article will consider Chinese approaches to contingency planning and how the United States can cooperate with China in a crisis scenario post-conflict.
The Main Concerns
China will inevitably be affected by the humanitarian costs of a collapsed DPRK, the security of DPRK’s nuclear material, and any large US-ROK force mobilization on the peninsula. As such, China has increased border patrols and surveillance along the Sino-DPRK border to monitor potential crises and increase its first-response capabilities.[i] One humanitarian concern in Chinese contingency planning documents is mass migration into Chinese territory that may destabilize the Jilin/Liaoning provinces. China would need to manage an influx of refugees with a different ethnicity to that of the Han Chinese, but also integrate thousands of unskilled workers into its economy.[ii] Moreover, current estimates suggest that there are nearly 100,000 people currently imprisoned in camps where infectious disease remains rampant.[iii] The liberation of these camps thus opens the door to massive health concerns.[iv] These humanitarian and health challenges threaten to destabilize Chinese domestic stability.
The second focus is securing DPRK’s nuclear weapons and material. Potential crisis scenarios in this field range from ensuring the nuclear material does not leak to accidental launches to transfers of nuclear technology to dangerous groups.[v] Lastly, Chinese documents regularly note the potential for the US-ROK to “take advantage” of a weakened peninsula to change the status quo and encircle China.[vi]
The Plans and Areas of Cooperation
The Chinese term for contingency planning, [应急计划], suggests both military contingency plans and civilian emergency response plans.[vii] Yet the widened scope of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) responsibilities for “diversified military tasks” and “military operations other than war” [多样化军事任务/非战争军事行动], suggest the PLA Northern Theatre Command (NTC) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) will be the main actors in any crisis scenario. To address the humanitarian concerns, the PLA/PAP may create a blockade along the border and establish a “buffer zone” to manage refugee flows and provide medical care before migrants enter Chinese territory.[viii] The PLA has operational experience in such planning via its “peace train” traveling medical team that has brought medical care to Southeast Asian countries, and helped manage the Ebola outbreak in several West African nations.[ix] Therefore, China may attempt to manage the humanitarian crisis on its own to avoid US-ROK forces so close to the Chinese border.
Seizing nuclear material and weapons, however, is an area in which the PLA/PAP has less experience and may need to cooperate with the United States. In a crisis scenario, the US Navy could patrol and police the eastern waters around the peninsula while the PLA works with US Special Forces to interdict the proliferation of materials, technology, and associated personnel.[x] In the past, the United States has worked alongside the Chinese to secure China’s domestic nuclear facilities by building physical protection systems to protect against external and design basis threats.[xi] Such cooperation mechanisms and technical expertise can thus be applied in a DPRK contingency.
Underpinning these immediate concerns is a geopolitical question about who will shape the status quo on the peninsula post-collapse and how. Consequently, the PLA would likely embark on a large-scale force mobilization along the DPRK border and into DPRK territory to demonstrate its commitment to the region.[xii], The fundamental Chinese view is that if it can control enough Korean territory during a crisis scenario, then it can prevent the US-ROK from mass mobilizing and shaping the outcome of the peninsula in a way that disadvantages China. This scenario is ripe for misunderstanding and accidental escalation, so the United States should continue seeking military-to-military communication lines with China. Recently, General Dunford and General Fang signed an agreement to create the equivalent of a Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism between the Director for Strategic Plans and Policy and his Chinese counterpart.[xiii] While this is a good starting point, the two militaries should also aim to increase communication between units on the ground before a conflict occurs to mitigate potential misunderstandings and engage in joint-planning discussions at the strategic level.
Chinese contingency planning after a DPRK collapse is thus military-focused and threat-driven, centered on addressing humanitarian concerns, nuclear accidents, and geopolitical shifts on the Korean peninsula. While there are opportunities for the United States and China to cooperate in a crisis scenario, there are also areas for potential friction and escalation. As such, the United States and China would do well to continue sharing contingency plans, identify potential risk scenarios, and strengthen communication channels prior to a crisis.
[i] Philip Wen, “China’s Dilemma over North Korea on show at border,” Reuters, April 14, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-china/chinas-dilemma-over-north-korea-on-show-at-border-idUSKBN17G0ZC.
[ii] Richard C. Bush, “China’s Response to Collapse in North Korea,” Brookings, January 23, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/chinas-response-to-collapse-in-north-korea/.
[iii] Roberta Cohen, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Planning for Crisis in North Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Fall/Winter 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Roberta-Cohen-NK-art-reunification.pdf.
[iv] Roberta Cohen, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Planning for Crisis in North Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Fall/Winter 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Roberta-Cohen-NK-art-reunification.pdf.
[v] Thomas Woodrow, “Chapter 9: The PLA and Cross-Border Contingencies in North Korea and Burma,” in Andrew Scobell et al (eds.), The People’s Liberation Army and Contingency Planning in China, (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015).
[vi] Bonnie Glaser, Scott Snyder, and John S. Park, “Keeping an Eye on an Unruly Neighbor: Chinese Views of Economic Reform and Stability in North Korea,” USIP Working Paper, January 3, 2008, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Jan2008.pdf.
[vii] Shannon Tiezzi, “Does China have a contingency plan for North Korea?,” The Diplomat, May 7, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/does-china-have-a-contingency-plan-for-north-korea/.
[viii] Thomas Woodrow, “Chapter 9: The PLA and Cross-Border Contingencies in North Korea and Burma,” in Andrew Scobell et al (eds.), The People’s Liberation Army and Contingency Planning in China, (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015).
[ix] Cui Jianshu, “Military modernization aimed at promoting peace,” China Daily, July 26, 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2017-07/26/content_30247913.htm; “Feature: Chinese PLA ‘Peace Train’ medical team brings experience, technology, friendship to Laos,” Xinhua News, August 8, 2017, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-08/08/c_136507841.htm.
[x] Travis Lindsay, “Planning for the Fall: China’s Contingency Plan to Reshape the Korean Peninsula,” China Focus, August 23, 2016, http://chinafocus.us/2016/08/23/planning-for-the-fall-chinas-contingency-plan-to-reshape-the-korean-peninsula/.
[xi] Hui Zhang and Tuosheng Zhang, “Securing China’s Nuclear Future,” Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom, March 2014, http://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/fullchinapaperenglish.pdf.
[xii] Travis Lindsay, “Planning for the Fall: China’s Contingency Plan to Reshape the Korean Peninsula,” China Focus, August 23, 2016, http://chinafocus.us/2016/08/23/planning-for-the-fall-chinas-contingency-plan-to-reshape-the-korean-peninsula/.
[xiii] Jim Garmone, “Dunford Stresses Diplomacy, Sanctions for North Korea in Talks with Chinese,” Department of Defense Media, August 16, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1279692/dunford-stresses-diplomacy-sanctions-for-north-korea-in-talks-with-chinese/.