The Peninsula

China’s Potential Actions in a North Korean Nuclear Contingency

Published May 30, 2017
Category: North Korea

This is the fourth in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Other pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of North KoreaRussia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

By Yun Sun

Although information on the exact technical specifications of the North Korea nuclear programs remains scarce, insufficient and in-definitive, the prevailing perception is that many, if not most of these programs are located close to the Chinese border.  This is perhaps inevitable given the limited size and terrain of North Korean territory. The famous Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, for example, is located 110 km from the Chinese border, while the Punggyeri Nuclear Test Site is around 90 km away. The safety of these nuclear facilities, especially the potential nuclear radioactive contamination has become an increasing concern for the Chinese government given their geographical proximity to China. In 2013, North Korea’s nuclear test had propelled the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection to set up dozens of radiation detectors and announced the results at an unprecedented press conference. Although the radiation levels in major cities were reported to be within the normal range, complains from the Chinese public opinions were still rampant.

China’s planning and preparation for a North Korean contingency in recent years have been mostly focused on an internal instability scenario, most likely an implosion caused by a military coup or an unexpected death of the North Korean leader. In such a scenario, the common expectation is that China is prepared to intervene to preserve a functional North Korean government as well as the survival of North Korea as a country if South Korean and/or American intervention is detected. Similarly, if the contingency is a conflict between the two Koreas and U.S. steps in as Seoul’s ally, China will also most inevitably intervene militarily. Depending on the scenario, the impact and the grand bargain, China could aim at supporting the North Korean regime against foreign invasion, establishing buffer zone along the border to prevent refugee inflows, or imposing a ceasefire.

Despite the Chinese preparation for a political/military contingency in North Korea, however, a North Korea contingency due to damage to its research reactor’s core causing the core to burn or a nuclear meltdown at its light water reactor is much less discussed in the Chinese policy community. This could be because that the probability of a nuclear contingency is significantly smaller than the probability of political instability due to implosion/explosion, therefore has not been prioritized. It could also reflect China’s lack of information, experience and anticipation for a nuclear meltdown scenario. After all, China has never been directly exposed to a nuclear crisis domestically or on its border.

In a Yongbyon reactor crisis, China’s first priority would be to prevent or minimize nuclear radioactive contamination of the Chinese territory. Yongbyon is located 110 km from the Chinese border. In both cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the nuclear disaster exclusion zones set up have been of 30-km radius approximately. This probably means that China will not be the center of nuclear contamination in the event of a nuclear crisis in Yongbyon, but some level of radiation contamination seems inevitable.

China will see the handling of a nuclear crisis within North Korean territory primarily as the responsibility of the North Korean sovereign government. After all, a crisis with North Korea’s nuclear reactor does not automatically constitute the sufficient justification for international intervention. However, given the widely shared assumption that North Korean capacity, equipment, resources and ability to handle a nuclear crisis are extremely limited, China as North Korea’s sole ally and main supporter will likely be the first country to be asked to provide assistance. And given the nature of a nuclear disaster, the Chinese agencies to provide such assistance are more likely to be military rather than civilian.

Some Chinese military analysts have demonstrated certain levels of confidence about the Chinese ability to deal with North Korean nuclear reactors, citing the shared Soviet origin of the nuclear technologies of both China and North Korea. However, the counter-argument against the Chinese presumed confidence is that older technologies and facilities are more difficult and more dangerous due to their outdated and less sophisticated design. Having said that, the Chinese policy community seems to be convinced that China will have to be responsible, at least partially, and provide technical assistance, dispatch experts, engineers and military personnel for evacuation and the establishment of the exclusion zone.

China will also prioritize the internal stability of North Korea in the event of a nuclear contingency. Depending on the level of disruption and turmoil the nuclear crisis creates, the Chinese military personnel could include a stabilization force to prevent political upheavals. This presumably will be done in coordination with the North Korean government.

China is highly likely to work with Russia to jointly intervene in a crisis involving a North Korean nuclear reactor. Russia is also subject to radioactive contamination given its geographical proximity and therefore has a vested interest. More importantly, Russia is better positioned and equipped to deal with nuclear disasters given its technical knowledge of North Korean nuclear programs and its past experiences with Chernobyl. Russia has a relatively friendly and positive relationship with North Korea. A joint operation with Russia will not only dilute the responsibility China has to carry, but also diffuse a perception of Chinese unilateral intervention by North Korea and by the international community.

Given that a nuclear crisis in North Korea will inevitably create a humanitarian disaster, including radioactive contamination crisis, food crisis and refugee crisis, international humanitarian aid will be solicited and most likely provided. However, HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) efforts by foreign militaries other than China and Russia most likely will be rejected by North Korea due to its heightened sense of insecurity and vulnerability in a nuclear contingency. North Korea and China will share the goal of preventing South Korea and the U.S. from exploiting the situation to facilitate invasion or unification.

South Korea and the U.S. could possibly refer the nuclear crisis to the UN Security Council. However, without sufficient justification that the nuclear crisis and radiation leakage creates a dire threat for regional and international peace and security, and/or a dire humanitarian disaster, any resolution that China will support will be unlikely to authorize a military intervention. China most likely will support the United Nations to organize and manage the international humanitarian efforts, including aids and donations from South Korea and the United States. China could even request that IAEA dispatch expert teams and provide technical assistance to deal with the nuclear situation. However, military personnel are unlikely to be the invitation list.

Despite North Korea’s damage of the Chinese national security through its nuclear program, a crisis at North Korea’s nuclear plant does not change the geopolitics involved in the Korean peninsula for China. A nuclear disaster in North Korea will increase the cost of China’s current policy, and China probably will use the opportunity to shape Pyongyang’s thinking and curtail its future nuclear provocation. However, China’s fundamental calculation regarding the U.S.-ROK military alliance and U.S. role in the region will not evaporate from a nuclear disaster in North Korea. Under the current circumstances, China will continue to want to preserve the North Korean state until it is shown a desirable endgame in a unification scenario. China’s potential reactions to a nuclear crisis, including military intervention, technical assistance, humanitarian aid and cooperation with Russia all originate from that calculus.

Yun Sun is a Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Beyond Neon’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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