Over the past year, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen to unprecedented levels. Though the threat of war has been present at other times in the past, recent missile and nuclear-weapon tests, escalating threats and counter-threats, and declarations that all options are on the table have made the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula more plausible than it had been for years. The winter Olympic Games and the opening it has created for inter-Korean dialogue and possible talks between Washington and Pyongyang have provided a respite. However, the fundamental problem of North Korean denuclearization remains and tensions are likely to return.
As the possibility of military conflict increased during fall 2017, countries began planning for the possible need to evacuate its citizens should fighting appear imminent. Seoul and other major cities in South Korea are cosmopolitan centers with over two million foreign residents that may require evacuation. In November 2017, the Japanese government announced plans to evacuate its nationals from South Korea should fighting erupt. The United States has similar plans for what the military calls “noncombatant evacuation operations” or NEOs.
The country that has the most at stake for a civilian evacuation is China, which has the most citizens living in South Korea as foreign nationals. Should a conflict breakout, China would be in a difficult position, given its ties with the North and the large number of its citizens residing in the South. Initiating an NEO is an ominous indicator, signaling the likelihood of hostilities and a move that could possibly be misunderstood by those involved and heighten the chances of catastrophe. For all states, implementing an NEO in Korea would be an incredibly difficult and complex task. Over the past decade, Beijing has acquired the necessary assets and experience to conduct NEOs and would not rely on others to rescue its citizens. Given this likelihood, it will be essential for the United States, Japan, South Korea, and others to coordinate their actions with China to ensure success and avoid getting in each other’s way.
Chinese Residents in South Korea
After decades of Cold War enmity, in 1992, China and South Korea established formal diplomatic relations and ties between the two countries grew. Through business, education, and tourism, the number of South Koreans living in China grew as did the number of Chinese nationals living in and traveling to South Korea.
On June 21, 2017, the Korean Immigration Service published its annual report on immigration noting that more than one million Chinese nationals were living in South Korea in 2016. This total represents almost half of all foreign residents in South Korea and is seven times more than the number of U.S. residents and twenty times more than the Japanese residents living south of the demilitarized zone. Thus, China faces a serious challenge to evacuate its citizens to safety. China also has residents on the northern side of the peninsula but the exact number is unclear. However, the numbers are likely to be far lower than those living in the South since North Korea limits the presence of foreigners in its country.
China’s Evacuation Capabilities
Over the past decade, Chinese economic growth has allowed for a significant expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and many civilian assets that provide a robust capability for overseas evacuation operations. Chinese capabilities are some of the best in the world, not only in quantity but also in the skill and experience of Chinese operators. As a result, China has the ability to execute successful evacuation operations on short notice for large groups of people. There are three key areas where China has improved its evacuation capabilities.
First, the Chinese military has greatly expanded its available assets that could be used for an NEO. The PLAN has the best amphibious and transportation capabilities of anyone in the region. For example, China has built four Type-071 Landing Platform Dock (LDP) ships, the Yuzhao class, and used one of these ships, the Jinggan Shan to transport Chinese Marines to Djibouti, China’s first overseas base. In addition, the PLAN has thirty-two Landing Ship, Tanks (LST), nine new fast combat-support ships, and the hospital ship, known as the Peace Ark, which could be used in evacuation operations. In addition, the PLA air force has purchased twenty Il-76 airlifters and built the Xian Y-20 strategic air-transport plane along with other tactical-lift aircraft.
Second, China has many civilian assets that could be utilized in addition to military capabilities. These include hundreds of civilian airliners and merchant ships that provide additional transport capacity. Through the National Defense Mobilization Law, the National Defense Transportation Law and other regulations, the Chinese government can commandeer civilian shipping companies and airliners such as COSCO Shipping, China Merchants, Air China, and China Eastern Airlines to form a civilian-military combined transportation network controlled by the Central Military Commission. For example, the National Defense Transportation Law requires Chinese civilian shipbuilders to ensure that new ships can be used by the military during an emergency for strategic power projection and maritime support actions. In order to build and strengthen their proficiency, these assets exercise regularly with PLA forces and can be mobilized by the government on short notice.