Report Warns of Chinese Contingencies for Crisis in North Korea
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI, Taiwan — A joint paper by three U.S. think tanks points to potential military intervention by China should North Korea become unstable.
The paper, “Keeping an Eye on an Unruly Neighbor,” produced jointly by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Foundation, was the result of interviews with Chinese specialists on North Korea in June 2007.
The 26-page report looks at a host of scenarios and issues from nuclear disarmament to economic problems from a uniquely Chinese perspective.
One of the authors, Bonnie Glaser, senior associate with CSIS, explained that the “premise of the project, which we launched in 2005, was that the U.S. and North Korea discuss the nuclear issue in great depth, but don’t talk enough about internal economic and political developments in North Korea. The dialogue is very useful for several reasons: It enables Americans to understand how the Chinese evaluate stability in North Korea, what indices they use to assess trends, for example; and secondly, it has provided us with useful insights into North Korea.”
According to the report, China views the detonation of a nuclear device in October 2006 as an act of defiance to Beijing and the international community as well as a threat to regional stability. The result was Beijing’s unprecedented support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 calling for sanctions.
Before North Korea’s nuclear test, China applied little pressure on Pyongyang. After the test, however, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials admitted that Beijing needed to expand its “toolbox for managing” North Korea.
“Beijing’s harsh response to North Korea’s nuclear test was intended to be a wake-up call to Kim Jong-il that disregarding and harming Chinese interests carries a cost. China’s goal, however, was not to aggravate Sino-DPRK [North Korea] relations, but rather to strengthen them, albeit on Chinese terms,” the report states.
Stability of the North Korean regime is Beijing’s primary goal. China fears that instability could lead to chaos and a collapse of government control. Chaos would unleash a flood of refugees crossing the border into China and possible intervention by South Korea resulting in reunification.
At present, China asserts that the regime is stable and there is confidence that it will remain so indefinitely. However, should Kim die suddenly, there is the potential for trouble.
“If Kim Jong-il were to die suddenly without making full preparations for the transitions of political power to a trusted individual or group, many Chinese experts predict instability and even a possible collapse could ensue,” the report states.
In the event of instability, China’s main objective will be to prevent a refugee crisis along its border.
“If deemed necessary, PLA [People’s Liberation Army] troops would be dispatched into North Korea. China’s strong preference is to receive formal authorization and coordinate closely with the U.N. in such an endeavor,” the report states. “However, if the international community did not react in a timely manner as the internal order in North Korea deteriorated rapidly, China would seek to take the initiative in restoring stability.”
Contingency plans include PLA missions into North Korea for humanitarian, peacekeeping and “environmental control” missions. Environmental control refers to clean up of nuclear contamination should nuclear facilities come under attack by the U.S. Chinese analysts largely denied scenarios where Beijing would promote regime change in Pyongyang.
The report is unique in that the “spectrum of opinion in China is quite similar to that you would find in the West — some believe North Korea will reform, others don’t. Some think one of Kim’s sons will succeed him, others think in North Korea there will be a collective leadership,” Glaser said.
“I suppose I find the debates the most interesting. The last few years have been a period of turmoil in China’s relations with North Korea, with the missile tests and the nuclear test and many debates have bubbled to the surface — for example, is North Korea a strategic asset or a liability? They are either being encouraged by the top leadership or simply tolerated,” she said.
“There is so much ferment about U.S. strategic intentions, whether the North will ultimately give up its nuclear weapons, and many other issues. It is a very interesting time to engage with the Chinese on these matters. Hopefully, this report won’t close doors for us in the future.”