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Is China Ready for “Korean War II”?

{Editor’s Note: As the situation on the Korean Peninsula escalates, moving ever closer toward a potential war, how should China respond in order to minimize the damage to its national interests?

Two scholars, Zheng Yongnian, Chairman of the Academic Committee of the Public Policy Research, Institute of the South China University of Technology (Guangzhou City), and Liu Bojian, Research Assistant at the East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore, jointly wrote an article to discuss this issue.

The following is a translation of excerpts from the article.} {1}

I. China’s National Interest in the Korean Peninsula

China has stated its official position on the severe situation on the Korean peninsula in three points: First, no matter what happens, the peninsula must be denuclearized. This is China’s ultimate goal. Second, in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, which imposed sanctions, China calls on various parties to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully. Third, China hopes that all parties will accept China’s plan, which is to promote denuclearization in tandem with a peace mechanism for the peninsula, as well as the suspension of both North Korean nuclear activities and, at the same time, the United States’ (U.S.’) large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea, this being the first step toward a “double suspension.”

Obviously, of these three points the first is a matter of principle and is part of the very core of China’s national interest on the Korean Peninsula issue. The other two are approaches to resolving the issue. In particular, the third point is a more temporary and responsive plan, largely subject to how the U.S. and South Korea confront North Korea

As the Korean Peninsula crisis developed to this stage, China has had to consider how to minimize the damage that a potentially unavoidable military confrontation might have on its national interest.

In fact, on the issue of the Korean Peninsula, China’s core national interest should consist of two long-term goals in addition to the most urgent goal of denuclearization. One is the security goal. That is, at least there cannot be any military or political forces on the Korean Peninsula that directly threaten China’s national security. Specifically, for example, the U.S. cannot lead in creating a political arrangement that threatens China’s national security, regardless of whether the Korean Peninsula will eventually be peacefully reunited. In addition, similar to the original “Sino-U.S. Joint Communique” which requires the U.S. military to withdraw from Taiwan, the gradual withdrawal of the U.S. military from the Korean Peninsula should also be part of this long-term goal.

The other goal is one of territorial integrity. Both North and South Korea have made territorial claims to China’s territory. The claims have not yet become part of the agenda of the two countries because the peninsula is currently separated. Once the issue of reunification is resolved, the territorial claims will become a key issue between China and the peninsula. A few years ago, the territorial controversy between South Korea and China (albeit at the level of scholars) suggested that the problem would sooner or later break out. In short, no matter how the Korean Peninsula confrontation develops, China must strive to hold the core bottom line of its national interest. Otherwise it would be a strategic failure.

II. The Chessboard Predictions of the Korean War II

Although it is optimal for China to treat the peninsula problem as its own problem in order to protect its interest, that is, to have control over how the problem is solved, as a war in the peninsula is in sight, there is extremely limited time for China to make a decisive choice. At least based on past experience and the current positions of all parties involved, in the short term, China is unlikely to take full control in its own hands. It is more likely to continue to play a supporting role while letting the U.S. take the lead.

Under this assumption, if the current situation continues to unfold, two most likely fuses may trigger the outbreak of the Korean War. One is a misfire during a military or missile test which escalates into a larger scale military confrontation. The other is if the development of North Korea’s nuclear capacity culminates in a U.S. and South Korean decision to launch a preemptive strike and North Korea then retaliates.

A military confrontation may have two direct results. One is that the U.S. and South Korea win a complete victory in a large-scale war and gain control of the peninsula. The other is like the Gulf War. A truce will allow Kim’s regime to survive temporarily and both sides will enter into negotiations or a stalemate. As to what will likely touch off the war, the greater likelihood is the possibility of a preemptive strike. That is because a misfire, such as the shelling of Yin Ping Island, has occurred before. The two sides have often exercised some restraint due to a fear of the consequences of an expanded conflict.

That said, it is almost certain that, even if the U.S. and South Korea were to conduct a pre-emptive strike, due to North Korea’s artillery power and South Korea’s population density near its northern border, North Korea’s retaliation would still cause a large number of civilian casualties in the northern part of South Korea and even in parts of Japan.

Moreover, how much South Korean and Japanese civilian casualties can be reduced depends mainly on the effectiveness of the U.S. and South Korea’s destruction of North Korea’s firing capability, and then on the combat performance of the South Korean and Japanese missile defense systems. However, due to North Korea’s complex mountainous terrain, along with the mobility and concealment of its rocket launchers and land-based missiles, it would be difficult for the U.S. and South Korea to destroy North Korea’s counterattack capabilities completely in a very short time.

The most likely outcome of the war would be a truce, mainly because it would be difficult for the U.S. and South Korea to gain complete control of North Korea immediately. There are two specific reasons. First, the North Korean terrain features mountains and trees, its urban civil defense facilities are in good shape. This is different from the 2003 Iraq War because Iraq (especially its southern part) is mostly flat desert and very conducive to the full speed of mechanized infantry. In the last century, the U.S. military repeatedly crumbled in North Korea and Vietnam mostly because the two countries have very complex terrains, which are conducive to North Korean and Vietnamese guerrilla operations. Moreover, as a result of North Korea’s long-term civil defense preparations, the in-city fighting will not be as smooth for the U.S. and South Korea as it was in Iraq.

