China's North Korea 'Contingency Plans' Unsurprising

Reports in the international media over the past few days that China has devised contingency plans for North Korea's possible collapse are wholly unsurprising. Although Beijing has denied drawing up such schemes, it would be very surprising if it has not prepared them. The news reports said that the plans were drawn up in the summer of 2013, but that must surely refer to revisions or updates to any contingency plan. North Korea has been regarded as being 'on the brink of collapse' since at least the mid-1990s, meaning that China would have started planning for this eventuality a long time ago.

The collapse of North Korea would bring huge security challenges to East Asia, owing to the country's large population of 24mn (many of which could become refugees in China or South Korea), impoverished economy, and concerns about the fate of the 1.1mn-strong military, which has considerable heavy weaponry, not to mention weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons). The challenges of stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq have already been colossal, although in its favour, North Korea is much more homogenous, and regional powers would arguably have a greater stake in the country's success.

South Korea and the US also have contingency plans for the North's collapse. However, it is highly unclear to what extent Seoul-Washington and Beijing are factoring in each other's plans, or whether they would co-operate in occupying the 'former' North Korea. China would be keen to maintain North Korea as a quasi-buffer state against the South, while the South worries that China could 'absorb' the North in some fashion, most probably in terms of preponderant politico-economic influence rather than through formal border changes.

Although there have been no signs that North Korea is at risk of imminent collapse, we warn that the opaque nature of the state means that major political change could come surprisingly quickly. This means that hypothetical 'contingency' plans could rapidly become reality. The chances are that China and South Korea (the latter backed by the US) would probably seek to carve out spheres of influence in the post-collapse North. A geopolitical struggle over the fate of North Korea would thus heighten regional tensions.