North Korea’s Collapse and China’s Strategic Options
Choo Jae-woo

Professor of International Relations
Kyung Hee University

I. Introduction
At the end of the Cold War, many experts and think tanks inside and outside South Korea envisioned scenarios of the North Korean regime collapsing. They believed that the dissolution of the bipolar world order would be fatal to North Korean authorities. Indeed, the fate of the nation appeared truly precarious as the disintegration of the Soviet Union heralded an end to vital aid. Having long relied on external help, North Korea lacked the ability to survive independently, and China was unable to quickly fill the void left by the Soviets. Recurring drought and flood during the ensuing years caused famine in the impoverished country, and the sudden death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 put the regime into an extended power vacuum. There also was initial doubt about successor Kim Jong-il’s leadership ability.
Thanks to aid from China and South Korea, Pyongyang’s nuclear maneuverings and stabilization of Kim Jong-il’s power, North Korea has defied the predictions, but speculation about an impending collapse is again resurfacing due to reports about Kim’s health and other new developments. Amid the latest speculation, significant differences with the earlier predictions have become apparent. Under the scenarios offered in the 1990s, a regime collapse presumably would lead to South Korea absorbing the North. Today’s scenarios do not assume such nearly automatic control by the South. Analysts now generally believe that China, with its stronger economic power, elevated international status and increased influence on the Korean peninsula, would not sit by idly and watch South Korea absorb a collapsed North Korea.
China’s diplomatic orientations and objectives shown over the past decade indicate a strong possibility that it would intervene if the Pyongyang regime falls. Since the 1997 financial crisis that swept Asia, China has put up an assortment of diplomatic and strategic initiatives such as “a responsible nation,” “new security vision,” “superpower diplomacy,” “multilateral diplomacy,” “peaceful advancement” and “harmonious world.” These efforts have reaped quite significant results. And when we consider China’s core diplomatic policy of “good-neighborly friendship” pursued since the early 1990s, China’s intervention in a North Korea in peril can not be doubted.
II. China's North Korea Policy
Since relations between China and North Korea returned to “normal” in 1999, a series of events have occurred affecting their bilateral ties. They include Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000, Kim Jong-il’s visit to China in 2001, the second North Korean nuclear crisis in 2002, Kim’s visit to China in 2004, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to North Korea in 2005, Kim’s visit to China in 2006 and North Korea’s test-firing of long-range missiles and nuclear test in the same year. The exchange of visits by the top leaders raised expectations for tangible outcomes for stronger ties but the summits apparently yielded few positive results, confusing watchers of Beijing-Pyongyang relations.
Since the 2006 nuclear test, in particular, analysts have focused their studies on the effectiveness of China’s policies on North Korea. There are roughly two schools of thought on China’s future role in the Korean peninsula. One group foresees an expanded role that would maintain the status quo of the Korean peninsula. The other group argues that Beijing will revise its Korea policies to promote China’s own interests. While the former emphasizes the traditional friendly ties between the two countries, the latter points to North Korea’s failure to respect the special relations between the two neighbors as shown in Pyongyang’s unilateral decision to conduct a nuclear test.
There is no sign yet, however, that the top leaders of China are considering a major shift in their North Korea policy. They seem to believe that any change of North Korea policy should be made very cautiously because the Korean peninsula is where strategic interests of regional powers converge. Since a nuclear crisis re-emerged in 2002, China has played host for the six-party talks to resolve the problem peacefully. As it has been assuming the responsibility of organizing and coordinating the multilateral process, China cannot but keep a reserved position about possible change in its North Korea policy. They are basing their current position on the premise that a policy shift, whether radical or moderate, does not live up to China’s ultimate goal, which is to create a peaceful and stable regional environment. This was why China tried to dissuade other powers’ hard-line policies, including economic sanctions, against North Korea in the wake of the second nuclear crisis in 2002 and the nuclear test in 2006.
China’s basic policy on North Korea is well known. That is developing bilateral relations on the basis of traditional friendship so they can contribute to the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. While continuing economic assistance to the North, China is advising it to adopt economic reform and openness. Since the 2002 nuclear crisis, China has cloaked “five no’s” around North Korea. They are: “no instability,” “no collapse,” “no nukes,” “no refugees,” and “no conflict escalation.” In order to spur North Korea’s reform and openness, China has been increasing its investment in the North, expecting significant spillover effects from it.
China has manifested that it will be the first country to recognize the reunification of the Korean peninsula when it is realized peacefully, democratically and independently, whether it results from absorption by the South or any other process. China, on the other hand, wants to play a “constructive role” in the course of Korean unification and positively contribute to it because of the strategic value of the peninsula. Beijing tries to illustrate its contributory capacity with its role in realizing the 2000 inter-Korean summit talks. Chinese leaders’ general thinking has it that Beijing should positively participate in the debates and negotiations on such post-unification questions as Korea’s neutralization, the presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula and even ensuring no impact of Korean unification on the Taiwan question.