Second, there is just one ethnic group and one ideology in North Korea and the nationalism is high. The political legitimacy of the Worker’s Party is based on its historical achievements against the Japanese invasion and for national liberation. Thus many people have some loyalty to Kim’s regime. Further, both the military and civilians have received some military training. Even if the U.S.-South Korean coalition defeated the North Korean army and took over Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un and his cronies could still lead a guerrilla warfare in the northern mountains (even along its border with China), unless the U.S. and South Korea have successfully wiped out Kim.

The political factor, that is, the pressure from China and Russia and especially China on the U.S.-South Korean actions, could lead to negotiations in the middle of a war. At a critical moment, by virtue of the ideology and clan relations between China and North Korea, there is a high probability that the Kim Jong-un government might seek help from China. Unlike in the 1950s, however, today there is almost zero possibility that China would declare war to protect Kim Jong-un. Because of the subtle discord between China and North Korea, the bilateral relationship is far looser than it was in Mao Zedong’s time. Further, China-U.S. relations are far more important to China than they were in the 1950s. In short, China needs to be clear that to China, the future of the Korean Peninsula is not which side to take, but how to reduce the damage to, and even maximize China’s national interest.

{If the U.S. and the South Korean army defeated North Korea in the war}, most of the defeated Korean People’s Army would flee to the northern mountainous areas near the China-Korean border. Because of concerns about provoking China, the U.S.’ bombings and suppression would be much hampered. North Korea could become another North Myanmar. Be it the offensive side or the defensive side, both would need China to coordinate military negotiations.

However, the worst case would be that the two sides, after a few rounds of military conflicts, enter into a confrontational stand-off and impasse, particularly if the U.S. and South Korea do not completely destroy North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, and Kim’s regime still will not give up the development of nuclear weapons. If China wants to achieve the denuclearization and security and stability of the peninsula, China may have to consider the option of providing nuclear protection to North Korea. Otherwise, the North Korean nuclear crisis would return to a vicious circle. Of course, this would, to some extent, sacrifice China’s limited nuclear deterrence policy, while intensifying the strategic confrontation between China and the U.S.

In any case, if the result of the war is for China to support another anti-U.S. regime in North Korea, it will clearly be contrary to China’s foreign affairs strategy since China’s reform and opening up. Therefore, regardless of whether the north and south can be unified, for China, the future of North Korea should be the reform and opening up and immersing North Korea into the current East Asian economic system. Otherwise, the root cause for the U.S.-North Korea conflict and North Korea’s poverty and instability will not be eradicated. It is also palpable that the biggest factor hindering this process is the Kim dictator regime’s extreme pursuit of self-protection, followed by the aggressive U.S geopolitical strategy in northeast Asia.

III. The Influence of War on China’s Neighbors

Assuming that the U.S. and South Korea suddenly launch a pre-emptive strike, the most direct impact on China would be the evacuation of Chinese from North Korea and the placement of North Korean refugees. We believe that, for humanitarian reasons, it would be advisable for China to place the refugees along the North Korea border temporarily and then hand most of them over to South Korea after the completion of a security investigation. When North Korea’s internal order is on the brink of collapse, China will need to strengthen its cooperation with South Korea. Otherwise, China’s own social security, manufacturing, and daily life along the border would suffer from a severe negative impact.

The Korean Peninsula’s possible war may impact China’s military negatively. Over the years from the U.S. military’s anti-submarine patrol in the South China Sea and close reconnaissance in the East China Sea, to the offense and defense of the People’s Liberation Army in the cyber and electronic fields, one can see that, in the non-war state, China and the U.S. engage in military technical wrestling almost all year round. As mentioned earlier, the early phase of the Korean War will likely be for air dominance, when the U.S. and South Korea can set up a large no-fly zone which would likely be very close and even cover part of China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. However, the differences between China and the U.S. will occur mainly in the late stages of the war involving the political settlement on the peninsula, rather than in the stage when the U.S. and South Korea take military action.

There is another uncertainty about a peninsular war, which is Japan’s response to war and Sino-Japanese relations. At the request of the U.S. and South Koreans, Japan could send in its self-defense forces to participate in the coalition’s military operations in North Korea. However, unless the battlefield situation forces the U.S. to insist on South Korea accepting it, it might be difficult for South Korea’s public opinion to accept the Japanese once again setting foot on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. may just restrict Japan’s role to carrying out limited support operations in the air and sea.

However, it is certain that Japan’s participation in the war would, to a great extent, provoke China’s anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment, which would undoubtedly cast a shadow over the future of Sino-Japanese relations and would also push the territorial dispute between the two to a more dangerous situation.


{1} Duowei, “Is China Ready for ‘Korean War II’?” April 4. 2017.