“China Should Send 30,000 Troops into North Korea” – a Chinese Response

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Nanjing: A few weeks ago, Foreign Policy Magazine published an opinion piece titled “China Should Send 30,000 Troops Into North Korea.”  In this article, Alton Frye, a presidential senior fellow emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that in order to prevent war on the Korean peninsula, it may be necessary to reassure Kim Jong Un that the United States will not invade. To do so, China should station 30,000 troops on the North Korean side of the 38th parallel to mirror American military support on the South Korean side. In response, Dr. Cai Jiahe, a former deputy director for Academic Affairs and professor of International Politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, sat down with the Observer to evaluate the plausibility of this assertion.

The following conversation has been translated from Chinese to English by the author.

What do you think of the assertion that China should send 30,000 troops into North Korea to help stabilize the Korean Peninsula? Do you think this would be mutually acceptable to the two nations?

Relations between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are very complicated. The two nations have a long-standing defensive agreement. Therefore, if North Korea is invaded by another nation, China has a legal obligation to provide assistance, including the provision of troops. Even though their current relationship has soured, this treaty is still in effect.

You can clearly see the deterioration in Sino-DPRK relations because China is strictly implementing U.N. sanctions, stopping a lot of aid to North Korea, and restricting the import of many North Korean goods. These actions reduce the flow of foreign capital to Pyongyang, and the Kim regime is very dissatisfied with Beijing’s policy shift.

Still, coolness in Sino-DPRK relations has been around for a long time, perhaps from the time that China established diplomatic relations with South Korea, or maybe even longer, since China’s reform and opening. Because of North Korea’s reluctance to open, the divide between China and North Korea’s domestic politics has continued to grow over time.

Therefore, it is impossible for China to dispatch soldiers to North Korea. North Korea is too suspicious of China. In addition, China would prefer to use diplomacy to move the issue into a more passive stage. For example, Beijing could facilitate negotiations over the Sino-DPRK alliance. The treaty has no set end date, but both sides can propose to continue or end it. China could suggest an amendment to the treaty and leverage North Korean denuclearization for continued Chinese allied protection.

Despite increasingly strict U.N. sanctions, there has been no meaningful impact on the North Korean nuclear program. It seems like Kim Jong Un is willing to sacrifice his people to preserve his nation. With this kind of mindset, do you still think that sanctions have any use?

I still think that sanctions have some effectiveness over North Korea. North Korea is suspicious of other countries. It is a dictatorship, so maybe it’s suspicious of all countries, but sanctions will eventually make Kim realize that it is impossible for him to continue on the path he’s going. In the past, the North Korean economy could still support military costs and the costs of maintaining his policies. However, when the North Korean economy truly fails, he won’t be able to support these things anymore. This will eventually force him to find a different path.

Using diplomacy has a much smaller price for Kim than using military force. If he uses military force, there’s no way he could topple the United States or South Korea, so the cost for him is too high. Therefore, Kim has no choice but to return to the negotiating table.

Before, Kim used to have a little space to navigate between the big powers, but now, due to closer Sino-U.S. cooperation, he has lost this wiggle room. While Russia is assisting North Korea, it can’t really provide much aid since its own economy is struggling. Therefore, great powers need to continue working together while we wait for sanctions to take effect. We need patience because sanctions won’t succeed all at once.

Sarah Heywood is a staff writer at the Nanjing Bureau. She is a HNC Certificate/SAIS M.A. student currently completing her Certificate at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center before starting at SAIS DC next fall.  

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