What in heck is going on between North Korea and China, its traditional protector and ally?
In a bombshell revelation, anonymous "Chinese military authorities" leaked internal documents to the Japanese media detailing plans to deal with North Korea’s projected collapse – and the details are quite interesting.
According to the documents, whether the cause of the collapse is foreign intervention or some kind of internal disorder, the first order of business is to deflect the millions of refugees who would have no choice but to cross the border into China. However, what’s interesting is the plans Beijing has for the fleeing North Korean leadership. Japan’s Kyodo News Service reports:
"According to the documents, any important North Korean political or military figures who could be targeted for assassination should be given protection. But at the same time, they should be placed in special camps where their activities could be monitored to prevent them from directing military operations or engaging in other activities that could be detrimental to China’s interests."
We’ve sure come a long way from the days of the Korean war, when the Chinese Communist Party and the ruling Workers Party in North Korea were brothers fighting against a common "capitalist-imperialist" enemy. In effect, the Chinese are signaling that they’re ready, willing, and able to throw their North Korean allies over the side in any military conflict with Washington and Seoul. Moreover, they aren’t just saying they’ll abstain from involving themselves in such a conflict: their plan calls for scotching any "military operations" or "oppositional" activities launched in defense of the North Korean state, as well as effectively jailing the Pyongyang leadership.
"As foreign shows of force are out of our control," the document states, "a situation could arise whereby our country faces an influx of military units via the border regions. There is concern that this circumstance could allow a foothold of resistance to form among refugees and breakaway soldiers."
"Under these circumstances," the leaked document continues, "teams must be dispatched to border regions including ‘reconnaissance groups’ to assess the situation, ‘investigation groups’ to question those who come into [China], ‘blockade groups’ that prevent the influx of threats, and ‘armed groups’ to defend against hostile powers."
Note the use of the plural: powers. Apparently the Chinese are just as concerned about the influx of North Korean military personnel as they are about the possibility of the Americans and South Koreans impinging on their territory:
"Key [North Korean] figures must be moved to a separate investigation facility to ensure they cannot command any military activity nor band together with other forces [already in China]."
Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling.
It was Nixon, of course, who traveled to China at the height of the cold war and sealed the anti-Soviet alliance. Ever since that great breakthrough, the Sino-American relationship has steadily improved, moving in tandem with Beijing’s growing economic and diplomatic clout. While tensions have risen lately due to the much-touted but largely empty "Asian pivot" announced by the US, the Chinese are clearly prepared to overlook that in order to avoid being drawn into a messy situation on their northeastern border. And one can’t help drawing the conclusion that Beijing would be all too happy to finally be rid of their truculent Korean "comrades."
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have always been difficult. Beneath the smooth surface of the longstanding alliance, undercurrents of hostility have periodically erupted. As I wrote in 2006:
"It began in 1956, when Kim Il-Sung purged members of the Yanan faction inside the Workers Party of Korea. The Yanan group was centered around individuals associated with Mao and the Communist Party of China, who took refuge with their fellow Commies during the war against the Japanese occupation. The ‘Glorious Leader’ distrusted them, and got rid of them right after the Korean War, but they bounced back under the rule of Kim Jong-Il and the country’s growing isolation, as China was a vital source of economic and military aid."
In that same piece, I averred that
"[A] major split has developed between Pyongyang and Beijing. The Chinese have been increasingly at odds with their troublesome allies, and the recent statements by Chinese officials that some sort of punitive action is necessary in response to North Korea’s nuclear test is merely the culmination of a long divorce proceeding that really began before Kim Jong-Il came to power."
The revival of the old Yanan faction, centered around former number two leader Jang Sung Taek, was quashed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, who recently had Taek – his uncle – executed. While the official charges against Taek were the usual Stalinist litany of "crimes against the Party," and also included some uniquely North Korean touches such as "clapping half-heartedly" during a ceremony honoring one of Kim Jong Un’s multitudinous promotions, Taek’s real crime was undoubtedly colluding with China.
Under Kim Jong Il the Yanan faction made a big comeback, signaled by Taek’s role as unofficial mentor and his elevation to the number two spot. In the North Korean context, Taek was a "liberal": he reportedly amnestied large numbers of prisoners in January 2012, and was associated with economic reform programs, including joint projects with the Chinese. This last is why the charge that Taek had been "selling off national resources at too low a price," as the official 2500-word denunciation phrased it, jumps out at the informed reader.
