August 8, 2006
Shaping China's Security Environment: The Role of the People's Liberation Army





John J. Tkacik, Jr.

Introduction: Was North Korea Worth Fighting For?

A half-century ago, Chinese military commanders did not necessarily believe North Korea was worth a war. Consider Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Peng Dehuai’s first direct encounter with the Korean problem at an expanded Politburo meeting in the afternoon of Tuesday, October 4, 1950. He had left his Field Army headquarters in the western Chinese city of Xi’an that morning—suddenly, and under urgent orders to present himself at the Politburo conclave. The Party Center in Beijing had even sent a “silvery” Illyushin passenger plane out to the ancient capital of Xi’an to retrieve the General who was, at least that day, the top Communist official charged with the pacification and reconstruction of the nascent People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Northwest Bureau.
When General Peng arrived at the old imperial Zhongnanhai compound abutting central Beijing’s Forbidden City, he was completely unaware that he would be asked to command China’s secret invasion of Korea set to commence in less than 2 weeks.
It was 4:00 pm, and the meeting was already in progress as the General entered the conference room within the ancient Yi Nian Hall. Chairman Mao himself greeted the General and beckoned him to enter. “Old Peng-ah,” the Chairman called out in apparent relief that he might now have an ally, “you’re just in time . . . sorry we had to call you so suddenly, but the American Imperialists don’t let us rest.”
The General commented that he had not been in Xi’an but a short time; his family was just settling-in—or “lighting the fire” as they say in Chinese—when he received his orders to Beijing.
“I don’t care if your family’s lighting a fire,” Mao retorted in mock impatience, “our Korean neighbors have just ‘lit a fire’, and when our neighbors are on fire, we can’t sit around crying about it, can we?” And, (now that he was on the subject) Mao continued that “Korea” was exactly what this Politburo meeting was about—sending troops to Korea, to be precise.
“In a while, Old Peng,” the Chairman addressed the General in a courteous third-person syntax, “should also be prepared to make a statement.”
Peng was caught by surprise. What statement did anyone need of him? Out in northwest China’s deserts, he had not really thought much about Korea—nothing at all, really. He knew that the Chairman had deployed 300,000 troops from General Lin Biao’s Fourth Field Army, now in Southern China, back to its old Manchurian haunts in August when the North Korean army’s invasion stalled under American bombing and strafing runs at the Naktong River. But that was someone else’s problem.
He quietly took a chair and ruminated to himself that he had enough problems coping with the post-liberation economic crises in the Northwest Bureau. Moreover, it did not seem that they really needed him here at this meeting—virtually all the attendees were top PLA generals. One more general was not going to be much use.
He was jarred from his reverie by a tug at his sleeve. Next to him on his right was Gao Gang, senior Politburo member and Chairman of the Northeast People’s Government that ran Manchuria as a virtual independent country since 1946 and had not yet been brought administratively under the Center’s jurisdiction.
“Get ready, Old Peng,” Gao muttered. The General gave Gao a puzzled look but got nothing but a knowing smile in return. Sotto voce, the General asked Gao when he had arrived in Beijing. “A few days earlier,” was the reply. “So, has the Center decided to send troops to Korea?” Gao nodded, then slurped at his tea mug, “on October second” and added “we’ve already sent a report to Stalin.”
“Then why are we still debating it?” “There are still differing opinions . . .” He paused, “let’s put it this way, this is a big deal, if it’s screwed up, we’ll be in a real mess, so let’s be prudent about this. . . .” Gao’s whisper trailed off.
“You say there’re differing views? Whose?” In a low voice, Gao asserted that “an absolute majority is very concerned . . . Mao Zedong is no exception.” “And you?” “I’m in the ‘against-faction’,” Gao admitted. “Who decided to send in the troops?” “Mao Zedong,” said Gao flatly, not bothering to use the title “Chairman” or even the honorific “comrade.”
At which point there came a high-pitched Hunanese voice from the head of the conference table. “I say, Gao Gang,” Chairman Mao interjected (also dispensing with the “comrade” formalities), “you can’t hold your own side meetings here . . . we all want to hear your views, you, with your ‘lofty’ mountain ‘outpost’ [a play on Gao Gang’s name]. The higher you are, the farther you can see!” At the sound of the Chairman’s voice, the room suddenly fell silent. Mao’s intervention focused all attention on Gao.
Gao, who obviously was not the Chairman’s favorite in the Politburo, screwed up his courage. “I still feel the same way, we should be cautious. Our land has been through over 20 years of war, we’ve only just been united, a sense of peace has yet to be restored. If we fight again, I’m afraid our economy won’t be able to bear the strain. We’ve only just gained power, we should be thrifty. Fighting a war isn’t all fists, it’s money . . .”
Looking around the room, Gao continued, “Then there are Lin Biao’s views, I think we ought to take them very seriously. Our army has backward weapons, most of it is junk [sanba dagai] from the Japanese. Each American corps has 1,500 artillery pieces, one of ours only has 200, even fewer tanks . . .” General Lin Biao had evidently made these same arguments when Mao asked him to command the Korean campaign a many days earlier. Of all the Chinese generals, Lin had the most operational military experience on the Korean border as chief of the PLA’s Fourth Field Army during the Manchurian campaigns. And the brave General Lin was adamant against sending Chinese troops into Korea.
“Who could have imagined that Lin Biao believed this?” was the way the Communist Party’s Party History Research Office put it, by way of explaining Lin’s suspicious absence from the meeting. Lin warned, “rushing headlong into Korea against the Americans can only mean we will all be consumed in flames [yinhuo shao shen].”
Puzzled by Lin’s reaction, General Nie Rongzhen recalls “Lin Biao said he was ill, blinding headaches, hot flashes, insomnia; and on that pretext, he obstinately refused to go” to Korea. “This was very strange, for we used to work together, and I had never seen him so frightened of anything.”
Korea wasn’t important either to General Lin Biao or Chairman Gao Gang. Even if the Americans were to occupy the entire peninsula, in their view, the threat to China was minimal. And most historians agree that the general consensus among the Chinese Politburo in September and October 1950 was against Chinese participation. The logistical strains alone would overwhelm China’s fragile economy, which was just emerging from the Chinese Civil War, the military risk of confronting a United States armed with atomic weapons was grave, and much of Southwestern China had still not been pacified despite the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s main force armies.
Yet, when it apparently dawned on him that he was going to lead the battle in Korea, General Peng Dehuai gave an ironic rebuttal to those in the October 4, 1950, Politburo meeting who said China’s entry into the Korean War would severely damage China’s economy. He asked them, “what are the ramifications of not entering the war?” He warned that “in the past, Japan has used Korea as a springboard for aggression into China.” As passionate as Peng’s words seemed to be, it is unlikely that this argument actually swayed anyone—Peng also cheerily pointed out, .” . . if we are devastated, it would just mean that our victory in the War of Liberation would be several years late [dalanle, dengyu Jiefang Zhanzheng wan shengli ji nian].” This deadpan observation, no doubt, was intended as cold water on Chairman Mao’s enthusiasm. Instead, Chairman Mao played it as support. The Chairman, himself, favored entering the war, and as long as he had at least one other sane individual backing him up—tongue in cheek or otherwise—the rest of the Politburo apparently was willing to follow suit.
But with 50 years of hindsight, it is now clear that Mao was in a distinct minority if he truly considered Korea to be of dramatic strategic importance to China. Apparently in an effort to prod the Politburo into supporting him, the Chairman told an expanded Politburo meeting on October 2, 1950, that he had, that very day, sent a telegram to the Soviet leader, Marshal Stalin, confirming that China would move 12 divisions of Chinese troops into North Korea, beginning October 15.
In all probability, Chairman Mao, recent archival revelations now indicate, was testing the waters. In fact, Mao had sent an entirely different telegram to Marshal Stalin on October 2, indicating that perhaps North Korea was not all that important to China’s security. Mao explained that China would not immediately send troops to Korea after all.

However, having thought this over thoroughly, we now consider that such actions may entail extremely serious consequences. In the first place, it is very difficult to resolve the Korean question with a few divisions (our troops are extremely poorly equipped, there is no confidence in the success of military operations against American troops), the enemy can force us to retreat.

In the second place, this will provoke an open conflict between the USA and China, and as a consequence of which the Soviet Union also can be dragged into war, and the question thus would become extremely large.

Many comrades in the CC/CPC [Central Committee of the Communist Party of China] judge that it is necessary to show caution here.

