If war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese regime will play a decisive role in the fate of its communist cousin. But what China will do in defense of North Korea will hinge largely on who shoots first and what Russia does or doesn’t do.
North Korea’s fate has resided in Beijing’s hands since Chinese soldiers prevented United Nations forces from wiping out the Kim regime after its failed invasion of South Korea in 1950. And while the Chinese regime has often been a reluctant protector of North Korea’s dictatorship, its support for successive Kim regimes has been in Beijing’s own interests.
Which may explain why China has done just enough to be seen as cooperative, but not enough to stop North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“I’m not convinced that China couldn’t simply call up Kim Jong Un and, in the course of a single conversation, tell him to stand down and denuclearize,” said Anders Corr, founder of risk consultancy Corr Analytics and publisher of the Journal of Political Risk.
Corr, who previously advised U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific, said Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s claims of limited influence with North Korea lack credibility.
“I think he does have influence. Certainly, if China were to impose draconian economic sanctions on North Korea it could destabilize North Korea to such an extent it would threaten Kim Jong Un’s hold on power.”
Corr said the Chinese regime has the key to resolving the North Korea crisis—an overwhelming majority of North Korea’s foreign trade—but has chosen not to use it. That may be because North Korea distracts the United States from issues that are important to Beijing, including Taiwan and the Chinese regime’s territorial claims in the South and East China seas.
But the threat North Korea poses to the United States is an existential one should the regime obtain and use intercontinental ballistic missiles against U.S. cities, said Corr. Such a move could destroy the economic power that currently allows the United States to forward deploy it’s military and provide security in Europe and Asia.
If the United States had to pull back its military forces, Russia and China could move in by expanding their influence in the region, or through military occupation.
It’s a low-probability, high-cost scenario, but one that must be considered because the impact could be catastrophic, said Corr.
“This is part of the reason why North Korea is such a threat, and why the U.S. is willing to potentially risk a major conflict with North Korea.”
China accounts for 75 to 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade and has exercised what some have described as a “conscious negligence” when it comes to shutting down North Korean front companies in China that are obtaining critical weapons components for the Kim regime.
The fact that North Korea launched its ICBM from a Chinese made erector truck on Nov. 28 is one of the more visible examples of complicity. To get around an earlier round of sanctions, the truck was sold to North Korea under the unlikely guise of being a logging vehicle.
Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has tried to deflect criticism by pointing to its current adherence to United Nations Security Council sanctions passed in September. The fact remains, however, that the Chinese Communist Party controls the People’s Liberation Army, the security backstop that has preserved North Korea for 67 years.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the audience of the 2017 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum on Dec. 12 that President Donald Trump was leaning heavily on China to finally support an oil embargo that could avert war.
“The last time the North Koreans came to the table, it was because China cut the oil off. Three days later, the North Koreans were at the table talking. And the President feels we’re really at that stage.”
But hopes that cutting off oil after North Korea has come within inches of nuclear warhead-tipped ICBM may be overly optimistic, especially with credible reports Russia is willing to risk international condemnation with increasing oil exports to North Korea.
And given both China and Russia have said they will not pass additional sanctions, military action may be the only option left if the United States truly wants to keep North Korea from getting nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland.
Tillerson gave a rare peak at efforts to get Chinese permission to take that action, pledging any invasion would be temporary.
“We have had conversations that if something happened and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th parallel,” he said.
“Our only objective is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, and that is all.”
Regime change is not an option, from China’s perspective and the Chinese regime has demanded the United States pledge not to seek regime collapse or change, nor try to speed up a reunification of North and South Korea. The United States has also agreed not to look for a reason to send military forces north of the demilitarized zone that runs along the 38th parallel.
But if U.S. forces were to enter North Korea, how China responds will depend largely on why, said Carl Schuster, a retired Navy captain who now lectures at Hawaii Pacific University.
“Let’s say North Korea does something stupid like launches a missile that lands in South Korea or hits a U.S. base, or North Korea suddenly fires some artillery rounds across the DMZ and Seoul, if North Korea does that, China will have no problem with us pounding North Korea’s government into the dirt,” he said.
But there is a difference between aerial strikes and troops on the ground, and how the Chinese regime will respond to either is uncertain. At the very least, Beijing will seek international pressure to stop a U.S. offensive.
But while crossing the 38th parallel may be tolerated under some circumstances, taking the North Korean capital will not be, he said.
“If it looks like we are going to go north of Pyongyang, in their minds, that will be a red line.”
China may tolerate U.S. forces crossing the border to crush the North Korean army, he said, but he expects Beijing would send forces to occupy Pyongyang. North Korea’s capital will remain a no-go zone, he said.
“If North Korea initiates the conflict, China will watch it closely, prepare for North Korea’s defeat, but they won’t intervene if we don’t go to far.”
However, all that math shifts should Russia get involved in the equation. Schuster said China could be forced to defend North Korea if Russia started sending troops.
“China would worry about Russian influence in there,” he said.
“But barring something like that, China would let the North Korean regime get its head kicked in. Whether they would allow the regime to fall or not is a different story.”
If war does break out and U.S. forces enter and then withdraw from North Korea, many experts have suggested North Korea become a Chinese protectorate afterwards. It is a relationship the two countries have previously had, with China overseeing much of the affairs of earlier Korean governments in Asia’s pre-Communist years.