In November 1950, the United States and China went to war. It was five months into the Korean War when US troops crossed the 38th parallel, marched toward North Korea and clashed with the Chinese troops coming to the rescue of their communist ally.
The war continued for about three years, costing the lives of 36,000 American troops and more than a quarter of a million Chinese troops. The Korean War came to an end when the two sides agreed to an armistice. South Korea opposed the peace talks and refused to sign the armistice agreement.
With North Korea’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapons program raising fear of another major armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the two powers appear to be bracing for a possible contingency, but this time the focus is on how to work together in the event of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime.
|US State Secretary Rex Tillerson. Yonhap
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently offered a glimpse into the secret contingency plan. He revealed that the Trump administration had assured China’s leadership that if US forces crossed into North Korea to seize nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat to the South.
“We have had conversations that if something happened and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th parallel,” Tillerson said in remarks at the Atlantic Council on Dec. 12.
The South Korea-US wartime scheme, Operations Plan 5015, includes military campaigns to address North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. The plan calls for the allies’ Special Forces to penetrate into North Korean territory to secure its nuclear weapons before they became operational.
OPLAN 5015, whose operational details are classified, reportedly does not spell out exactly who would control the North Korean territory after the mission is completed in a situation where the Chinese troops would most likely march into the North.
Hence, Tillerson’s discussion on contingency plans with the Chinese government is causing jitters among South Korean policymakers and military planners, experts said, rekindling deep-rooted worries that the two superpowers might determine Korea’s fate once again.
“We believe it is inappropriate for us to discuss or assess the remarks by the US secretary of state,” Choi Hyun-soo, a spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defense, said in response to a question about whether the South Korean military had consulted with the US government on the matter.
South Korea’s Constitution declares North Korea a part of its territory that needs to be reclaimed eventually, but most analysts doubt whether such a position would be recognized by the international community and neighboring countries, who view North Korea as a sovereign state.
Some experts said that Tillerson’s idea is part of a “grand deal” between the US and China, which involves a scenario where the US may cede North Korean territory to the Chinese military if they help the US remove North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.
In his column on the Wall Street Journal in August, Henry Kissinger said that “understanding” between Washington and Beijing is a prerequisite to resolving the nuclear standoff. Before the publication of the article, he had reportedly suggested to Tillerson that the US could make a pledge to Beijing that it would withdraw its troops from South Korea after the collapse of North Korea.
“My impression is that the US appears to be floating the idea of a grand bargain by Kissinger to the Chinese government,” said Yun Duk-min, former chancellor of the Seoul-based security think tank Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
There is no indication that China has responded to Tillerson’s proposal, or that military officials have met to discuss the idea, a taboo subject for Beijing, which has refused to discuss the idea out of concern that it would worsen the already tense relationship with North Korea
However, calls for developing contingency plans appear to be gaining ground among Chinese security and military experts, as they have publicly urged the country to prepare for any eventuality amid growing frustration with its wayward ally’s relentless nuclear ambition.
Retired Chinese Army Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang called for mobilizing troops along the border with North Korea to prevent conflicts in the region, warning that a war could break out on the Korean Peninsula at “any time,” even within the next several months.
“China should be psychologically prepared for a potential Korean war, and the northeast China regions should be mobilized for that. … Such mobilization is not to launch a war, but for defensive purposes,” Wang told an annual forum hosted by the Chinese Global Times newspaper Saturday.
A South Korean newspaper reported Monday that China last year conducted a simulated military drill aimed at taking control of nuclear facilities similar to the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. China’s Defense Ministry has yet to issue any public statements.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry declined to confirm the report, saying it is not a matter that the South Korean government can discuss, while highlighting that the government is preparing for “various eventualities” on the Korean Peninsula.
China has also been quietly building a network of refugee camps along its border with North Korea — at least five in Jilin province — as it braces for a human exodus in the event of the regime’s sudden collapse, according to a leaked internal document from a state-run telecoms giant China Mobile.
David Straub, a former US diplomat, said China has shown more willingness to discuss a possible contingency in North Korea, though the issue is still too sensitive for Beijing to raise first.
“It seems pretty clear that the Chinese security experts and analysts are becoming more concerned that there might be a real possibility of unexpected developments,” said Straub, a Sejong-LS fellow at the Sejong Institute.
“In the past, the Chinese were reluctant even to listen to Americans talking about the conditions. Now I think the Chinese are quite happy to listen to what the Americans have to say and probably take careful notes. … But I am still skeptical they have volunteered much to the US,” said Straub.