There are several explanations for Mao’s duplicity. Perhaps Mao wanted to give himself room to back down if his Politburo rebelled. Perhaps he wanted to pressure Stalin for vastly more military aid than Stalin theretofore had been willing to provide.
In any case, Mao’s real telegram to Stalin (as opposed to the one in the Chinese archives which apparently was never sent ) reflects a realization that North Korea was not as strategically important as the “lips and teeth” metaphor might suggest. The idea that the United States had any intention whatsoever of invading Chinese territory simply was not credible in the Chinese Politburo. In retrospect, one is led to believe that Mao made the ultimate decision to enter the Korean War primarily to demonstrate that China, under his leadership, was ready to lead the Socialist Revolution in the East.
This is not to say that the Chinese leadership lacked a sense of responsibility or loyalty to their North Korean socialist comrades. North Korean archives seized when the U.S. Army occupied Pyongyang in October 1950 show that the Communists’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had several divisions of ethnic-Koreans fighting in Manchuria during the first part of the 1945-49 Chinese Civil War. Korean War scholar Bruce Cumings cites estimates that assert 15-20 percent of PLA troops in Manchuria in 1947—”fully seventy thousand”—were ethnic Koreans, and a Joint PLA-North Korean-Soviet Military Council controlled the movements of all troops and materiel across the Sino-Korean border in support of the Communist side during the Civil War in Manchuria. The PLA began detaching ethnic Korean infantry divisions back to North Korea as early as 1948, and by the beginning of the Korean War, 80 percent of Korean People’s Army (KPA) officers had served in China. By the autumn of 1950, at least 100,000 ethnic Korean troops were veterans of the Chinese Civil War, some of whom had fought “all the way down to the ‘last battle’ for Hainan Island in May 1950.”

The PRC-DPRK Alliance.

This was a relationship “sealed in blood” in the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War that followed immediately after. But North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung (himself a creation of Stalin) remained deeply suspicious of China’s potential influence within his own military. No doubt the Beijing purges of pro-Soviets in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership in 1954 following Stalin’s death sharpened Kim’s worries. And no doubt, the CCP leadership was sensitive to Kim’s suspicions. In the early 1960s, the pressures of the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute impelled China to conclude a rather broad treaty of alliance with North Korea, an alliance unlike any others in its utter lack of hedging. Article II of the Treaty signed in 1961 requires China, in the event of an armed attack against North Korea, to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.” China also is required “to adopt all measures to prevent aggression” against the North. There are no provisions for head-scratching or shilly-shallying should the casus belli for “aggression” against the North be unclear. Indeed, China’s commitment to defend the North Koreans is articulated far more directly and categorically than the Soviet-North Korean alliance, signed just 5 days before.
To China’s credit, it made sure that Article IV of the Treaty also obliged North Korea to “continue to consult . . . on all important international questions of common interests.” In return, North Korea persuaded China to “render . . . every possible economic and technical aid in the cause of socialist construction” including “scientific and technical cooperation.” Moreover, Article VII deprives China of any possible legal way to unilaterally revise or terminate the alliance should relations with North Korea become strained. In fact, one Chinese scholar recommended a renegotiation of the alliance to gain leverage with both Pyongyang and Washington, a suggestion that was ignored—though not removed from the Chinese internet site that published it. Thus far, the PLA appears completely committed to the precise terms and spirit of the treaty.
Despite this relationship “sealed in blood,” Chinese military strategists are no doubt asking themselves, “IS North Korea Still Worth Fighting For?”

The PLA’s Strategic Concerns in Korea.

China has had a peculiarly possessive relationship with North Korea for millennia. In 2003, Chinese archeologists and linguists resurrected an ancient controversy by claiming that most of the Korean peninsula, running down as far as the 38th Parallel, had been governed for 700 years by a Chinese king and essentially had been a Chinese Kingdom—and before that, it was part of China.
Koreans in general view the kingdom in question, known in Korean history as “Koguryo” (and in Chinese as “Gaogouli”), as one of their most glorious dynasties. Nonetheless, the claim made its way onto the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and throughout 2004, horrified South Korean scholars and diplomats demanded a retraction, an explanation, and promises that Chinese academics would never allude to it again. In August, Jia Qinglin, the fourth ranking member of the CCP Politburo, visited Seoul and supposedly reached an unpublicized “oral agreement” on the controversy. But just days later, the CCP propaganda department blocked Chinese domestic access to the Chinese pages of Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo, pages which reported the Jia Qinglin compromise, and completely shut down an ethnic-Korean website in China that also reported the Jia visit.
But North Korea was oddly circumspect—”Some Great Power-minded historians in other countries are scheming to erase Koguryo history and our nation-state’s traditions and position” was about as direct as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) media got. Pyongyang’s reticence puzzled South Korean observers who commented that “North Korea draws its legitimacy from Koguryo, so it would be difficult for it to continue to remain silent . . .” Since then, Pyongyang has remained silent—except to say that Koguryo was indeed a “Korean” nation, a “model kingdom,” and worthy of Korean emulation.
Pyongyang’s equanimity toward Chinese assertions of historical sovereignty over a good part of North Korean territory was odd—like Sherlock Holmes’s “dog that didn’t bark.” But like so much of the Chinese-North Korean relationship, a relationship that is husbanded by deeply secretive bureaucrats and ideologues on both sides of the Yalu River, the reasons for Pyongyang’s complaisance are hidden from view. Few Chinese scholars—if any—are willing or able to comment on it or any other aspect of Beijing-Pyongyang ties with any authority. And even fewer from the Chinese PLA.
Yet both Chinese and North Korean military commanders certainly have very sophisticated strategies to manage their relationship. And these strategies often are reflected indirectly in open sources, and in unguarded comments to foreign diplomats and scholars.
Historians of Sino-North Korean relations understand that links between China’s PLA and the KPA predate both the founding of the People’s Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic—and their friendship is “sealed in blood,” as both Chinese and DPRK military leaders insist every time they meet. That friendship undoubtedly underwent a metamorphosis during the Sino-Soviet ideological schism from the late 1950s through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the North Korean leadership skillfully played off Beijing and Moscow (mostly in Moscow’s favor). And when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s (USSR) demise left North Korea without a generous great-power patron, China was quick to step in to prevent a similar collapse of its little Korean socialist brother. It is apparent that Chinese strategists no longer see North Korea as strategic real estate essential to an outside aggressor—like the hegemonic United States—which may want to invade Manchuria. Rather, North Korea’s survival has now become essential to China, which does not want to see a unified Korea emerge on its borders as a large, advanced industrial state with a modern military and nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang is one of Beijing’s last remaining revolutionary allies (although it is no longer even “communist” in name), yet it has become a major liability. It is an economic disaster held together only by outside aid. It is a ruthlessly “feudal” dictatorship that most Chinese have a hard time stomaching. It is a reckless nuclear brinkman. And it is a major source of social instability and violent lawlessness in China’s Yalu-Tumen border areas.
How the PLA (as opposed to the rest of the Chinese foreign policy establishment) intends to postpone Korean unification while mitigating the liabilities of the Pyongyang regime is a question that appears to be at the heart of its 21st century strategy for Northeast Asia. Understanding the PLA’s dilemma requires an historic perspective, a strategic examination, and a look at the available evidence of military-to-military contacts over the past few years.
For over 2,100 years, Chinese strategists considered the Korean Peninsula either a part of China or a vassal state. Since the end of the 19th century, however, the Chinese have seen Korea as a potential corridor of invasion; first by Tsarist Russia, then Japan, and now by the United States. As one Chinese strategic writer, Senior Colonel Shen Weilie of China’s National Defense University, writes:

The Northeast Asia region has been the locus of several instances of Imperial Russian and Militarist Japanese aggression; and now it has again become an area where the strategic interests of the United States, Russia, Japan, and China clash. Although the United States is far removed on the shores of the Eastern Pacific, nonetheless, as a superpower, it has established a so-called U.S. defensive front line on the island chain abutting our nation in the Western Pacific and Northeast Asia from Japan to Korea. Moreover, it has set up many military bases and deployed troops, signed treaties of military alliance with Japan and Korea, whose strategic target is China, and has thereby become a main adversary that threatens the security of China’s northeast.

