China’s Plan For The Collapse Of North Korea

China sends a message to Kim Jong Un.

The Telegraph 
(along with the Japanese outlet Kyodo News) is out with a story that purports to detail the plans the the Chinese government has made in the case of the sudden collapse of the regime in Pyongyang:

China has drawn up detailed contingency plans for the collapse of the North Korean government, suggesting that Beijing has little faith in the longevity of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Documents drawn up by planners from China’s People’s Liberation Army that were leaked to Japanese media include proposals for detaining key North Korean leaders and the creation of refugee camps on the Chinese side of the frontier in the event of an outbreak of civil unrest in the secretive state.

The report calls for stepping up monitoring of China’s 879-mile border with North Korea.

Any senior North Korean military or political leaders who could be the target of either rival factions or another “military power,” thought to be a reference to the United States, should be given protection, the documents state.

According to Kyodo News, the Chinese report says key North Korean leaders should be detained in special camps where they can be monitored, but also prevented from directing further military operations or taking part in actions that could be damaging to China’s national interest.

The report suggests “foreign forces” could be involved in an incident that leads to the collapse of internal controls in North Korea, resulting to millions of refugees attempting to flee. The only route to safety the vast majority would have would be over the border into China.

The Chinese authorities intend to question new arrivals, determine their identities and turn away any who are considered dangerous or undesirable.

This is unsurprising on many levels. The North Koreans have taken the world to the bring so many times over the past two decades, that it would be foolish for China or any of the other major powers to not have at least some idea of how they might react in the event of a crisis in that nation that led to a collapse of government. Such a collapse could lead to a serious military confrontation with whomever managed to grab control of Pyongyang’s military assets, or even just some of them. It would also create a potential refuge crisis that would primarily impact China, but which could also impact South Korea and Japan. On top of all of that, of course, would be the humanitarian crisis that would unfold in the event of a collapse and the prospect of dealing with the population of an entire nation that will have had everything they were ever taught to believe in ripped out from under them in an instant. Obviously, we can’t know today how events like these are going to unfold but it would seem prudent to at least have some general idea of how to proceed, along with open lines of communication with the other major powers that would be impacted by a crisis in the north.

Max Fisher comments on the leaked Chinese plans:

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.

And that brings us to the most interesting part of this story. Assuming that this report is an accurate reflection of Chinese thinking on the potential of a North Korean collapse and how the Chinese would react to it, it seems fairly clear that it was done deliberately. China isn’t exactly known as a country with a history of government officials who leak things to the foreign press. Instead, when information like this becomes public in either the Chinese or international press it is fairly apparent that the leak was essentially authorized, and that it was intended to send a message. In this case, the message is obviously to Kim and those around him, letting them know that the patronage and protection from Beijing that is keeping them in power isn’t going to last forever. At some point, the Kim regime will collapse, the question is whether the rest of the world will be ready for it.

FILED UNDER: Asia, National Security, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The aspect of the plan that I found most interesting was this:

    Any senior North Korean military or political leaders who could be the target of either rival factions or another “military power,” thought to be a reference to the United States, should be given protection, the documents state.

    Under what circumstances would United States forces come streaming across the DMZ in pursuit of North Korean military or political leaders? Maybe I don’t have enough imagination but I can’t see it.

    The military power I could see doing just that would be South Korea. Re-unification is a persistent policy in the South and rooting out the deadenders would be part of such a program.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I agree, this was definitely a message to Kim Jong Un and his government. I always thought there was a line that China would not let North Korea cross and the intentional leaking of this document indicates they may be getting close.

  3. @Ron Beasley:

    I don’t pretend to be an expert but it seems to me that China’s primary interest when it comes to the Korean Peninsula revolves around (1) stability and (2) preventing American forces from being on the other side of the Yalu River.

    I tend to agree with Dave Schuler that the second possibility is unlikely, but one could perhaps understand what it would be a Chinese concern

  4. grumpy realist says:

    Which of course was followed up by China’s denial that they ever had such a plan…..(FT this morning.)

    It’s called negotiation by proclamation. We’ll have to see what the North Koreans spit out on their side. If it’s anything aside from belligerent-running-yellow-dog-capitalist stuff (and even if it’s that) we’ll know they’ve got the message.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Instead, when information like this becomes public in either the Chinese or international press it is fairly apparent that the leak was essentially authorized, and that it was intended to send a message.

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure China has had several of these plans for NK over the years. The real question is why let it leak out now?

  6. CSK says:


    Maybe it has something to do with the news that broke a few days ago about North Korea now having the capacity to miniaturize nuclear weapons so that they can fit on the head of an ICBM.

  7. JR says:

    North Korea wouldn’t last too long without China. They have always been and will always be a proxy state for China to use as leverage against the West. China’s long term interests are more focused these days toward the Persian Gulf.

