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What if we’ve been all wrong about China’s attitude toward North Korea?

Georgetown University professor Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that Chinese-North Korean relations are actually far worse than we think. 

A North Korean soldier looking through binoculars on the Yalu River in Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong.
REUTERS/Jacky Chen

For as long as anyone can remember, U.S. policy toward North Korea has revolved around two big questions: What are the intentions of the Kim family dynasty? And what will China do?

For just as long, it has been clear that no one can predict North Korea’s actions. The Olympic love fest in PyeongChang is just the latest example. On the other hand, it has seemed pretty clear what China has wanted: to prevent the collapse of an ally that leads to creation of a unified Korea allied with the United States, and to forestall a flood of North Korean refugees that would destabilize northeast China.

But what if our understanding of China’s approach is woefully out of date, a vestige of a time when China felt weak and vulnerable? What if the Chinese military regards North Korea as more of an adversary than an ally? What if the People’s Liberation Army is more likely than the U.S. Army or Marines to seize and secure North Korean nuclear and missile facilities? Everyone still wants to avoid war. But if diplomacy fails, what happens if China is less interested in propping up North Korea than aggressively pursuing its own interests?

The U.S. and China would have to be very careful in that case to avoid a direct conflict. But there also might be room for careful coordination between wary big-power adversaries to forestall a nuclear nightmare. The price could well be seeing China’s regional influence grow.

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That’s the thrust of an analysis by Georgetown University professor Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military and security policy, writing recently in the journal Foreign Affairs. Mastro cites conversations with Chinese military officers, diplomatic chatter and the writings of Chinese foreign policy analysts to argue that a conflict on the peninsula might play out far differently than Americans expect.

Mastro’s starting point is that Chinese-North Korean relations are actually far worse than we think. U.S. policy has long assumed that China could housebreak the North Koreans, if only it used all of its economic and political influence. That’s certainly the approach taken by the Trump administration.

Most analysts also recognize that the Chinese are deeply frustrated with North Korea, particularly since Xi Jinping took over as Chinese leader and Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in North Korea. Kim’s rapidly developing nuclear program makes China very nervous. Mastro cites well-placed Chinese scholars as saying Xi “despises” the North Korean leadership and suggests that even the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang has never met Kim. So much for all that influence.

China still wants to avoid direct confrontation with the United States, and still would prefer that a unified Korea not be a U.S. ally with American troops and weaponry stationed close to the Chinese border. However, in event of a conflict, it is militarily strong enough now that it can think in terms of shaping developments rather than simply reacting.

“The Chinese military assumes that it would be opposing, not supporting, North Korean troops,” Mastro says. “China would get involved not to defend Kim’s regime but to shape a post-Kim peninsula to its liking.”

China is capable of both sealing the border and conducting offensive operations inside North Korea. “The last two decades of military modernization and reform, along with China’s geographic advantages, have ensured that the Chinese military would be capable of quickly occupying much of North Korea, before U.S. reinforcements could even deploy to South Korea to prepare for an attack,” she says.

That’s partly because of the location of North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities. Mastro cites research indicating that if Chinese forces moved only 60 miles across the frontier, they would be in position to control all of North Korea’s highest-priority nuclear sites and two-thirds of its most important missile facilities.

The U.S. is rightly be concerned about the risks of a North Korean nuclear attack. But geographically, China is much closer. An accident at one of North Korea’s nuclear facilities or a U.S. attack that resulted in a release of radiation would clearly be a danger to China.

How does U.S. planning change in these circumstances? China has long resisted discussing contingencies with the U.S., so it’s largely a matter of educated guesswork. But China is unlikely to be dissuaded by U.S. warnings to stay out of Korea, so Mastro says Washington ought to save its breath and instead focus on the positive: Chinese intervention would make a North Korean nuclear attack less likely. The two sides might then cooperate in dismantling North Korea’s nukes, an area where the U.S. has great expertise.

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Ending the threat from North Korea would be a big win — but it wouldn’t come cheap.

Boots on the ground give China a bigger say in the future of a unified Korea. That’s something South Korea opposes, and a major gain for China in the geopolitical struggle with the United States for dominance in Asia. Such a result is not ideal if you’re making policy in Washington, but there may be little you can do about it.

In any case, you rarely get everything you want — and you’d probably conclude that it’s far better than a nuclear war.