Anxiety across the globe is growing by the day as Pyongyang and Washington trade threats of military action. Yet there is insufficent discussion of specifically how the powers concerned would react should the unthinkable happen.
With no agreed upon roadmap for what would transpire in the event of all-out war, leaders in Beijing, Washington and Seoul are placing all their hopes on maintaining a delicate status quo. But the dysfunctional relationship between all parties involved is not sustainable. It is also entirely dependent on avoiding what appears to be the increasing likelihood of an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Since the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 there has existed a vague understanding that China would send troops across the Korean border should a full-blown conflict resume. Last April, Chinese state-run Global Times published an editorial suggesting Beijing should show restraint in the event that the US conduct a surgical strike on the North. If South Korean or US troops were to cross the 38th parallel, however, China would have no choice but to follow through with its long-standing commitment to send ground troops in to maintain the integrity of the border.
In August, the same state media outlet further argued that China should stay neutral if North Korea instigated conflict with a missile attack, raising further questions about just how such a series of events would shake out. If war broke out due to a mistake or miscalculation, assigning blame for who started it would not be black and white.
It cannot be ignored that the nature of China’s commitment to support North Korea has changed. Since Kim Jong-un has taken power, Beijing’s pivot towards closer relations with South Korea has deepened. Xi Jinping has had numerous high-profile meetings with South Korean leaders since taking office, but none with Kim Jong-un. A surprise meeting with North Korean envoy Ri Su-yong in 2016 was believed to be the first meeting between Xi Jinping and a senior North Korean official in three years, despite the two countries’ symbolic relationship as committed allies.
So why would China effectively go to war with South Korea should the US and North Korea stumble into a downward spiral of military conflict? From what we know now, that is the logical conclusion of such a sequence of events, but that need not be the case.
Chinese scholar Jia Qingguo argues in a recently published article that Beijing must be more willing to consider talks of contingency plans for a potential war on the Korean peninsula.
Jia notes that the United States and South Korea have long tried to convince China to hold talks on contingency planning. He suggests Beijing’s main reservation is the prospect of further alienating Pyongyang. Today, this line of thinking no longer holds water. Beijing has already accomplished this with increasingly harsh actions against the regime, repeatedly signing on to US-led UN sanctions.
When war becomes a reality, Jia warns “China must be prepared.”
The questions to be addressed are many. For instance, who would control North Korea’s nuclear weapons? How to deal with the ensuing refugee problem? The overarching issue, which would likely decide these other questions is who would restore domestic order in the North and what kind of post-crisis political arrangement would emerge.
One striking aspect of the scenarios Jia lays out is that they take for granted that the Kim regime would be gone as a result of any conflict, while South Korea’s government would remain intact.
“Should international society set up a new government for North Korea? Or should it endorse a UN-sponsored peninsula-wide plebiscite on reunification in preparation for a united Korea?,” he asks
The practical expectation of a dethroned Kim regime from a Peking University scholar highlights just how sour the discourse in Beijing has grown towards Pyongyang. It also underscores Jia’s point that Beijing, Washington and Seoul need to flesh out a roadmap for what comes next.
There is little in Jia’s proposals that suggests such talks would be easy. Anything other than a Chinese-led reconstruction effort in the North would be unacceptable to Beijing, as the US and South Korea are treaty allies. The removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the South is one bargaining chip to offer Beijing. It would likely be off the table for the US, though South Korean leaders would be more receptive to such an idea.
There is no potential scenario resulting from conflict in Korea that is worth the risk associated — for any countries involved. For that reason conflict remains highly unlikely. Nonetheless, it appears more likely than in the past, and as Jia writes, “China has no alternative but to get prepared.”