As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends on the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?
The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.
While China would no doubt fiercely resent any Western intervention in what it views as its sphere of influence, it may well be the case that the Chinese are also growing weary of the Kims and the weird brand of Stalinism-meets-Medieval-absolutist-monarchy that they keep ticking over in North Korea. If the North Koreans have now become too unpredictable and are viewed by Beijing as a likely source of instability in the region, then it could well be that these contingency plans are essentially wishful thinking on the part of a China just about ready to be rid of North Korea. Indeed, ahead of a widely anticipated nuclear test by the North Koreans, the Chinese have released a statement expressing a clear tone of disapproval. It has also been reported that China refused to transfer oil supplies to the North Koreans during the first three months of this year.
The contingency plans drawn up by the Chinese include the anticipation of large numbers of refugees fleeing over the North Korean border, but also preparations for creating some kind of internment camp for North Korea’s leadership. Hardly the most friendly of moves, although it would appear that such a plan is as much driven by concerns about preventing the country’s former rulers from falling into foreign hands as by the desire to ensure that the ruling clique couldn’t continue to wage long-term civil war Assad-style.
For the moment it seems that China is simply planning to monitor its border with North Korea still more closely than it already does. Regardless of whether or not the leaking of these contingency plans was instructed from higher up, they certainly provide a window into Chinese thinking on North Korea. A collapse of North Korea’s government may not appear quite imminent, nor is it so easy to imagine outside intervention in the way that the Chinese report would seem to. What these contingency plans do expose, however, is a growing Chinese disinterest in preserving the regime ruling North Korea at the present.