III. Debate on China’s Intervention in External Turmoil

China maintains that, regardless of the China-North Korea Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance of 1961, it has no intention to intervene in an emergency taking place in North Korea unless it faces external invasion. It means that China is not required to assist North Korea if Pyongyang starts war on the Korean Peninsula. In such an event, China can apply its principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Yet, China, with its foreign policy priority on pursuing peace and stability on its borders, cannot overlook an emergency at its doorsteps. If China concludes that it has to choose intervention in order to attain its diplomatic objective, it will greatly influence the fate of North Korea and the Korean peninsula and the regional order of Northeast Asia.
A regime collapse in North Korea would spark a contest to rearrange the regional order among big powers while North Korean refugees would pose a serious international problem amid the chaos. China and South Korea would primarily bear the impact of disorder in the North and the two countries would most strongly desire restoration of order in the North. In this regard, China and South Korea should exert most effort to induce North Korea to have a smooth transition. But there is no assurance that they could smoothly cooperate in the aftermath of a regime collapse in North Korea.   
China has always asserted its principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Since the Korean War, China has never intervened in turmoil in a foreign country such as a regime change. It has never participated in any national reconstruction project in foreign countries after the collapse of governments or sent its forces abroad to restore order, except to join multilateral peacekeeping activities. China’s traditional non-alignment policy also deters it from making direct intervention in external situations. The China-North Korea Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance is the only such pact China has concluded with a foreign country. China has entered no military alliance with a foreign country, never sent its forces to control a military situation overseas, and never stationed its forces in a foreign country on a request from its government. Some China experts thus argue that there is little possibility that China will unilaterally intervene in the event of North Korea’s collapse or any emergency situation.
Yet, we should note that China has helped restore order in foreign countries following nationwide disturbances and it has participated in UN peacekeeping operations since the 1990s. The peacekeeping activities stem from China’s obligations as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and correspond with its desired national image of “responsible state,” diplomatic goal of “contribution to world peace and stability” and strategic objective of “denying ‘China menace.’”
China has participated in international peacekeeping missions since it joined the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations in November 1988. As of March 2008, China has dispatched 1,978 peacekeeping troops to 13 locations, the largest number among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Its participation is aimed primarily at establishing the image of being a responsible world power. Second, it can dispel the “China peril” sensation in the international community and help achieve its top diplomatic goal of peaceful advancement. Third, China believes UN peacekeeping activities are the right means to protect and expand its national interests overseas.
China has established a few principles for joining international peacekeeping missions. One is that it approves a UN peacekeeping operation when it follows the traditional pattern, which respects the principles and objectives of the UN Charter and seeks to resolve disputes with peaceful means. In case of non-traditional peacekeeping operations, which use military force as a means to guarantee humanitarian assistance and peace settlement, China participates only on a conditional basis.
Another principle that China follows is distancing itself as much as possible from any situation that calls for the application of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Chapter 7 provides an international legal basis for economic as well as military sanctions against threats to peace. China maintains that UN peacekeeping operations should not be basically restricted by Chapter 7.
A third principle is “trilateral agreement,” which calls for acquiescence of the internal parties in a conflict, authorization by the UN and consensus of the international community or concerned nations. In case any one condition is not met, China would not participate in a peacekeeping operation as shown in its abstention in the vote on peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.
Nevertheless, since it began participating in UN peacekeeping operations, China has showed certain flexibility. For example, in the early 1990s, China supported the UN’s non-traditional peacekeeping operation to end the civil war in Somalia. China voted for UN Resolution 794 to allow U.S.-led military intervention in Somalia, on the grounds that a special situation in a failed state like Somalia requires special measures. China set a condition for its approval of the resolution: that military operations should end upon stabilization of the situation and that supervisory authority on the peacekeeping operations should then be returned to the UN Secretary General.
National interests and diplomatic objectives are taken into consideration. For example, China’s past participation in international peacekeeping efforts suggests that it was undertaken to improve relations with major powers. In 1989, China faced economic sanctions from the United States and other Western powers after the Tiananmen Square killings. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States wanted to pass a resolution at the UN to condemn Iraq, China as a permanent member of the Security Council abstained from the vote without exercising its veto power in exchange for a partial lifting of economic sanctions. China then participated in the UN observation missions on the Iraq-Kuwait border, which was followed by World Bank loans to Beijing and the resumption of high-level talks with the United States.
China also has participated in peacekeeping to deter a hostile force from approaching its border. A good example is its activities in the UN arbitration to settle the Cambodian situation in 1993. China persuaded all four Cambodian factions to sign the Paris Peace Agreements along with all permanent members of the Security Council and nations of the region. Through these successful arbitration efforts, China was able to repair its national image damaged by the Tiananmen turmoil while attaining the important objective of preventing regional powers from extending their influence onto its periphery. China sent military observers to the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia and the UN Advance Mission in Cambodia, and dispatched engineering troops to Cambodia. China’s leading role in the reconstruction of Cambodia as well as its arbitration for the Paris Peace Agreements provide significant indications on its possible role in the event of a collapse of North Korea.