    I’m actually more interested in the intricacies of China’s relationships with Iran.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    One problem is that each Kim seems to be a little crazier than the last one. Kim Jong Un’s uncle was the primary contact with China. I often wondered if Kim executed him because he at least thought he was negotiating something with China that would not be in Kim’s best interests.

  9. Mu says:

    Must be very encouraging for any North Korean general that his choices are
    a) fight, maybe die, maybe win
    b) be shot by his fellow North Korean
    c) be shot by his “allies” to the North
    d) be shot by his enemies to the South

    I don’t think there will be much surrendering going on.

  10. Rob in CT says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Given that this seems to have been leaked to send a message to NK, it could be that this provision is there to reassure NK leadership that the Chinese won’t let them swing so long as they do what the Chinese want (avoid doing anything really stupid/dangerous). We have your back, and we’re the only ones who do. Play nice.

    Just a guess.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rob in CT: I don’t really think that the Chinese are stupid enough to think that Kim Jong Un won’t do something stupid and dangerous. Another thing that might factor in is that there is a new government in China.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Stupid and dangerous has worked pretty well for the Kim family so far.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: Didn’t they make the same claim roughly 5 years ago?

    As far as I can tell, the world yawned.

  14. 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.

    I think a significant portion of the US would be rather okay with a Chinese occupied North Korea over the present situation, as long as the transition was accomplished without Seoul getting flattened.

  15. @Ron Beasley:

    It’s the “idiot grandson” theory as to why most powerful families collapse in the third generation. The first generation had enough skill to become powerful, and the second generation was usually born early enough to see how the family became powerful and thus is competent to keep them powerful. The third generation is the first one with no memory of when the family was not powerful and ends up borking the whole thing.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    It’s not just a message to NK, it goes out to us, too. Where was all the standing shoulder to shoulder with socialist comrades against the capitalists stuff? They as much as say that should we finally lose patience with NK and send tanks over the border the Chinese intend to sit at home knitting booties for the refugees. It was, “Hey, if you happen to flee in this direction, we’ll have a nice camp for you.” That’s what ought to scare NK. This is a ‘we wash our hands’ statement.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.

  18. Dave D says:

    @Ron Beasley: The new government is about 2 years old now, and I believe that Zhang Dejiang was elected to the standing committee to deal with the DPRK problems. Also in regards to Kim’s uncle, he was giving what some have speculated to be sweetheart deals to China for NK resources.

    I’m not surprised China has a plan as they tend to look at many of their issues and make policies based on a very long view of the world, a benefit of 3,000 years of civilization. Also I would think should it collapse and China does occupy the DPRK to stabilize it, there would probably be a Hong Kong-like handover to reunification.

  19. Scott says:

    I think China is smart enough to know that taking over NK would be economically very costly to it without a lot of future benefit. They may not like SK or the US occcupying it but it is better than the alternative.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    I’m just reading tea leaves but if this leak was really from the Chinese government, I suspect it is aimed at cutting off any plans NK has to start a shooting war with SK. China is confident the US and SK won’t start such a war, so an explicit message that “we won’t save you, just round you up and put you in a detention camp” seems to be a pretty explicit message to Lil Kim.

  21. bill says:

    @Doug Mataconis: really, more troubles on peninsula’s…as wacky as “un” is things can surely get weirder over there. i don’t see china cozying up to one of our allies or sk wanting another puppet next door. as we find in the mid-east, somethings are better left as is. now if the people of nk could muster the nads to overthrow the military- it would be extremely far-fetched, too large a force and they’d still have another dictator.

  22. michael reynolds says:


    I think you and I are on the same page here. If China leaked this they know NK is not their only audience. Their lack of talk about protecting NK is really telling. Put it this way: if we’d just leaked a document that said similar things about the leadership of Israel, we’d be in the middle of a sh!t storm of epic proportions and people would be accusing Obama of flashing a green light to the Arabs and selling out the Jews. This is an extraordinary document, if it’s real.

  23. Rob in CT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Hmm, interesting comparison, and it makes sense. I guess I’d already assumed that China obviously wasn’t goint to back NK in a war, so it wasn’t shocking to me. But if the NK government was under the delusion China would, this would be quite the bucket of icewater to the face.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I don’t know what NK knows or believes, but I think we have always assumed the possibility, perhaps likelihood, that China would defend NK. After all, they did back in the day, with notably ill effect on US troops.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Ron Beasley: I thought there was pretty hard evidence that the uncle was in talks with China.

    China probably would be perfectly happy if everyone in North Korea would just dry up and disappear.

  26. Pinky says:

    @Mu: You left out one option that the NK generals have – shooting Kim now. This report might make that option seem more attractive to them. Then again, fear of it seeming more attractive could cause Kim to go on a preemptive purge.

    What a mess.

  27. John425 says:

    China should have a team of shrinks monitoring the “Kim” because he is a little short of a full Kim Chee.