Colonel Shen’s thesis is that U.S. aggression in the Korean War directly threatened the security of Northeast China, and that after the war, Japan experienced a metamorphosis, turning from a “major economic state” into a “major political-military state” which aims to become the “central player” (fahui ‘zhongxin zuoyong’) in the Western Pacific, and particularly in Northeast Asia. Colonel Shen believed that Japan refuses to acknowledge its historical criminal behavior in its aggression against China and, in this failure, Japan is witness to the resurgence of militarism. As such, Japan also is a potential adversary that threatens the security of China’s northeast. On the other hand, China and Russia have reached a strategic understanding and are now partners in Asia and, with the final demarcation of the Sino-Russian border in the Far East, “Russia will not again become a threat to China’s security.” The situation on the Korean Peninsula, says Shen, always has been unstable, and “is a potential flashpoint in Asia.” As soon as military conflict erupts, it will pose a grave threat to China’s security.
In short, says Colonel Shen,

in any future anti-aggression war to defend the national security of China’s northeast, the U.S. and Japanese military alliance and the U.S.-ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance under U.S. hegemonism and Japanese militarism, the seaborne aggression may come from the Yellow Sea area of the Liaodong Peninsula, while the land invasion still may come from the area of the Korean Peninsula, and the air attacks will come mainly from bases in Japan and South Korea.

Following the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, one would think Chinese strategists would either be relieved that America’s attention would be distracted from China (which is indeed a sentiment I heard during a closed conference October 6-8, 2001, in Shanghai between The Heritage Foundation and the Shanghai Institute for Strategic Studies), or at the very least would worry that the United States would suddenly achieve a strategic presence in Central Asia. It is surprising that the Chinese also argued that “under the pretext of the opportunity offered by anti-terrorism, the United States expanded and strengthened their military presence in Northeast Asia.” This situation was complicated when the United States intercepted intelligence that North Korea had a “nuclear program” and was “exporting guided missiles.” According to the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations [CICIR], North Korea was still the “biggest problem in the Asia-Pacific region left over from the Cold War” and the two sides (United States and DPRK) were plagued by mistrust. Both sides were “playing the nuclear card.” The United States used it to “impede the over-rapid progress of DPRK relations with Japan and the ROK,” while the DPRK used the nuclear card to “drag” the United States into a dialogue “in an effort to improve relations with the United States.”
Obviously, this view of the overland vulnerability of China’s Northeast provinces (Manchuria) to an attack from Korea has been influenced by the PLA’s experience in the Korean War. Still, it is very difficult to believe that the Chinese military has any fear that the United States (or anyone else) will ever again plan to invade Manchuria via North Korea. Nonetheless, that is the published story, and the PLA is sticking to it for the time being.
It is clear that the opposite is the case, that the PLA sees North Korea as a strategic problem—not as a corridor for invasion of China’s northeast—but in its own right.

China’s Interests in Korea.

The late Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac would have understood China’s current Korean dilemma. In 1952, the French writer explained that he “loved Germany so much,” he was “glad there are two of them.”
China likewise loves Korea very much. The collapse of the Pyongyang regime would result quickly in a unified peninsula of 70 million Koreans with a world-class heavy industrial base, advanced technology, wealth, a massive modern military machine (with who-knows-how-many nuclear devices) and—last, not least—an irredentist claim on nearly 18,000 square miles of China’s Changbai Mountain (Korean: “Paektu-san”) region, which is regarded as the birthplace of the Korean race.
In private discussions with U.S. academics, senior PLA strategists have commented that “Korea is a victim of East-West confrontation . . . reunification should not jeopardize another country’s security.” No doubt, the other country is China. The last thing China wants, therefore, is another powerful, assertive and sullen neighbor on its borders.
In March 1994, a group of U.S. intelligence community Asia specialists gathered near Washington with colleagues in academia and think tanks for a round-table discussion of North Korea. Their unclassified views no doubt were informed by a broad spectrum of information sources, as well as their own professional intuition.
The consensus of the conferees was that China’s primary strategic objective on the Korean Peninsula was to impede (if not delay indefinitely) North-South unification. In the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR, North Korea’s preeminent patron had ceased the provision of significant amounts of aid. North Korea was in the midst of an industrial and agricultural catastrophe and in total economic collapse; unless China—or someone—intervened, the crisis would eventually precipitate unification under Seoul’s ROK government. Faced with this, China was not overly concerned about North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its repudiation of safeguards under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in January of that year. While China might prefer a non-nuclear North Korea, the conferees believed, “it is willing to live with ambiguity.” But Korean unification was something China would work hard to avoid.
China’s objectives, therefore, were to prevent economic and social chaos in North Korea by infusions of massive amounts of food and energy aid—preferably not paid for by the Chinese government. At the time, China was accepting North Korean currency in payment for all exports to the DPRK. One Chinese expert explained in July 1993 that

we have not reduced economic aid. We are still supplying the same level of oil exports, only now we no longer accept barter, but insist on trade in dollars. In fact, however, we have not demanded any hard currency. The change is only a written policy, but has not been implemented. In the past, we had barter trade and North Korea had nothing to provide us, so it built up debt—now it has no hard currency, so it is still building up debt. They owe China a lot . . . We don’t force them to pay.

The massive amounts of food and fuel aid that North Korea needed to avoid a meltdown would have to come from the developed world—and with the approval of the United States.

The PLA Role in the 1993-1994 Nuclear Crisis.

