Sun, Oct 01, 2017 - Page 7 News List

China not ready to discuss North Korean collapse

By David Tweed and Ting Shi  /  Bloomberg

In discussions between the US and China about reining in North Korea, one topic remains taboo: What would happen if Kim Jong-un’s regime collapses?

For years, China has rebuffed US attempts to raise the topic at so-called Track 2 dialogue sessions between academics in each country’s foreign policy establishment, according to Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has led the US side in such talks.

Attendees included people from Chinese government-affiliated research institutions and military officers, she said.

From China’s perspective, officially broaching the issue could alarm its neighbor, which has received Beijing’s backing since the beginning of the Korean War in the 1950s. There is also a fear that it would give the US an advantage in one day reunifying the Korean peninsula on its terms.

“When we first started these efforts, the Chinese told us — and many other people, including US officials — that if they engaged in such discussions with the United States it would come out, it would get leaked, North Korea would find out and they would retaliate,” Glaser said.

Still, as the US and North Korea trade threats of military action and Kim — who is believed to be in his early 30s — develops nuclear weapons, observers are starting to game-out worst-case scenarios.

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday told reporters that the US is prepared to use “devastating” military force against North Korea, although it is not a preferred option.

No matter whether a military miscalculation, coup or other event prompts the demise of Kim, it may not be long before soldiers from the world’s two biggest economies come face-to-face.

The US has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, which itself has 625,000 in its standing army and 3.1 million in reserve. China has roughly 2 million soldiers and its Northern Theater Command, bordering North Korea, consists of at least three army units and three rocket units.

“If we intervene and the Chinese run into our people and if we run into their people, what are we going to do?” said Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at US think tank Rand Corp who wrote a 342-page report in 2013 on policy recommendations in case North Korea collapses.

“Are we going to shake hands or what? All of that needs to be really thought about seriously,” Bennett said by phone.

If North Korea starts to collapse, both the U.S. and China are likely to send in troops to secure its weapons of mass destruction, Bennett said.

Most of those sites — including the Yongbyon nuclear plant — are closer to China than South Korea.

US intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea can miniaturize warheads to fit on missiles and has as many as 60 nuclear bombs, the Washington Post reported last month.

South Korea’s 2016 Defense White Paper said Pyongyang also has a stockpile of between 2,500 and 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons and is capable of producing biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox.

Any incursion by Chinese troops into North Korea risks drawing in South Korea, whose constitution covers the entire peninsula. Similar to China, authorities in Seoul would also be worried about large flows of refugees who might flee, particularly if war leads to shortages of food and other essential goods.

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