IV. China’s Strategic Options

The basic tenet of China’s policy on the Korean peninsula is maintaining the status quo as much as possible, which means preventing a situation that causes radical changes to the peace and stability on the peninsula such as an abrupt unification of South and North Korea. When reunification of the peninsula becomes inevitable, China will make strenuous efforts to slow down the process. If North Korea shows the sign of collapse, China will be compelled to intervene to protect the status quo or to ensure a smooth change. Whatever will cause the collapse of North Korea, China’s intervention will be made either independently or collectively with other powers. There is greater possibility that China will attempt unilateral intervention in North Korea in case it believes it is capable of rebuilding the country on its own. If it believes otherwise, it will seek collective intervention.
Some China experts argue that China has too many problems on its lap and therefore is not capable of rebuilding a country with a population of 22 million. It lacks experience in stationing a sizeable military force overseas or singularly taking responsibility for the reconstruction of a foreign country, they point out. They insist that it is totally unimaginable that China makes unilateral intervention in case the North Korean government crumbles and annexes North Korea as its fourth northeastern province. However, when we consider the geopolitical and strategic value of North Korea, it is not likely that China would look past its collapse right across its border. At least, China will not want to see U.S. forces (in South Korea) advance to the North and occupy the territory. Under the premise that China’s intervention will be inevitable, it will take the form of one of the four below:
First, China can intervene on the basis of its “responsibility” under the 1961 China-North Korea Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance to ensure the North’s survival as an ally. Second, if China’s claim of legal responsibility under the treaty is not accepted, China can seek cooperation with the United States to deter an abrupt reunification of the Korean peninsula and guide a smooth transition in North Korea. Third, if China-U.S. cooperation becomes impossible or infeasible, China can propose a UN resolution on North Korea, taking advantage of its permanent membership of the Security Council and have UN peacekeepers take over the situation. Fourth, if all these options become impossible, China will accept reunification of the Korean peninsula but will seek to play a role in the unification process through negotiations with South Korea and the United States.
The 1961 Sino-North Korea treaty does provide the possibility of China’s unilateral intervention to a certain extent. Article 1 of the treaty says that “the parties will continue to make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia and the world and the security of all peoples.” It is obvious that disintegration of North Korea would threaten peace in Asia and the world and the security of people in many nations. When North Korea faces emergency and is unable to overcome it, China should make “every effort” to protect peace and security of North Korea. How China defines the scope and level – as well as the ways and means – of the effort will decide how China will intervene in the North Korean situation.
Article 2 provides a clearer justification for China’s intervention. It prescribes that in the event that any one of the two parties faces “aggression” by a third party, China and North Korea have the obligation “to undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent the aggression.” Here, again, the definition and perception of “all measures” and “aggression” are crucial factors of the treaty. First of all, the meaning of “aggression” is not quite clear. It is not certain whether aggression merely means direct armed attack or it could also imply a situation where South Korean and U.S. forces cross the border into the North in accordance with “Concept Plan 5029” and “Operation Plan 5027” in response to signs of North Korea’s collapse. Since the conclusion of the 1961 treaty, China and North Korea have used the words “aggression” and “intrusion” indiscriminately in their official documents regarding their mutual defense. So, it is possible that South Korean and U.S. forces’ “intrusion” into the North in the event of North Korea’s collapse can invite China’s intervention with justification provided by the treaty.
Article 4 provides that the two countries will “continue to consult with each other “on all important international questions of common interest to the two countries.”. If North Korea perceives the imminence of the collapse of its regime and decides that China’s help is essential to avoid the catastrophe, consultation between the two countries would be immediately elevated to any form of cooperation. That could then lead to China’s direct or indirect intervention. Whoever in the North asks for consultation or cooperation with China in time of a dire need – whether they be Kim Jong-il’s supporters or anti-Kim forces – will definitely increase the possibility of China’s intervention. 
China can also intervene in North Korea through cooperation with the United States. China cannot disregard Washington in considering the Korean question as long as the United States remains an ally of South Korea and stations a sizeable force in the South under a mutual defense treaty. And, as many predict, it is possible for the United States to advance into the North under existing military plans or when South Korea absorbs the North. But if an imminent U.S. move into North Korea seems inevitable, China will demand negotiations with the United States to deter or delay the U.S. action. China may propose that it participate in North Korea’s reconstruction projects sharing a significant part of their costs and U.S. forces withdraw from the North as soon as the reconstruction work is completed. In this case, South Korea, Japan and Russia may join the negotiations.
Another conceivable scenario of China’s intervention in North Korea could be through negotiations with South Korea when it absorbs the North upon the collapse of the regime. Still, even in such a situation, the United States cannot be totally excluded from negotiations. As for South Korea, the high costs of unification will force it to seek cooperation with neighboring countries following its absorption of the North. South Korea will have to choose between the United States and China from the viewpoint of which one will be more favorable for its unification efforts. If China is willing to bear a large part of North Korean reconstruction costs and to make greater contribution to the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, China will come forward to reach a compromise with South Korea and thereby secure a certain level of influence on the unified peninsula.