Accordingly, China saw the 1993-94 nuclear crisis as an opportunity to bring about some form of Washington-Pyongyang rapprochement and to “begin the process of integrating North Korea into the world community.” This objective was very much in Beijing’s mind when it normalized relations with Seoul in 1992.
China nevertheless was concerned that the United States would use the nuclear crisis to play a dominant role in Northeast Asia under cover of multilateralism. Instead, Beijing itself wanted to assure itself of the primary role in determining the fate of the Peninsula. In extremis, the conferees judged, Beijing could abandon its stance of nonintervention on the Peninsula, using direct and assertive diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang or “even intervene militarily” if it perceived the North Korean situation to be dangerous to its national security.
But a nuclear-armed North Korea was not viewed in 1993 as a major problem by Chinese scholars closely associated with the PLA. One was asked, “Could China live with a North Korea having the bomb?” The response was “Yes, I can live with it. I wouldn’t like North Korea having nuclear weapons, but it is inevitable for more and more countries to have nuclear weapons.” In July 1993, then-CCP Politburo Standing Committeeman Hu Jintao visited Pyongyang with an entourage of PLA generals to celebrate jointly the 40th anniversary of the “victory of the Korean Liberation War [sic].” In his speech at the festivities, Comrade Hu “welcomed the positive progress achieved in the Korean-U.S. dialogue and hoped that the involved parties would solve existing problems through continued dialogue and consultation based on equality.” Since North Korea, just 10 days before, had managed to get U.S. negotiators in Geneva to “support the introduction of LWRs [light water reactors] and . . . explore with the DPRK ways in which LWRs could be obtained,” Hu’s sentiments were understandable. Evidently, the CCP and the PRC government were of the opinion that North Korea’s nuclear policies made “positive contributions to maintaining peace and stability in Asia and throughout the world.” Significantly, this last phrase, which once presaged optimism for a peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue, was to return again a decade later.
In 1994, as North Korea’s economy went into a free fall and whole provinces sank into starvation, Beijing was terrified that North Korea would implode. Chinese leaders feared hundreds of thousands of refugees would stream into Manchuria, and that eventually China would have an assertive unified Korean nation poised on its northeast border like the unified Germany that appeared in Europe after the collapse of communism there. A “soft landing” for North Korea became China’s strategic imperative.
Imperative to China, maybe, but not to whomever was in charge in Pyongyang. By March 1994, it was clear to all that the DPRK was dragging its collective feet on the nuclear issue. At one point, a DPRK negotiator at Panmunjom, apropos of nothing, declared “Seoul is not far from here. If a war breaks out, it will be a sea of fire.” The war crisis that followed is well-chronicled in Don Oberdorfer’s 1997 book, The Two Koreas. Suffice it to say, by mid-June, all sides in the Korean crisis had itchy fingers on their triggers. When the Chief of the KPA General Staff, General Choe Kwang, arrived in Beijing on June 7 for long-planned meetings, there were reports that Chinese President Jiang Zemin was to warn North Korea to accept negotiations on the nuclear crisis. According to reliable reports, however, “it has been learned this is not true.”
Apparently, what was true was that General Choe was consulting in depth with the PLA on preparations for a war. A North Korean military delegation was in China in February 1994; KPA Major General Kim Hak-san, director of the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the North Korean Army, met PLA Chief of General Staff General Zhang Wannian in March. And educated speculation was that General Choe Kwang’s trip was in preparation “for ‘an emergency on the Korean peninsula’ since he is the one who controls the general command of ‘military operations’ under the Supreme Commander and Chairman of the National Defense Committee, Kim [Jong]-il.”
For their part, the PLA leaders were saying all the right things. General Zhang Wannian warmly welcomed his KPA counterpart and gushed that “the Armies of the two countries of China and the DPRK have a long tradition of friendly relations” and emphasized “the friendship concluded between the people and Armies of the two countries through blood ties is invincible.” The next day, Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian repeated to General Choe that the “Armies of the two countries fought shoulder to shoulder . . . opposing the Japanese imperialist aggressors, and that during the fatherland liberation war, they shed blood and fought together in one dugout against the U.S. imperialist aggressors.” And, as if he hadn’t mentioned “blood” enough, Minister Chi again “emphasized that the friendship between the two countries was truly bonded by blood.”
In Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s meeting with General Choe, Jiang apparently did not even broach the nuclear issue. He did, however, repeat that Beijing-Pyongyang ties were “interdependent, like teeth and lips.” Jiang insisted to Choe that “we are satisfied with the current development of relations between the two parties and countries. Strengthening and developing Sino-Korean friendship is a firm policy of our party and government, and it also is the wish of our entire party and the people throughout the country. We will make an effort for this on our part.” These were hardly the words of one ally trying to walk a reckless partner back from the brink.
One foreign interlocutor, hopeful that China’s message to the North Korean militarist was at least tough in private, confidentially queried a Chinese strategist about Chairman Jiang’s words, asking “maybe [Jiang] said very different things in private [to Choe] than he said in public.” The Chinese counterpart explained the facts of life to the American. “I don’t know what was said privately, but what Jiang said publicly means something. I think that if Jiang had said different words in private, then he would not have said such positive things in public.”
Given that the possibility of economic sanctions against the DPRK was, at that precise time, under serious review in both the United Nations (UN) Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that Pyongyang had preemptively declared that sanctions would be regarded as “a declaration of war,” it would have been unthinkable for either the PLA or the KPA not to prepare for the unthinkable.
How far the “unthinkable” might go was anyone’s guess. But a respected South Korean journalist wrote from Hong Kong on June 11 what he considered to be a reliable report that “China promised to send a ground army of approximately 85,000 troops to North Korea if a war breaks out.” KPA General Choe had, according to the report, reviewed the entire panoply of military assistance and operations with his PLA brethren in Beijing, including credit assistance for Chinese food and fuel if UN economic sanctions were imposed. Another source told the journalist in some detail that under the PRC-DPRK alliance treaty, three divisions of the 39th Mechanized Group Army (about 50,000 to 75,000 men) from the Shenyang Military Region (MR) and 10,000 Rapid Deployment Troops from the Jinan MR would be ready for deployment to Korea in the event of hostilities.
The sources, some of which were described as “Western diplomats,” said the PLA movements would only be ordered if North Korea was invaded by the United States, but that if North Korea invaded South Korea, “China will not directly provide military support to North Korea, except for spare parts or ammunition for the Chinese-made weapons North Korea currently possesses.”
Another reputable Hong Kong journalist, Jen Hui-wen, political commentator at Hong Kong’s respected Hsin Pao newspaper, filled in the outlines of this message in a later article. China, he said, believed an effective strategy to deal with the pressures on the DPRK required that: 1) the DPRK should never initiate any shooting; 2) the DPRK’s reaction to international sanctions should be commensurate with the sanctions, but should not be an overreaction; 3) in order to avoid friction, the KPA should be removed a distance from the demilitarized zone; and, finally, 4) that “a political solution is the best strategy, stalling is the second best strategy, conflict is a bad strategy, and taking the initiative to launch an attack is the worst strategy. It should not emphasize the word ‘fighting,’ it should emphasize the word ‘talking’.”
These, apparently, were not trial balloons from a Chinese source to the South Korean, but rather a signal that had already been received by “Western diplomatic sources” in Hong Kong, that the PLA and the KPA were well along in the combat planning aspect of the nuclear crisis. The PLA was involved in the diplomacy of the nuclear crisis as well. Hsin Pao reported that Jiang Zemin, as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), addressed a PLA forum on June 9, 1994, where he posited a “denuclearized Korean peninsula” and “peace and stability on the Korean peninsula” as China’s two strategic goals in the nuclear crisis. Jiang reported that a CCP delegation led by Politburo propaganda chief Ding Guangen, accompanied by Wen Jiabao (then an alternate Politburo member), General Wang Ruilin (Deng Xiaoping’s military confidant), and veteran Manchurian MR commander Li Desheng had been sent to the DPRK to sensitize Pyongyang to China’s concerns.
The fine print of this politico-military delegation’s presentation is instructive. The Ding delegation told its North Korean counterparts that 1) China would “do what it could” to support economic reforms in the DPRK; 2) if the DPRK developed nuclear weapons, China would be opposed; and, 3) if the DPRK was attacked, China would fulfill its obligations under the PRC-DPRK alliance treaty.

The PLA’s Role in the 2002-Present Nuclear Crisis.

There is considerable circumstantial evidence indicating that the PLA leadership has coordinated with its KPA counterparts to the same extent that it did prior to the July 1994 negotiations that ultimately led to the Agreed Framework. On April 19, 2003, just 6 days before the first session of U.S.-PRC-DPRK “Three Party Talks” on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang suddenly announced that the KPA’s top commander, General Jo Myong Rok, would visit Beijing from April 21-23. The terse one-line press release was not posted in English until the following day. While the purpose of General Jo’s visit was never announced, Seoul’s Yonhap news agency quoted Chinese sources as saying “his trip was seen as aimed at fine-tuning its talks stance with China.” A DPRK press report issued after Jo’s departure reported that “Jo Myong Rok and General Pak Jae Gyong and Colonel General Pak Sung Won of the KPA” had met with Chinese CMC Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong and CMC members General Xi Caihou and General Xiong Guangkai. “Jo also met and had a friendly talk with” PRC Defense Minister (and state councilor and CMC vice chairman) General Cao Gangchuan. The following day (April 22), General Jo’s party also conferred with Chinese President (and CMC Chairman) Jiang Zemin in a meeting also attended by Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, and Xiong Guangkai, as well as vice foreign minister Wang Yi.
The level of General Jo’s meetings, and the comprehensive array of Chinese military leaders with whom he met, was firm evidence that the General’s visit was intended to coordinate a bilateral position on the talks with the American negotiators who arrived in Beijing the same day that General Jo’s party departed. But the “Three Party Talks” abruptly ended 2 days later after only a few hours of meetings, when the North Korean representative reportedly “pulled aside Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly and in effect told him: ‘We’ve got nukes. We can’t dismantle them. It’s up to you whether we do a physical demonstration or transfer them.’”
Chinese negotiators evidently painted this shocking behavior on the part of the North Koreans as unexpected. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, said The New York Times, “did not seek to disguise the fact that the talks had broken down,” and the Times headline speculated that “North Korea May Be Angering Its Only Ally.” But this was hardly the case. While Chinese diplomats may have been hinting at some distress at the DPRK’s shenanigans, at no time did the foreign ministry ever utter a cross word about Pyongyang’s stance.
Four months later, in August 2003, on the eve of the first round of “Six Party Talks” in Beijing—this time including representatives from South Korea, Japan and Russia, supposedly to act as witnesses to North Korea’s antics and thereby to moderate them—the same routine played out. On August 17, China announced that General Xu Caihou, would make a quick visit to Pyongyang—no date mentioned.
The following day, the delegation arrived—and met with the same cast of characters who had visited Beijing in April. The Chinese delegation left Pyongyang on August 23 “after winding up its 5-day visit.”
On August 27, the first session of “Six Party Talks” began in Beijing. In that session, the North Koreans continued to vituperate their threats and insults, saving the most pointed jibes for the hapless Russian deputy foreign minister to whom the North Korean delegate referred by name as a “liar” and a “lap dog” of the Americans. Moreover, the North Koreans refused to budge from their insistence on the right to develop and maintain a nuclear arsenal. Even Russia’s normally sympathetic Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov was said to have shaken his head in dismay and mutter, “there go 55 years of history.” The Russian remained noncommittal in public and would only “suggest” in private “that the North Koreans had not been listening to Mr. Kelly’s presentation.” The session ended acrimoniously but was nonetheless painted as “a good beginning” by the State Department.
China, however, remained firmly in North Korea’s corner. The weekend after the talks, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that “the main problem we are facing” was not North Korean histrionics, but “the American policy towards [the] DPRK.” This, after the vice minister was described by all present at the six-party talks—in an unmistakable incidence of mass hallucination—as “visibly angered” by the North Korean delegates’ outbursts.
Again, the PLA and its North Korean counterparts had engaged in lengthy talks immediately prior to multiparty nuclear talks in Beijing—talks that were marred by North Korean bombast and insults. Meanwhile, as Chinese diplomats evinced frustration with the North Koreans during the closed negotiation session, in public they blamed the United States for the impasse.
There were no press reports of similar PLA-KPA coordination in anticipation of subsequent rounds of “Six Party Talks” in February or June 2004, or in July, September, or November 2005, but it is likely that they occurred. At the end of October 2005, Chinese CMC Chairman Hu Jintao visited North Korea and met DPRK Leader Kim Jong Il. Ten days later, the “first session of the fifth round of the Six Party Talks” began in Beijing and, again, ended with no progress. It is apparent that Chinese leaders, especially its military commanders, were in close contact with their North Korean counterparts immediately prior to each round of nuclear negotiations, and it is therefore highly unlikely that the Chinese were surprised by anything that the North Koreans did at those sessions.

