How Chinese Experts Are Preparing for the Next Korean War

Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army at Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. China Daily via Reuters.

The great-power games that flow from zero-sum analyses, whether by Chinese or by Americans, have never helped the cause of peace or the people on the Korean Peninsula.

Good news from the Korean Peninsula has been rare in recent times, so the Olympic truce and the possibility of a genuine breakthrough pioneered by Seoul should not be taken lightly. On the contrary, now is the time to pull out all the stops to form up a substantive and stable negotiating process. President Donald Trump’s bold decision, revealed on March 8, to meet with Kim Jong-un before the end of May is an exceedingly positive development, and reflects a statesmanlike gesture that leans toward taking certain risks in order to secure the peace.

This is, after all, the candidate who said he would sit down and eat hamburgers with Kim Jong-un. Sometimes, to the great consternation of the Washington foreign-policy “blob,” common sense evidently prevails. One should avoid excessive optimism, if for no other reason than to forestall grave disillusionment in the case of failure. Yet initial reports on the meetings between senior South Korean envoys and Kim Jong-un (together with his letter to Trump) appear to presage the possibility of a significant opening for negotiations.

Many will credit the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” for this forward movement. To be sure, that pressure seems to have played a major role. But surely President Moon Jae-in’s skillful diplomacy also deserves ample credit, for turning a bleak situation rather suddenly into one in which a stable and peaceful endgame, at least on the nuclear issue, appears to be more than a farcical reverie.

Perhaps China also deserves some part of the credit? My own investigations on the ground, which took me to the China–North Korea border last December, revealed considerable frustration among Chinese specialists, but also an impressive determination to implement UN sanctions to a high degree. Beijing adopted that stringent policy despite the vocal opposition of many local Chinese interests that suffered financial hardship as a result of sanctions. Nevertheless, China has also not burned all its bridges with North Korea. Making it clear that Beijing would stand behind Pyongyang (at least to some degree) in arms-control negotiations could also have played a role in facilitating the latest warming trend on the peninsula.

Yet even as some welcome hopeful winds blow over the peninsula in the wake of the Pyeongchang Olympics, all parties, including China, will continue to evaluate the prospect of military conflict in case negotiations are a failure and the dark clouds of war return. This edition of Dragon Eye considers some relevant Chinese writings from late 2017, including some that are surprisingly dark and detailed in their consideration of military conflict. Indeed, an early summer fold-out graphic from 2017 displayed a multiaxial Chinese attack against a U.S. THAAD (missile defense base) that employed land-, air-, ship- and submarine-based missiles. But that particular illustration seems rather tame against the one drawn up by Chinese strategists shortly afterwards, and discussed below.

The second illustration from the same naval magazine, Naval and Merchant Ships (舰船知识) purports to divulge in visual form “a military conflict arising from the North Korea nuclear crisis.” Hinting at the invariably sensitive nature of the content, it carries not one, but two disclaimers: that the concepts are derived from open sources (本图根据公开报道) and that the graphic does not reflect the opinions of the editorial team (并不代表本刊). In six vignettes superimposed on a not-very-detailed map of North Korea, the illustration purports to show the unfolding of a military campaign against Pyongyang. Three of these vignettes are hardly surprising. One has U.S. destroyers launching Tomahawk missiles to strike the DPRK’s “command facilities.” Another shows U.S. Marines deploying deep into North Korea ferried by ship-based MV-22 Ospreys. A third, rather striking, image depicts a pair of M-1 tanks cruising down one of the main boulevards in Pyongyang with helicopter gunships flying overhead. The caption notes that a U.S.–South Korean air-land force would drive directly for the North Korean capital in order to secure its “senior leadership structure” and its “nuclear command-and-control structure.”

But much more surprising is the decidedly non-politically-correct nature of the other three vignettes that show Chinese forces intervening in the conflict in various ways. The least surprising depicts a large PLA helicopter hovering over a sprawling camp for refugees with a vast number of humanitarian relief tents, as well as a massive wall, presumably to maintain security. The illustration suggests that such refugee camps would be set up in North Korea close to the Chinese border during the early phase of the conflict. The second graphic is somewhat shocking, depicting Chinese landing forces coming ashore in air-cushioned craft with attack helicopters above them and a PLAN aircraft carrier battle group visible in the distance. The map shows the amphibious invasion site on the Yellow Sea to be just north of Pyongyang and the caption explains that this force can block U.S. and South Korean forces from venturing further north. A final illustration is perhaps most sensitive, as it seems to show a Chinese J-20 fighter shooting down an American F-22. The caption says that the PLAAF will maintain a twenty-four-hour patrol over a declared “no-fly zone [禁飞区]” and will shoot down ROK and U.S. planes after giving a warning.