Lastly, China may find its intervention in collapsed North Korea through the United Nations to be most desirable. Chinese experts on the Korean question generally seem to believe that China will be able to find the most justifiable route of intervention through UN-led reconstruction of North Korea. It is because unilateral intervention will be too costly and possibly aggravate the “China menace syndrome” among neighboring countries, which will be detrimental to its strategic goal of “peaceful advancement.” China certainly recognizes the UN peacekeeping operation as the best method of restoring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula with agreement from neighboring countries and endorsement from the international community in general. The UN peacekeeping operation requires international consensus as well as acceptance by directly involved parties. This will satisfy China’s strategic goals.


V. Conclusion

As observed above, China has several strategic options to consider in the event of the collapse of the North Korean regime. Of them, it should find that the best one is to intervene through UN peacekeeping operations, which satisfies both its diplomatic objective and strategic goals. If North Korea collapses, China will naturally play a leading role in handling the situation as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and in this process, it will be able to seek cooperation with the United States, another permanent UN Security Council member and the world’s unrivaled superpower which wants to maintain strategic supremacy on the Korean peninsula. To cope with such initiatives of China, South Korea should consider the following actions:
First, South Korea should pursue balanced development of relations with both China and the United States over the mid and long term. A tilt toward one of them will only help perpetuate the division of the nation. Therefore, South Korea should seek to secure a place in any cooperative system between China and the United States. Highly desirable is the establishment of a multilateral security dialogue system that includes the United States and China.
Second, South Korea should try strenuously to enhance its status in the United Nations. South Korea’s influence in the world body is still weak, but as the nation that has produced the UN secretary general, it should promote multilateral diplomacy in all directions to rise to a place of eminence in the United Nations.
Third, South Korea should prepare a comprehensive and complete strategy of its own in preparation for the collapse of North Korea. A wholly new strategy is necessary because the existing operation plans prepared so far in cooperation with the United States disregard the enhanced status and influence of China in the region and the world.
[Quarterly Zeitgeist (Sidae Jeongsin), Vol. 40,
Autumn 2008, Sidae Jeongsin Co.]