Fortifying the Sino-Korean Border.

Close coordination of diplomatic negotiating positions, however, was probably the least concern of the PLA’s Korea strategists. When the North Korean nuclear crisis erupted again in October 2002, China was left as the only world power with any sway over North Korea. Over 88 percent of all North Korean oil comes from China (the rest comes in aid from the West) as does more than 90 percent of North Korea’s non-aid food imports.
In the 8 years since 1994, North Korea’s economic condition had not improved, and pressures along the Sino-Korean border had steadily increased. By August 2003, economic and social tensions in Manchuria from the flood of North Korean migrants—and lawless KPA soldiers—had grown so bad that the imminent deployment of 150,000 regular PLA soldiers had become common knowledge in Hong Kong. Hong Kong press reports said the PLA was replacing People’s Armed Police (PAP) border troops in an effort to bring under control a Korean crime wave on the border. The deployments were confirmed indirectly by the Chinese foreign ministry, which said the new troop dispositions were meant to streamline administration of the border and was “a normal adjustment carried out after many years of preparation by the relevant parties.”
Mysteriously, for 2 weeks in July 2004, the PLA conducted river-crossing maneuvers complete with floating bridges on the Yalu River near the major Korean border city of Sinuiju. Reportedly, the drills involved placing 10 floating bridges out to the middle of the Yalu, but not beyond. One observer told a Japanese newspaper that “we witnessed a few hundred of soldiers, but considering the fact that there were about 100 tents that can accommodate up to 10 soldiers each pitched near the river; I guess there were a total of 1,000 soldiers participating in the training.”
While the PLA was conducting precautionary maneuvers along the Yalu River border, the CCP was still trying to assuage North Korea’s political sensitivities. In July 2004, when a Chinese scholar published a rather intemperate policy blast at North Korea—charging “Dear Leader” Kim with starving his people, and commenting favorably on President Bush’s antipathy toward the DPRK regime, the CCP propaganda department not only expunged the offending work from the internet, but also recalled all print issues of the offending publication, Strategy & Management, and shut down the publication altogether.
One Hong Kong magazine reported that one of the first things Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao did upon ascending to the Chairmanship of the CMC was to issue a document declaring that “although North Korea has suffered temporary economic difficulties, in politics it has been consistently correct.”
The CCP Politburo Standing Committee’s propaganda czar, Li Changchun, then visited Pyongyang on September 24, and repeated the encomium of a decade earlier:

[Li Changchun] said all nations and all peoples, benefit from this nation’s [the DPRK’s] practical choices and determination of its own road to development, and this is advantageous to the formation of all manner of characteristic theories and policy lines of social development, and advantageous to the realization of the people’s wealth and happiness, to the embodiment of the multi-polar world, and also is fundamentally beneficial to the protection of regional stability and world peace. He expressed that China will continue to support North Korea’s party and people in their insistence on the socialist road to development, and support the North Korean comrades in their exploration for development models that are suitable to this nation’s [DPRK’s] actual situation, and support the Korean side’s calls for Juche and peaceful unification, and support the positive force that North Korea has put forth in improving the international environment. (Emphasis added)

Sympathetic as the CCP party-hacks may have been to North Korea’s “development model,” the PLA was keeping its powder dry. In October 2004, the PLA deployed an additional 10,000 regular soldiers to reinforce another 20,000 troops in China’s Tumen River border area in a move that reportedly startled Western intelligence agencies. A Japanese newspaper said the move was intended to prevent North Korean soldiers from crossing the border. The troops apparently needed extra assistance from police dogs because the following week, there was a report that every police dog unit in North Korea had been deployed away from the Demilitarized Zone and transferred up to the Sino-Korean border to stem the flow of Korean migrants—and the PLA committed to providing the necessary supplies of dog food. The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed the troop movements but insisted the troops were sent to the border to help with a “communication engineering project.”
For a change, the foreign ministry spokesman was stating the simple truth. According to a Shenyang MR logistics department officer, “the communications infrastructure along the Chinese-Korean border is very advanced.” The system includes electronic monitoring technology to assist border patrols. Said the Shenyang MR officer, “every single road that is monitored by a surveillance camera can be viewed by the CMC back in Beijing.” Another Chinese periodical confirmed the deployments in 2005, noting that then-Chinese CMC Chairman Jiang Zemin personally approved funds for the construction and renovation of over 100 military base camps along the Korean border.
The PLA then discovered that elaborate electronic surveillance systems are no substitute for manpower. Five armed North Korean bandits crossed the Yalu river at Guangping in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture on October 16, 2005, an area within the responsibility of the Jilin Provincial Military District, and killed a 19-year-old PLA soldier in a nighttime gunbattle. The doomed soldier, four other troopers, and a PLA officer had gotten the Chinese equivalent of a “911” call and had hustled out to a remote vacation villa in the border town of Guangping to rescue several tourists and hotel workers who were being held hostage by the bandits. The bandits escaped into nearby woods and presumably slipped back across the border into North Korea.
The inescapable impression is that the PLA views the PRC-DPRK border region as porous and lawless. It is not unexpected, then, that the PLA gives every appearance of planning to do something about it.

Peace Mission 2005: The Korea Scenario.

On the surface, any joint China-Russia military exercise that begins in Vladivostok with a “strategic planning” exercise, and then continues on with separate joint amphibious landing and airborne demonstrations on China’s Shandong peninsula has to raise suspicions that the two nations are practicing for a North Korea contingency. China actually billed Peace Mission 2005 (PM2005), which was held between August 18-25, 2005, as a simulated mission “to aid a third state where law and order has broken down because of terrorist violence” according to The Washington Post. The Associated Press described “a fictional scenario” where Russia and China “have been given a UN mandate to stabilize a country plunged into violence by ethnic strife.”
Indeed, terrorism is a major consideration for China, Russia and their “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” (SCO) allies, all of whom were invited to send military intelligence officials to the drills—as were SCO observer nations India, Pakistan, and Iran. The Peace Mission 2005 operation plan centered on a coordinated Russian seaborne and airborne landing near a coastal town, “in advance of an inland offensive coordinated with the Chinese military.”
Preliminary reporting from Western media set the China-Russia PM2005 military drill in the context of “mutual unease at U.S. power and a fear of Islamic extremism in Central Asia,” and Russia’s particular concerns about “the United States’ expanding military presence in oil-rich Central Asia.” The Chinese Ministry of National Defense statement of August 1, 2005, declared that the exercises were meant to “strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly striking international terrorism, extremism and separatism.” But it was clear from the beginning that Moscow did not want anything to do with China’s designs on “separatist Taiwan” and insisted against Chinese pressure that the plans take place in Central Asia—or some place far away from Taiwan.
According to one Japanese magazine, PM2005 was entirely China’s idea —and was entirely paid for by Beijing. Beijing was paying for the show, so a compromise was reached—Vladivostok and Shandong. While China no doubt hoped that the exercise would send a signal to the United States that China was determined to take Taiwan whatever the cost, there was little in Peace Mission 2005 that had “Taiwan” written on it. The naval staging was unopposed, the beach landings met minimal opposition—“62 minutes of pitched battle in the pouring rain” according to Xinhua. The Russian paratroop drops were to link up with an “inland offensive”—apparently by Chinese troops coming in force from another direction.
And there was certainly nothing in it relevant at all to “Central Asia.” Indeed, the Russians were reported to have asked to hold the maneuvers in China’s western deserts, bordering on potential Central Asian havens for real terrorists and extremists. PM2005’s centerpiece, however, was PRC-Russian naval coordination of a beach landing and a near-shore airdrop. There are, after all, no beaches and no shorelines in Central Asia.
On the contrary, the more one looks at PM2005, the more it looks like it was a very serious effort to plan for the collapse of North Korea. On August 19, the PRC-controlled Wen Wei Po newspaper in Hong Kong speculated that the Shandong site indicated that China and Russia were preparing for problems with North Korea—as well as Taiwan. From its Korean War experiences, the Chinese PLA is all too aware of the problems of penetrating the mountainous border areas between China and the DPRK in an effort to occupy the political centers in and around Pyongyang. It makes far more sense to stage beach landings on North Korea’s western shores somewhere on the 50 miles of flat shorelines north of Nampo port and move smartly inland 20 miles to Pyongyang.
China’s military planners easily can imagine North Korea’s economy in full collapse, and Chinese border troops can estimate that the existing stream of North Korean refugees would turn into a full-fledged human-tsunami. But in a state of collapse, the Chinese army cannot assume that the DPRK leadership or the army will simply disappear. Nor can the PLA assume that the South Koreans will not want a piece of the action—and this concern may have inspired the PLA Navy to establish a “military hot line” with South Korea in April 2005.
They understand all too well that the sole function of the DPRK’s military leadership is “the preservation of the memory of the leader” (i.e., Kim Il Sung) at the absolute core of the “Kimilsung Constitution.” This duty will be carried on “generation after generation.” As such, the DPRK’s guiding ideology of “Army First” (Songun)—which replaced “Self Reliance” (Juche) as the supreme light of North Korean wisdom—places the “Army above the workers and peasants”; and the Army is the “supreme organ of state power” (not the Korean Workers’ Party, much less the DPRK government). Any Chinese military planners who contemplate offensive operations inside the DPRK will have to deal with the KPA one way or another. It will likely be a tad tricky to persuade North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il and his army “whose sole mission is to defend the headquarters of the revolution headed by Kim Jong Il at the cost of their lives,” to quietly lay down their arms.
PM2005 is a plausible indicator that the Chinese military is planning for a possible invasion and occupation of North Korea—perhaps even under the auspices of the UN and at least in nominal partnership with the Russian Federation. And China would, of course, impose a pro-China civil government in Pyongyang that will be committed wholeheartedly to the eventual “unification” of the Korean Peninsula at some point in the coming millennium, or shortly thereafter. After all, North Korea (or Gaogouli) has been Chinese territory more often than not in the past two millennia, so what real difference would another century or two make?
The operational aspects of PM2005 seem also designed to keep the United States at an arms-length when such an occupation takes place. Chinese and Russian naval operations included, said The Washington Post, “strategic long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, which will fire cruise missiles at targets on the surface of the sea.” There was also a test firing from the Russian destroyer Burny of a Russian-made Moskit supersonic anti-ship cruise missile that is designed to keep U.S. carriers and other surface combatants away, but there was only one reported anti-submarine drill and no shipboard air defense drills.

