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China's secret plan for North Korea's collapse, revealed

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

China has a secret plan for what to do in case North Korea collapses, and it's not good news for Pyongyang, according to Chinese government documents acquired by the respected Japanese outlet Kyodo News. (The Chinese plans were also reported on by The Telegraph.)

China has two big plans for what to do if North Korea collapses: first, set up vast refugee camps on the Chinese side of the border to support what would likely be millions of fleeing North Koreans and, second, detain the North Korean leadership in special camps where they can be monitored. The plans also suggest that China could restrain the North Korean leaders from doing anything irresponsible or making any decision that might hurt China. In other words, China would take control of North Korea's leaders, and by extension the North Korean government.

China will not save your country, Kim Jong Un

Here's what's conspicuously absent from that plan: the documents do not indicate that China would intervene into North Korean territory to protect the border, to prevent a reunification of North and South Korea, or otherwise do anything to preserve the North Korean state. That's a pretty marked shift from 50 years ago, when China invaded Korea to push back the South Korean, American, and United Nations forces that had come so close to winning the Korean war. This plan essentially says to North Korea: if your state implodes, is brought down by internal unrest, or loses a war, you are on your own.

That's especially significant given that our understanding of China's North Korea has long been that Beijing really, really, really does not want to see the Korean peninsula reunified, since this would almost certainly leave the country controlled by the South Korean government in Seoul, which is a close US partner and which has for decades allowed tens of thousands of American troops to station in their country. Should North Korea collapse, the South Korean government would almost certainly ask those American troops to stay, and maybe even to move up to the Chinese border. That's supposed to be a nightmare scenario for China, so it's a little surprising to see that Beijing would not invade North Korea to prop up the government and keep it from collapsing.

That doesn't mean that China is lessening its support for North Korea one iota, or coming anywhere near abandoning the Hermit Kingdom, to which it has offered crucial, survival-sustaining support for decades. It just means that, unlike in the 1950s, China will not go to war to keep North Korea alive. Given that North Korea is China's only real ally, that's pretty significant.

'No war, no instability, no nukes'

This is all actually pretty consistent with China's larger strategy for North Korea. That strategy has been summed up in six little words: No war, no instability, no nukes.

Those six words are as much mantra as strategy, often rendered in the original Chinese: 不战, 不乱, 无核. The order is a big part of it, listing China's priorities from highest to lowest.

Typically, this strategy has been useful in understanding why China tolerates North Korean nuclear weapons. Beijing would prefer that North Korea did not have nukes — they're dangerous! — but it's more important to Chinese leaders that the Korean peninsula remain stable, free of war, and without a pro-American unified Korean government. "No war, no instability, no nukes" — preventing war and instability is more important than preventing nukes.

Now, though, we can look at this strategy to understand the just-leaked Chinese plans for a North Korean collapse. It might seem surprising that Beijing would be so willing to tolerate North Korea's implosion. But look again at the six-word strategy. "No war" comes first, before "no instability." China has probably concluded it should not intervene in North Korea to save it because that would lead to war, possibly with the US — the documents make reference to "foreign forces," which presumably means American troops that could move in if Pyongyang implodes or starts a second Korean War.

China's top priority here seems to be preventing a war that could suck in China against the US, as happened in the 1950s' Korean War, even if that means tolerating the destruction of the North Korean state. You can also see that in the somewhat-creepy plans to put North Korean leaders in a controlled camp, where Beijing would guide their decision-making explicitly to prevent them from harming Chinese interests or worsening any conflict.

Again, Beijing is happy to continue propping up the North Korean government today. But if you're Kim Jong Un, it's hard to miss the takeaway: in the event that your government collapses, which scholars have been predicting since the early 1990s, your only ally in the world will not save you, will not save your country, and wants to put you in a camp to tell you what to do. That should be pretty scary for Kim.

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