A debate inside Chinese policy circles about how Beijing should respond to a possible war on the Korean peninsula has grown fierce since North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in September.

China Policy (CP), a respected China policy analysis website, reports that disagreements on the issue between “leftists” and “rightists” in China have “exploded into character assassinations and insults.”

“Zhu Zhihua 朱志华 a little known scholar from the Zhejiang Association of International Relations in one recent exchange, reportedly savaged Jia Qingguo 贾庆国, a prominent dean of the Peking University School of International Studies, for his proposal to start contingency planning talks with the US and South Korea, which ‘copy the US’ and ‘hint a military attack may be the next step’”, the analysis by the Beijing-based strategic advisory firm said.

CP went on to say that Zhu evoked the so-called “struggle sessions” of China’s Cultural Revolution by “insinuating that Jia held a wrong political standpoint.” Jia is said to have hit back, calling Zhu “a career public security officer who misrepresented his views.”

“Scholars should not be treated as suspects, contended Jia, recommending the Zhejiang Association of International Relations should replace Zhu,” CP said. “Zhu retorted that Jia’s US education had brainwashed him, suggesting relevant authorities examine his political background. Jia was eventually backed by the hawkish Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin 胡锡进, and others arguing that differences of opinion over North Korea should not be politicized.”

The CP analysis says details of the Zhu-Jia face off recently surfaced in the Singapore daily Lianhe Zaobao. The island nation’s largest Chinese-language newspaper said the pair represented two distinct schools of thought on the security implications for China stirred by the North Korea crisis.

“On one front, a conservative ‘leftist’ school sees the US and South Korea using Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a pretext to reduce China’s strategic space,” CP said in a summary of the Lianhe Zaobao piece.

“A more liberal ‘rightist’ school on the opposing front emphasizes the threat North Korea poses to China, urging closer cooperation with the international community. While neither school is unified, their views regarding the origins and consequences of North Korea’s nuclear program are starkly divided,” CP added.

“The Zhu–Jia face off is revealing,” CP asserted. “It shows red lines for public discourse continue to be redrawn: contingency planning is no longer taboo. Further, while critics of ties with North Korea have multiplied and become more vocal, conservatives have not yet given up the fight.”