Mystery Boats, Mystery Planes.

Although the very peculiar relationship between the Chinese and North Korean militaries rarely comes out into view, a few anecdotes will give a flavor of how close they are. For example, during the evening of December 22, 2001, three suspicious maritime vessels—which looked for all the world like Chinese fishing boats—were challenged by a Japanese Coast Guard cutter in the East China Sea some 390 km west of the island of Amami-Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture. As the Japanese cutter approached the flotilla, it came under automatic weapons and anti-tank missile fire from one of the ships. When one of the “fishing boats” launched a missile in its direction, the Japanese cutter responded with a withering volley which apparently disabled the ship. But rather than let the Japanese authorities board the boat, its crew scuttled the vessel and it quickly sank—with all hands. The other two ships fled the scene under very high speed.
The Japanese Coast Guard had challenged the boats because their peculiar behavior led the Japanese to suspect they were North Korean spycraft. Their suspicions were confirmed when underwater cameras revealed that the craft’s fishing bridge, which had separated from the hull and lay in the seabed several meters away, was a dummy structure. Video of the remains of the sunken ship’s crew in 90 meters of water also indicated that at least some of the crew had committed suicide, and the rest had been shot with small arms.
Despite considerable diplomatic pressure from China (which insisted that the sunken ship was in Chinese waters), Japanese salvage ships eventually brought the spyvessel to the surface, and put it on display at the Museum of Maritime Science in Tokyo. The mystery boat may have looked like a fishing vessel, but it had 4,000 horsepower engines and a top speed of 30 knots. It also had wide doors in the stern, which could permit smaller vessels to launch secretly, no doubt in order to conduct clandestine operations. And the vessel carried a hefty arsenal of weaponry including rocket launchers, an 82mm bazooka, an antiaircraft machine gun, and two surface-to-air missiles.
But the most curious aspect of the incident was a report in Tokyo’s respected Asahi Shimbun newspaper that quoted several government officials as saying that Tokyo has obtained U.S. satellite photos showing a vessel looking identical to the alleged spy ship calling at a Chinese military port some 100 km south of Shanghai and 130 km northwest of the spot where it sank on December 22. Japanese officials cited by Asahi believed the ship at the Chinese naval berth was either the one that was sunk or a very similar one that left North Korea around the same time. Japanese Defense Agency Director General Gen Nakatani told a separate news conference, “I cannot comment on details of information we receive from the U.S. military. I cannot say whether such information has been provided to us.” In contemplating this incident, American and Japanese policymakers must have been left scratching their respective heads, “Why on earth is the Chinese navy providing basing for North Korean special operations vessels?”
Consider another example. In July 2002, U.S. intelligence-collectors had happened upon a Pakistani military C-130 transport plane that had flown through Chinese airspace carrying a cargo from Pakistan’s top-secret nuclear weapons base, the Khan Research Laboratory. The C-130’s cargo was probably $75 million worth of equipment relating to a uranium enrichment centrifuge. It landed at a Chinese military base to refuel, and proceeded on to North Korea. The aircraft returned to Pakistan carrying a North Korean Nodong ballistic missile, again, via a refueling stop at a Chinese military base. The flights were only the latest in a series of secret Pakistani C-130 missions to North Korea that dated back at least to 1998.
While the North Korean military seems to have a special relationship with its counterparts in Chinese military intelligence, there is certainly much skepticism about the value of keeping company with the North Koreans among China’s nonintelligence military analysts.
Just what exactly the PLA thinks about North Korea is a mystery to outside observers. This is partially due to the secretive nature of PLA strategic thought, partially to the less-than-monolithic composition of PLA strategists, but mostly due to conflicting evidence in the meager historic record. Senior Colonel Shen Weilie’s theories about the Korean Peninsula as a corridor for aggression against China notwithstanding, the way the PLA acts on the Korean border reflects a PLA consensus that North Korea is a strategic conundrum all its own—and, when the time comes, the PLA will be fully prepared to deal with it by force.



  . The dialogue that follows is based on Ye Yumeng, Hei Xue, Chubing Chaoxian Jishi [Black Snow, A True Account of Entry Into the Korean War], Beijing: Zuozhe Chubanshe [Authors’ Publishers], 1988, pp. 46-47. Whether Mr. Ye based this on a transcript of the meeting that somehow picked up the side conversation, or reviewed Gao Gang’s confession file (following his purge and death in 1954) or embellished existing files with fictional dialogue is unclear. I suspect that the meeting was recorded via several microphones around the conference table in order to catch incriminating comments.


. Zhang Xi, “Peng Dehuai Shou Ming Shuai Shi, Kang Mei Yuan Chaode Qianwian Houhou” [“Peng Dehuai Appointed to Lead the Troops, Background for the Korean War”], in Zhonggong Dangshi Ziliao [CCP Party History Materials] Issue 31, Beijing: Zhonggong Dangshi Ziliao Chubanshe, 1989, p. 126.

. Nie Rongzhen, Inside the Red Star, the Memoirs of Marshal Nie Rongzhen, Beijing: New World Press, 1988, p. 636. This is a fairly accurate English translation of Nie Rongzhen Huiyi Lu, published in 1986.

. See, for example, Shen Zonghong, ed., Zhongguo Renmin Zhiyuanjun Kang Mei Yuan Chao Zhanshi [The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army’s Military History of the War against the United States and in aid of North Korea], Beijing: Junshi Kexue Chubanshe [Military Science Publishers], 2nd ed., December 1990; pp. 3-9. Hong Xuezhi, Kang Mei Yuan Chao Zhanzheng Huiyi [A Memoir of the Korean War], Beijing: Jiefangjun Wenyi Chubanshe [People’s Liberation Army Literary Publishers], November 1990, p. 10.

. Zhang Xi, pp. 133-134.

. Peng Dehuai, Peng Dehuai Zishu [Peng Dehuai’s Confession], Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, December 1981, p. 258. Also see Nie Rongzhen, p. 636.

. Cold War International History Project [CIHP] Bulletin Issues 6-7, Winter 1995/1996, pp. 114-115 (with photocopy of the original telegram in Russian).

