How China Sees the Next 'Korean War'

A soldier salutes during a military parade in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Americans must get up close and personal with China’s perspective on the issue.

In fact, the article concludes that if North Korea were confronted with the massive air-attack capabilities of the United States, Pyongyang’s armed forces would have little alternative but to “lie upside down and take a beating [躺到挨捶].” This Chinese strategist says that such a conflict would not result in a direct U.S.-China military clash and so that it could be a “low-risk war [底风险战争]” for the United States, at least. For North Korea, this strategist suggests Pyongyang must aim at “prolonging the conflict’s duration [战争就会长期化].” These appraisals differ quite substantially from prevailing military assessments in the United States. However, one of the best explanations of Kim Jong-un’s evident determination to pursue nuclear weaponry could well be that North Korea’s conventional forces are perhaps much weaker than generally supposed. While the author levels several critiques at Washington, including the tendency of one president to completely contradict the policies of his predecessor, the piece has a rather surprising conclusion. It hints strongly that Beijing’s patience with Pyongyang is wearing very thin, and asserts rather surprisingly that America is actually not seeking to bring strategic pressure against China. Consistent with that assessment, the author hypothesizes optimistically that, if a war occurred on the peninsula, the United States “might well leave the peninsula altogether in the aftermath [很可能在战后撤离朝鲜半岛].”

A second military assessment in this series takes as its focus the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent—and is substantially less sanguine. It explains that the individual probability of a North Korean nuclear warhead striking U.S. territory is not high, but that the possibility that just “one single warhead actually penetrates the defenses to successfully realize a nuclear explosion creates an enormous psychological deterrent against the United States [1枚成功投送并突防成功实现核爆, 也是对美国巨大的心里威慑].” Praising U.S. strategy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, this Chinese strategist explains that it is not enough to possess nuclear weaponry, but that a country must signal its “determination to resort to nuclear weapons [核武器使用决心]” in order to achieve its desired strategic goals. That may well involve “discounting expected dangers [抵消威胁预期]”—a phenomena quite visible in the current crisis.

This assessment projects that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons could be decisive, but perhaps in unexpected ways. It is asserted that these weapons are most important to assuring that North Korea will not lose the war [可以通过核武器保证自己不失败]. Moreover, they may play an important role in preventing an escalation of a war once it has begun. For example, the analysis notes that the United States could not execute an Inchon-style envelopment when Pyongyang possesses the “ultimate weapon.” This author ultimately sees North Korean use of nuclear weapons as extremely unlikely, since that would be the “termination of the North Korean regime and nation [对朝鲜政权和民族都将是毁灭性的].” So, therefore, Pyongyang is not likely to reach for the nuclear button “if a plane is shot down or a ship is sunk.” For North Korea, the author contends, “nuclear weaponry is simply to protect national survival [核武器就是为了保证国家生存].” Lest anyone get too optimistic reading these thoughts, this Chinese military assessment closes with the observation that the most probable targets for North Korean nuclear weapons include Osan or Busan bases (in South Korea), Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii and U.S. carrier groups offshore.

A third assessment in the series develops an analysis of a potential U.S. preemptive strike, and concludes that such a strike is very unlikely to succeed, since there are too many targets, most of them are mobile and many “have also been hardened multiple times, and some are even built with the capability to withstand a nuclear strike [过了多次加固有一些甚至具备抗核打击能力].”

The above discussions regarding Chinese appraisals of possible military scenarios on the Korean Peninsula should not be regarded as authoritative. In fact, they are somewhat contradictory. For the authoritative Chinese position, one should certainly still consult Fu Ying’s paper for Brookings. However, it is still worthwhile to try to “look under the hood” of Chinese foreign policy and strategy as I have often endeavored to do in this Dragon Eye series. There might be a few insights here that could prove helpful to Washington’s admittedly challenging diplomatic circumstances. For example, it could be useful to understand that conventional military power asymmetries may be a significant driver for Pyongyang’s nuclear push. Likewise, it is somewhat reassuring to see that Chinese strategists also interpret North Korea’s likely nuclear doctrine as rather defensive, and as a weapon of last resort.