China Could Be Forced To Annex North Korea.
Tensions between the Koreas, China, and the U.S. have risen since a series of nuclear tests performed by North Korea in 2016-2017, before and after the Trump election. One creative solution that has been floated is that China would annex North Korea, perhaps even with North Korean consent. Northeast China already has a large Korean population, and North Korea could be seen as a logical extension. China also wants to prevent chaos from breaking out in North Korea, which would inevitably spillover to China in the form of an upset Korean population or millions of North Korean refugees. A full-scale U.S. intervention in North Korea would upset China, which does not want the U.S. military so close to home. In my opinion, a Chinese annexation of North Korea is not just a possibility, but even a likely outcome.
Why Annexation Makes Sense For China
The North Korean regime is unsustainable. The totalitarian structure of North Korea, harsher than in any other country, makes an orderly transition from the Kim regime to something else unlikely. Most of the population survives by getting government rations. Many North Koreans are indoctrinated to think that the Kims are near-gods and that outside countries are worse off than North Korea. Besides the Kim regime, there is no other organization in the country that could accomplish anything – no political parties, no church, no unions. If the government were to collapse or be ‘taken out’ by a foreign force (referred to as regime-decapitation), then thousands of Koreans might die from starvation and millions would flee to China and South Korea. China will want to prevent disorder in North Korea and the refugees that would come to China as a result.
Being There First
Although China may tolerate a South Korean occupation of the north, it is very unlikely that South Korea would try to occupy North Korea by itself. South Korea officially pursues reunification, but it does not have the resources to seize control of a chaotic north or to rehabilitate the country. The two Koreas have already diverged much more than east and west Germany ever had. This leaves only the U.S. and China as the two forces who could occupy North Korea.
The nuclear weapons that North Korea has developed may provoke the U.S. to attack North Korea. A regime-decapitation might not be enough for the U.S. They could decide to invade in order to secure the nuclear weapons in the country. A full-scale military invasion by the U.S. of North Korea would upset China, which does not want the U.S. military acting so close to home and which does not want a U.S.-friendly regime to be installed in North Korea. China wants to dominate its surroundings, see South China sea map.
If the U.S. does invade, it will do so from the east and south of Korea. China might immediately invade too, but from the north and west. If the U.S. forces don’t immediately retreat, the U.S. and Chinese forces would meet each other somewhere in the middle of North Korea. If this does not lead to a China-U.S. war, it may lead to a divided country, similar to allied west Germany and USSR east Germany after WWII. For China to annex North Korea before the U.S. does would reduce the likelihood of the U.S. military acting in the pacific region.
Controlling The Situation
China will want to avoid a collapsed state or U.S. military presence on its border. The current northeast of China is already largely ethnically Korean, culturally and linguistically Korean, and (like North Korea) economically underdeveloped compared to the rest of China. Integrating North Korea into the Chinese region is not as difficult as one might think. Annexation is also a better option than war for the Kim regime, which could get security guarantees from China instead of dying in a war.
Intervention is certainly not China’s go-to answer if there is a problem somewhere in the world. Besides some coal mines, and perhaps some extra sea lanes, North Korea is a backwater that has more problems than riches to offer China. An annexation is therefore not something that China is particularly interested in. However, faced with the prospect of an imminent collapse of the state on the border and millions of refugees fleeing North Korea or the U.S. military invading North Korea, China will want to act first to prevent chaos in the region.
What A Chinese Annexation Of North Korea Will Look Like
An annexation of North Korea by China could take approximately two forms – a ‘light’ annexation or a ‘total’ annexation. There are already two examples of regions being annexed by China in the light an total fashions: Hong Kong (light) and Tibet (total). If China opts for a total annexation of North Korea, they would first have to go through a light annexation stage in order to develop the country.
An annexation-light would be similar to Hong Kong, where the region de-nuclearizes and de-arms, but continues to be administered separately under the clout of Beijing. Under light annexation, North Koreans would need a visa to travel to China. They would get Chinese internet and start legally exporting coal and clothing, and importing electronics. Like Hong Kong, the region would keep its own currency. Major decisions would be left to China. This would be the easiest scenario for Kim to agree to. He may even be allowed to stay in control of the country if he is willing to reform and implement China’s agenda or he will be ousted and a more Beijing-friendly administrator (Korean or Chinese) will be installed.