. See Shen Zhihua, “The Discrepancy between the Russian and Chinese versions of Mao’s 2 October 1950 message to Stalin on Chinese entry into the Korean War: A Chinese Scholar’s reply” in CIHP Bulletin Issues 8-9, 1996/1997, pp. 237-242.

. The entire State Department volume entitled North Korea: A Case Study in the Techniques of Takeover, Publication 7118, Far Eastern Series 103, released in January 1961 by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, was based on these archives and on debriefs of captured Korean People’s Army officers.

. Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. II, The Roaring of the Cataract 1947-1950, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 351-376. See also Chen Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War, The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 109-111.

. Ibid.

. Cumings, p. 365.

. A text of the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is found in Sukhee Han, “Alliance Fatigue amid Asymmetrical Interdependence: Sino-North Korean relations in Flux,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 177-179.

. Ibid.

. As recently as September 2003, some Chinese scholars had published recommendations that China unilaterally declare Article VII void and renegotiate the terms of the alliance. See Shen Jiru, “Weihu Dongbeiya Anquande Dangwushiji—Zhizhi Chaohe Wentishangde Weixianboyi” [“An Urgent Mission to Maintain Security in Northeast Asia—Control Risk from North Korean Brinkmanship”], in Shijie Jinji yu Zhengzhi [World Economy and Politics], No. 9, 2003, pp.53-58, at,9/shenjiru.pdf.

. See Tan Qixiang, ed., Zhongguo Lishi Ditu Ji [Cartographic Compendium of Chinese History], Beijing: Cartographic Publishing House, 1985-89, Vols 2-10. Tan Qixiang’s work is considered the authoritative Chinese historical work on China’s boundaries with its Asian neighbors. See Vol. 2, pp. 27-28; Western Han Dynasty (from 221 BCE to about 8 CE). Youzhou is shown as China Proper stretching from near present-day Beijing in the west across the Liaodong Peninsula to cover over half the Korean Peninsula in the east. Vol 2, pp. 61-62, shows Eastern Han China (to 220 CE) as comprising Yuelang Jun which covered the Western half of the North Korea, the Eastern half occupied by a suzerain state, Gaogouli. Vol. 3, pp. 13-14, shows the Chinese Kingdom of Wei (one of the Three Kingdoms) retaking the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Vol 3, pp. 41-42, shows the Western Jin dynastic borders encompassing the same territory. Vol. 4, pp. 3-4, depicts Gaogouli as a Chinese kingdom during the Eastern Jin and the 16 Kingdoms period, co-equal with the Former Qin, eastern Jin and several other smaller principalities. By the Northern Dynasty period (ending 464 CE), Gaogouli is delineated as a kingdom separate from China. Vol. 5, pp. 32-33; at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (606 CE), Gaogouli is once again incorporated into metropolitan China’s “Marches North of the River,” Hebeidao. Vol. 5, pp. 36-37, show the post-An Lushan rebellion (741 CE) Tang Dynasty Korean Peninsula south of present-day Pyongyang as a non-Chinese realm of Xinluo, while Korea from Pyongyang north is divided between Metropolitan China’s Qidan, and a suzerain Chinese kingdom of Bohai. This demarcation persists in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (the Tenth Century CE), Vol. 5, pp. 78-79. The non-Chinese kingdom of Gaoli then pushes north to the mouth of the Yalu River by Liao-Northern Song Dynasties, with the rest of Korea north and east of the Yalu’s mouth subsumed into the Nyuzhi principality (Vol. 6, pp. 8-9). This swath of Korea becomes part of the “East Capital Route (Dongjinglu) in China’s Jin Dynasty (according to a Chinese map of 1134 CE). After that period, Korea was occupied by the Mongolian armies of Chinggiz Khan, and reoccupied by Chinese at the end of the Mongols’ Yuan Dynasty. For a description of the controversy see James Brooke, “China Fears Once and Future Kingdom,” The New York Times, August 25, 2004, at

. (No author cited), “Bi Tan Gaogouli, Liang Hanguo Wangzhan Guanbi” [Prevent Discussion of Koguryo, Two Korean Websites Shut Down], China Times, Taipei, August 30, 2004. For Jia’s visit to Seoul see Agence France Presse report, “China Drops Claims to Ancient Korean Kingdom” carried in the Taipei Times, August 25, 2004, p. 5, at

. (No author cited), “Why Is North Korea Silent on Koguryo?” The Chosun Ilbo, Seoul, August 8, 2004, at

. (No author cited), “Pyongyang Says Koguryo Kingdom is Model for Unified Korea,” Yonhap News Agency, Seoul, September 23, 2004, at This article appeared during the visit of CCP Politburo member Li Changchun to Pyongyang.

. Shen Weilie and Lu Junyuan, eds., Zhongguo Guojia Anquan Dili [China’s National Security Geography], Beijing: Shishi Chubanshe [Contemporary Affairs Publishers], September 2001, page 386. (Hereafter ZGAD). Although labeled “INTERNAL PUBLICATION” [Neibu Faxing], the author purchased his copy at the main Shanghai Xinhua Bookstore in October 2001.

. Ibid.

. Ibid, p. 402.

. Lu Zhongwei, ed., Guoji Zhanlue yu Anquan Xingshi Pinggu 2002/2003 [International Strategic and Security Review 2002/2003], Zhongguo Xiandai Guoji Guanxi Yanjiusuo [CICIR], pp. 160-162.

. Tsinghua University international studies professor Chu Shulong says out loud that the Chinese government is not in a hurry to see a unified Korea, “it brings up the question of our Korean minority and how they will react if Korea is one again.” See Jehangir S. Pocha, “Separated by River and Reform—One Country Busy Catching Fish, Another Enjoys the View,” Calcutta, The Telegraph, November 29, 2005, at My personal notes say Chu Shulong, unlike many other Chinese foreign affairs exports, served in the military and continues to have very close ties with a wide range of military personnel. He joined the PLA Air Force when he was still in his teens and came up through the ranks to become a teacher at an air force academic institute. The PLA air force sent him to graduate school in China, but he did not return to the military after getting a degree. Rather, he went to the China Institute for Contemporary International Affairs (CICIR).

. Memorandum dated June 25, 1993, in author’s personal files.

. Personal notes of a meeting on “Korean Outcomes and Major Power Interests: Implications for the United States” held under the auspices of the Office of the Secretary of Defense OSD/RSA/EAPR and the Defense Nuclear Agency on March 17, 1994.

. Memorandum dated July 2, 1993, in the author’s personal files.

. Personal notes of March 17, 1994.

. Memorandum dated June 13, 1993, in author’s personal files.

. “Hu Jintao’s Activities in DPRK Reported; Addresses Pyongyang Banquet,” Xinhua Domestic Service in Chinese 1408 GMT, July 28, 1993, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China (henceforth FBIS-CHI)-93-144.

. Donald Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997, p. 291.

. See “Greeting the 45th Founding Anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” an editorial in Renmin Ribao [People’s Daily], September 9, 1993, p. 1; at FBIS-CHI-93-175.

. Sin Yong-su, Envoy Denies PRC Warned DPRK on Negotiations, Kyonghyang Sinmun, Seoul, June 9, 1994, p. 1; at FBIS-EAS-94-111.

. Yu Yong-ku, “Significance of Choe Kwang Visit to PRC Viewed,” transcribed from Chungang Ilbo, Seoul, June 7, 1997, at FBIS-EAS-94-109.

. “DPRK Military Delegates’ PRC Visit Reported,” Pyongyang Korean Central Broadcasting Network, June 8, 1994, at FBIS-EAS-94-111.

. Zhang Rongdian, “Jiang Zemin Meets DPRK Military Delegation,” transcribed from Xinhua, Beijing, June 7, 1994, at FBIS-CHI-94-110. “Xinhua Cited on PRC, DPRK High-Level Meeting,” transcribed from Yonhap, Seoul, June 8, 1994, at FBIS-CHI-94-110.

. Memorandum dated June 21, 1994, in author’s personal files.

. Kim Song-yong, “Daily Reports PRC To Send 85,000 Troops If War Breaks Out,” Transcribed from Choson Ilbo, Seoul, June 12, 1994, p. 1, at FBIS-CHI-94-113.

. Ibid.

. Jen Hui-wen “Beijing Political Situation: Inside Story About China Briefing DPRK on How To Act,” transcribed from Hsin Pao, Hong Kong, June 24, 1994, p. 25, at FBIS-CHI-94-122.

. Ibid.