Taek’s dramatic fall – he was arrested during a live broadcast of an official ceremony on North Korean television – and subsequent execution was just a continuation of the decades-long internal battle between the "guerrilla" faction, descended from the guerrilla commanders who fought alongside founding leader Kim Il Sung in Manchuria against the Japanese, and the Chinese-influenced "Yanan" faction, after the city in central China where members of the faction fled during the Japanese occupation.
The "military first" policy, or songun system, originally promoted by the guerilla faction, has had structural consequences: it has led over time to the takeover by the military of the leading role in the state, displacing the WPK: a parallel phenomenon occurred in the ideological realm, where the autarkic concept of Juche (self-reliance) shoved aside orthodox Marxist-Leninism as the official state ideology. These internal factors corroded the bonds that once bound Beijing to Pyongyang – now at the breaking point.
The significance of this leak has been seriously underplayed by regional and Western analysts. They assure us that every military develops plans to deal with every possible contingency, and this one is of no real significance. Yet the fact it was deliberately leaked – Japanese journalists not generally having access to internal documents of the People’s Liberation Army – ought to underscore its meaning: North Korea and China, once close allies, are now increasingly embittered enemies. The message the Chinese are telegraphing to Pyongyang – and also to Washington – is clear: in case of war you’re on your own. The PLA won’t cross the border to save Kim Jong Un from the Americans and Seoul: indeed, the PLA plan calls for indirectly aiding the invaders by detaining key leaders and confronting "oppositional forces" with armed units.
What this means for US policymakers is that they are confronted with a scenario pregnant with danger – and opportunity.
The danger is that the cornered North Korean regime will lash out – although in what direction isn’t clear at the moment. The obvious choice is to go south, but that heavily fortified border is a formidable obstacle and even if they got as far as Seoul the American response wouldn’t be long in coming. Another North Korean missile test is said to be in the making, and this augurs perhaps a repeat of their last sally into the Sea of Japan. Yet we can’t rule out a move northward, against China, perhaps provoked by a border incident of some kind. The PLA plan calls for increased patrols on that border, and the establishment of facilities to accommodate "refugees" – possibly prisoners of war.
As fantastic as the idea of a war between China and North Korea may sound, recall the border incidents that provoked large scale fighting between China and the Soviets in 1969, and the Sino-Vietnamese war – both occasions on which the already thinning veneer of "Marxist-Leninism" was stripped away to reveal the nationalistic reality beneath. Today that communist veneer is almost entirely worn away in both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China, along with the original strategic rationale for their alliance.
While the US still has troops stationed in South Korea – some 30,000 – and the Pyongyang elite use this as a pretext for their "military first" policy – which is bringing the country beyond the brink of starvation – the idea that Washington and Seoul are about to restart the Korean war (which never officially ended) is beyond absurd. The real threat to the regime comes from within – and from China’s influence in the WPK. That’s what Taek’s execution – and the subsequent purge of his intimates – was all about.
And therein lies the opportunity: US policymakers have a chance to triangulate the impending crisis and instead use it as a means to bring the Korean conundrum to a long-delayed close. Washington could approach the North Koreans with a deal: not the usual baby steps but a giant stride toward the reunification of the peninsula. Such a process was well underway during the Bush administration, but was promptly squashed by the neocons in the administration who decried any effort in the direction of peace as "appeasement." The South’s "Sunshine policy" – which looked for a time like it might actually lead to some form of North-South reconciliation – ended in a dismal sunset.
If the North Koreans are convinced the Chinese are the main danger to them then it makes sense for US policymakers to do what Nixon did under similar circumstances, and that is seek rapprochement with Pyongyang. A comprehensive settlement of the Korean question has been a long time in the making, but to accomplish such a seemingly daunting task requires boldness, imagination – and a real knowledge of the opaque workings of North Korean politics. This administration lacks all three, and so I’m not optimistic. Weighing the danger against the opportunity, I would give the former much more weight. But the opportunity is there – if policymakers can break with routine and take it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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- Korean Ghosts – March 18th, 2019
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- The Western Gaze: Look Toward the East – February 27th, 2019
- The Chef Boyardee War: Venezuela’s Clueless Opposition – February 25th, 2019