There is a distinct probability that, should war break out between the U.S. and North Korea, depending on who initiated the conflict, China may be forced to intervene militarily — not necessarily on the side of its problematic ally, but in defense of the country nevertheless. China fears three things from a North Korean collapse: 1) A flood of refugees from North Korea into its industrial northeast who do not speak Chinese and whose presence would overwhelm local resources; 2) A unified peninsula under a democratic government allied with a global competitor, the U.S.; and 3) Loss of faith in the Chinese communist governing system among the Chinese people, which would likely happen if North Korea were attacked by the U.S. first and Beijing did nothing to respond.
Another issue that concerns Beijing is who would take control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities — an issue that is vexing to U.S. military planners and another reason why war on the peninsula is a risky endeavor. For one, it’s tough to know where all of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities are located. The same goes for the North’s missiles; many are mobile and are parked in caves dug into the side of mountains and therefore out of view of reconnaissance satellites. Of the known nuclear sites, most are located near China’s border; if U.S. and South Korean troops were to approach them, that would mean they would have to cross the 38th parallel, which could also trigger a Chinese invasion.
There are many other issues concerning to China as well regarding a unified Korean peninsula under a democratic, U.S.-allied government. While the South Korean government has been planning for reunification for years, so, too, have the Chinese, but with far different objectives. Seoul envisions absorbing North Korea much like West Germany absorbed communist East Germany at the end of the Cold War, but that is not in Beijing’s interests at all.
Furthermore, off-the-record interviews with U.S. researchers and high-level Chinese military and government officials give the indication that China would have no choice but to intervene on some level should war break out. Beijing’s objective, most likely, would be to simply absorb North Korea itself and thus maintain its buffer with South Korea while framing its invasion as a humanitarian and stabilization mission. If North Korea started the war, China would signal to the U.S. its forces won’t engage American or South Korean troops, but will enter North Korea to secure China’s border.
Beyond that, any U.S.-initiated action will bring China in on Pyongyang’s side, however reluctantly. That concern is most likely one major reason why the Trump administration is currently leaning more on diplomacy than military action. But should Washington, Seoul, and Beijing work out an agreement ahead of time about what to do with North Korea should the regime fall, then it’s game-on.
Why it’s on our radar: Information in this article helps satisfy Priority Intelligence Requirement 2 and 3: What are the latest indicators of a U.S.-China conflict and what are the latest indicators of a U.S.-North Korea war? Each week in our Strategic Intelligence Summary, we gauge the likelihood and scope of conflict with Russia, China, North Korea, and in the Middle East, and track the latest developments in each region. Subscribe here to receive our premium intelligence products prepared by Intelligence and special operations veterans.