. (No author cited), “First vice-chairman of DPRK NDC to visit China,” KCNA, April 19, 2003, at

. (No author cited), “North Korea Says It’s Ready For Talks,” The Taipei Times, April 20, 2003, p. 1 (citing Reuters News Agency), at

. “Jo Myong Rok’s sojourn in Beijing,” KCNA, April 23, 2003, at

. “Chinese President meets Jo Myong Rok,” KCNA, April 24, 2003, at

. Glenn Kessler, “N. Korea Claims to Have Nuclear Weapons, US Officials Say,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2003, p. A-01.

. Joseph Kahn, “North Korea May Be Angering Its Only Ally,” The New York Times, April 26, 2003, p. A-01, at

. “High-level Military Delegation of China to Visit DPRK,” KCNA at; “High-level Military Delegation of China Arrives,” KCNA, at; “Jo Myong Rok Meets Chinese Military Delegation,” KCNA, at; “Chinese Military Delegation Winds Up Its Visit to DPRK,” KCNA at

. Private conversation with U.S. government officials. See the Author’s Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1717, “Time for Washington to Take a Realistic Look at China Policy” at

. Ibid.

. David E. Sanger, “U.S. Said to Shift Approach in Talks with North Korea,” The New York Times, September 5, 2003; p. A-03.

. Joseph Kahn, “Chinese Aide Says U.S. Is Obstacle in Korean Talks,” The New York Times, September 2, 2003, at

. The July-August “fourth round” of talks was continued for a “second session” ending September 19, 2005. The “Statement of Principles” that emerged on September 19 was, at best, a restatement of the “Agreed Framework” of 1994, and could hardly be called “progress.” See John Tkacik, “Agreed Framework, Part Deux,” Hong Kong, Far Eastern Economic Review, September 2005 (published September 23, 2005), pp. 21-24, at

. Statistics on North Korean trade are spotty at best, nonexistent at worst. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly told a U.S. Senate hearing on September 11, 2003, that “China is the supplier of last resort to North Korea of fuel, and I would say food as well. Numbers of perhaps some $500 million a year turn up with some regularity. It’s not clear how much of that is paid for by the North Koreans.” See “U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) Holds Hearing on Relations with China,” September 11, 2003, Verbatim Transcript by Federal Document Clearing House. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that North Korea agricultural imports in 2003 were about U.S.$284 million (see FAO webpage at See also Nicholas Eberstadt, “Statistical Blackouts in North Korea: Trade Figures Uncovered,” Beyond Transition, World Bank, Washington, DC, March-April 1998, at

. Philip P. Pan, “China Deploys Troops on N. Korea Border,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2003; p. A13. See also Christopher Bodeen, “China Assigns Army to Guard Korean Border,” The Associated Press, September 15, 2003.

. Won-Jae Park, “People’s Liberation Army Trains River Crossing at Aprok River,” Seoul Donga Ilbo in English, August 8, 2004, at

. The article apparently appeared in July, but was not noticed until mid-August. See Wang Zhongwen, “Yi Xin Shijiao Shenshi Chaoxian Wenti yu Dongbeiya Xingshi” [“Examining the DPRK Issue and Northeast Asian Situation from a New Viewpoint”], Beijing Zhanlue Yu Guanli [Strategy and Management], No. 4, July/August, pp. 92-94, transcribed by FBIS at CPP20040825000196. For a full description of the incident, see John J Tkacik, Jr., “China’s ‘S&M’ journal Goes Too Far on Korea,” The Asia Times, Bangkok, September 2, 2004, at

. Yu Senxue, “Hu Jintao Jiuzhi Jianghua Shaqi Tengteng” [“Hu Jintao’s Inauguration Speech Filled With Sound and Fury”], Hong Kong Kaifang, No. 216, December 2004, p. 13.

. Luo Hui, “Jin Richeng hui Li Changchun: Chaozhong Renmin Chuantong Youyi Bu Ke Po” [“Kim Jong Il Sees Li Changchun: The Traditional Friendship Between the Peoples of the DPRK and China Is Unbreakable”], Xinhua, September 12, 2004, at

. (No author) “Zhong-Chao Bianjing Zhujunquan, Fang Jumin Tiaotou” [“PRC-North Korea Border Police Dogs Intended to Stem Flow of Migrants], Taipei China Times, October 18, 2004. (Cites Seoul Chosun Ilbo.)

. Kang Chan-ho, Ser Myo-ja, “Chinese Reinforce Border Near North,” Seoul Joongang Daily, October 13, 2004, at

. (No author), “Han, Mian Liang Bianjing Gai you Junfang Zhushou, Jieti Wujing chengdan Fangwu, Bianjing Tuxiang ke zhijie da Beijing” [“Borders with Korea, Myanmar Will Now Be Guarded By Military, Replacing Armed Police and Assuming Defense Duties, Border Images Can Be Viewed Directly From Beijing], New York, World Journal, November 22, 2005. Report cites “the latest issue of Liaowang Eastern Weekly, a subsidiary of Xinhua.”

. Ibid.

. “Zhong-Han Bianjing Bao Qiangzhan, Ren Xunxhi” [“Gunfight at the China-North Korea Border, Chinese PLA Soldier Killed In Action”], New York World Journal, December 13, 2005, p. A-08. Cites Changsha Wanbao.

. Peter Finn, “Chinese, Russian Militaries to Hold First Joint Drills; Alliance May Extend to Arms Sales,” The Washington Post, August 15, 2005; p. A10, at

. Burt Herman, “Chinese-Russian Military Exercises Begin,” The Associated Press, August 19, 2005.

. (No author cited), “Assault Landing Requested by China; Display of its Capability in Dealing With Taiwan?” Transcribed by FBIS, Tokyo Kyodo Clue II (Internet Version) August 18, 2005, at FBIS JPP20050818000018.

. (No author cited) “E Bao: Ejun Yanxi, Zhongguo Maidan” [“Russian Paper: China Foots Bill for Russian Military Exercise”], Taipei China Times Internet Edition, August 19, 2005.

. cited in FBIS Analysis: PRC Media On Sino-Russian Military Exercise FEA20050831007588—FBIS Feature—1304 GMT August 31, 2005.

. (No author), “Huwei Huang Hai, Zhong Han She Junshi Rexian, ‘Chaoxian Ribao’ beilou, Nanhan yu Dalu jiu haijun hezuo da gongshi, you zhu Hainan Zhengqiu, fangfan tufaxing chongtu” [Protect the Yellow Sea, PRC-ROK Establish Military Hot Line; Chosun Ilbo Eeveals South Korea and Mainland Reach Consensus on Naval Cooperation, To Aid in Sea Emergencies and Rescue, Guard Against Sudden Confrontations], New York World Journal, April 17, 2005, p. A-08.

. North Korea is not governed by a “Korean Constitution” but a “Kimilsung Constitution.” See “Kim Il Sung Constitution,” Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang, December 26, 2005, at This document officially is praised as follows: “The world history of constitution has not known such constitution as one of the DPRK which is run through with the revolutionary outlook on the leader to perpetuate the memory of the leader.”

. “National Meeting Marks 14th Anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s Assumption of Office as KPA Supreme Commander,” KCNA in English, December 23, 2005, Pyongyang, at

. In addition to pacifying an occupied North Korea, China, at least, may also want to know where North Korea’s government archives are. Who knows what secrets may fall into the wrong hands if North Korea is suddenly absorbed by South Korea after an economic collapse? See “DPRK, China Cooperate in Documentary Field,” Korean Central News Agency, August 13, 2005, at

. David Ibison, “Pyongyang’s spy ship reveals a dark secret,” Financial Times, May 28, 2003, p. 3. See also (No author), “U.S. Photos Show Mystery Ship Look-Alike,” Japan Times, March 2, 2002, sourcing Asahi Shimbun, p. 1; “Japan Ends Ship Probe,” Japan Times, March 2, 2002 (sourcing Kyodo News Agency).

. David E. Sanger, “In North Korea and Pakistan, Deep Roots of Nuclear Barter,” The New York Times, November 24, 2002, p. A-01. Danny Gittings, “Battling the Bribers,” Asian Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2002, p. 18. William C. Triplett II, “Road to Pyongyang through Beijing?” The Washington Times, February 21, 2003, p. A18. On September 11, 2003, Senator Feingold asked Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly “about North Korean planes flying through Chinese airspace or even making refueling stops in China when these planes may well be involved in proliferation activities. . . . have we raised this issue with the Chinese?” Kelly responded “Yes, sir, we have raised that issue with the Chinese. It would probably be best to brief you more completely on that particular topic in a closed hearing, sir.” See U.S. Senate Committee On Foreign Relations “Hearing On U.S.-China Relations, September 11, 2003.”

. Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi, “Death of N. Korean Woman Offers Clues to Pakistani Nuclear Deals,” The Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2004.



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