The second option is more similar to the current annexation of Tibet, where the indigenous culture is suppressed and great effort is made to integrate the new territory into the rest of China. Integrating North Korea into the China northeast region is not as difficult as one might think, especially if there was consent to annex. Another way to look at this is that the three Koreas (Chinese, North, and South) would be partially re-unified into two Koreas, a Chinese and Southern Korea.
Of course, this will not be achieved overnight. An important step will be to remove Kim from public life and de-/re-indoctrinate the North Koreans. If Kim consents to the annexation, he gets to live in a nice villa somewhere in China, and the north will slowly be ‘normalized’. The north will have to start by first remaining a separate territory, in order to re-educate North Koreans and to build up their economy. Once the North Korean territory is up to speed with the rest of the Chinese north eastern region, the territory can be integrated further.
Consent To Annex Or War
The reason for Kim to develop nuclear weapons in the first place was to get some kind of security against an invasion by the U.S. in the form of a nuclear deterrent. In order for Kim to avoid a war (in which he would be killed) he might consent to annexation by China. If there is consent, then an annexation could go smoothly for all parties involved. Annexation by invading the country by force would see many casualties, especially on the Korean Peninsula.
There are many reasons why invading North Korea is difficult. International law is not one of them, despite what some commentators have said. The only two countries who could invade North Korea are the U.S. and China – both are superpowers. The U.S. already has a long history of invading countries against international law. The last time was the invasion of Iraq and the next time could conceivably be Iran in this decade. China for its part has already illegally annexed Tibet and is set to rain in Taiwan this century. Where the U.S. usually invades to then retreat some years later, China usually invades with the goal to annex the territory. If not international law, what does make it difficult to invade North Korea?
Although North Korea has been able to launch a satellite into orbit and build a nuclear bomb, most of the population has experienced famine. Many North Koreans that flee the country are not fleeing oppressive government or low economic opportunity, but they are simply fleeing starvation. With most people dependent on state rations for their survival, a sudden collapse of the state would be catastrophic if foreign powers do not immediately airdrop food all over the country of 120.000 km^2 (46.000 sq miles). Due to the omnipresent propaganda and lack of outside-information, many North Koreans believe that their state is run by a god-like figure and that the outside powers are worse. This means that the population will probably be extremely hostile to outside forces. Finally, the North has a large artillery on the Southern border, ready to destroy much of Seoul – the capital of South Korea. It would not be possible to evacuate Seoul within a few days, and there would be awesome damage done to South Korea. Then there is also the thread of a nuclear bomb being sent to the invading country, or to South Korea or Japan if the North Koreans don’t have faith in their intercontinental ballistic missiles. The invading country would be held responsible for the nuclear damages done to itself and others.
In conclusion, an invasion of North Korea would carry the following problems for the invading forces:
- Collapsed state with possibly millions of refugees as a result of famine
- Indoctrinated population will be hostile to invaders
- Damage to Seoul
- Possible nuclear damage to self and third-party countries
This will be the reality on the ground if war with North Korea breaks out. As mentioned above, there are also political issues if the U.S. military would be in action so close to China. If a war is about to break out, it would be in the interest of the Kim regime, the Korean people, and China to have an agreement where China would annex North Korea.
Unfortunately, the Kim regime has recently become more distant from China, making a consensual annexation less likely. Kim has ordered the killing of his own uncle and his half brother, who were both government officials with good ties to China. There are rumors that they were plotting with China to overthrow the Kim regime, although we cannot know this for sure. In any case, their death marked the end of a good relationship between China and North Korea. China has also cut trade with North Korea after pressure from the U.S. to do so. This left the north squeezed for oil, which it imports, and cut its trade with the outside world in half. One should hope that the trust between the two regimes, between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un, is good enough that they can consider and openly discuss an annexation by China as a peaceful solution for the region. But even without consent, China might see no other option than to annex North Korea.