Chinese Military Presence Is The Real North Korea Story

North Korea returned to the headlines recently when Kim Jong-Un requested to meet with President Trump.  Much to the surprise of many, Trump accepted Kim’s request, stating that a meeting is “being planned”:

This is hardly the first time Kim has requested to meet with a US President – he sent similar overtures to President Obama in the past, only to have Obama decline the invitation in favor of “multilateral” talks.  And even though President Trump’s acceptance will capture all the headlines, there is a much bigger story regarding North Korea that has gone relatively unreported by the mainstream media:

China has amassed a massive military presence along its border with North Korea.

During last year’s belligerent military exercises undertaken by North Korea, and President Trump’s deployment of three Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) in conjunction with a hard-line negotiating position with the country, China deployed 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea:

China’s state-owned newspaper, Global Times, has unconfirmed reports that China’s army had sent 150,000 troops to the border with North Korea and that South Korea was conducting military drills in the border area.

The reports follow concerns that the North would use a national commemoration on the weekend to conduct its sixth nuclear test.

China’s intervention would be praised by US President Donald Trump, who has been pushing for the Asian superpower to take action against the North.

And as Trunews’s Edward Szall recently reported, that number has increased, with 300,000 troops sent to the border:

According to Korean and Chinese media reports, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, is moving missile defense batteries and troops closer to its border with North Korea.

Such a move would strongly suggest Beijing is preparing for some kind of military disturbance in the area, likely a belligerent act by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Radio Free Asia is reporting 300,000 troops have been positioned near the Hermit Kingdom, and missile defense batteries have been installed at three locations along the border.

Szall confirmed to Free Market Shooter that China currently has deployed about 500,000 troops to its border with North Korea.  China has deployed approximately 25% of its active military forces along a border which is only 880 miles long.  And somehow, Trump agreeing to meet with Kim is the “story” in mainstream media.

For reference, the US deployed 250,000 troops for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, with coalition forces adding approximately another 55,000.  While China’s military is far less advanced than the US military, and North Korea has a substantially greater military capability than Iraq, a nation does not deploy that kind of military force unless there is a high expectation of a major event unfolding.  

There are a few distinct possibilities for the reason behind China’s military buildup:

1. China is preparing for a US “bloody nose” attack or possible full-scale military intervention in North Korea

Though this is always a possibility, it seems unlikely – the “risk” involved with attacking North Korea far outweighs the reward.  As I recently pointed out, the North Korean and US militaries will likely project their capabilities without actually using them:

While these exercises served as a reminder to Kim Jong-Un that the US can deal with any threat from his regime, they also served as a reminder to the rest of the world that the country is not prepared to use military force, unless the North Koreans use military force first.

In the absence of any North Korean military strikes, and with the US content to remind North Korea of the consequences of action, the status quo will likely remain – North Korean grandstanding and weapons testing, and subsequent US inaction, with “reminder” exercises of US military power from time to time.  

With Trump set to meet with Kim, the grandstanding may be put on hold, possibly permanently, leaving the threat of possible invasion even lower.

2.  China believes the North Korean regime might collapse internally, and thus positioned forces to stem the flow of refugees across its border, and possibly to install a friendly government as well

Given the increasing economic pressure on North Korea and with no sight of previous “lifelines” extended by past US Presidents, in conjunction with a population that has become increasingly desperate and aware of life outside of North Korea, a regime collapse could be imminent.  If this were to happen, China would likely look to quickly fill the void:

A lack of relief from sanctions could push the North Korean regime into economic collapse.  If this were to happen, the Chinese and Russians would look to fill the void quickly to maintain the “Two Koreas” status quo.  A “unified” Korea could create an economic powerhouse that would rival and possibly surpass Japan, as well as many other large economies.  The US and other global interests would likely be keen to avoid this scenario, and would possibly allow North Korea’s neighbors to facilitate a “replacement” regime if the DPRK became defunct.

The North Korean overture to Trump could be a sign of a regime desperate for its own survival.  If this is the case, the possibility of an internal collapse must be considered.

3.  China is preparing to invade North Korea on its own, replacing its belligerent regime with a more stable, capable, and politically friendly one

Perhaps China has finally decided to step into the role as a global superpower, and plans to start by “shoring up” the nations that it borders:

Though the US should not need to send three aircraft carriers to the Korean peninsula to address the problem, if it gets China to (finally) step up and deal with the problem, so be it.  This is not a conflict the US should initiate, nor should it need to initiate – North Korea is a half a world away, and the last thing the US needs is another unwinnable war, especially against a belligerent leader who could be prepared to use nuclear weapons.

If the roles were reversed, the US would have brought this situation to a head long ago.  China is better cutting its losses and finding a more suitable (and stable) way to manage its client state and ensure its role as a “buffer”… if China even wants to be bothered with a “buffer” at all anymore.  The last thing they want is to have to lose “face” and have the US deal with the “problem” for them.

While it seems unlikely, China could be preparing to engage in military action against North Korea on its own.  As the US invasion of Iraq indicated, hundreds of thousands of troops aren’t usually deployed unless there is a high expectation of military engagement.

What is the most likely of these outcomes?  It seems China could simply be preparing for some combination of all of the above possibilities to unfold.  For all we know, China could have struck a deal with the Trump administration to jointly attack the North Korean regime and replace it with a more stable one.  Given the instability of the North Korean regime, and its proximity to China, China must prepare for a number of possible outcomes, many of which require a substantial military presence.

Finally… what is the relevance of Trump’s meeting with Kim as it pertains to China’s military deployment?  While some might be keen to say it is “4D” chess on Trump’s behalf, playing China for tariff relief or other concessions, it makes far more sense to assume that Trump is merely throwing up a “Hail Mary” pass on the North Korea issue.  The meeting could be a bust, but it is a low risk, high reward gambit that could avert a potential nuclear war.

A meeting with President Trump could be signaling that Kim Jong-Un and the DPRK have finally decided to grow up.  If not, China’s military deployment has indicated that if nothing else, they are prepared to deal with a number of “problems” that North Korea could pose, which is a far more significant story than Trump merely agreeing to meet with Kim in the first place.  


Update: According to Trunews’s Edward Szall, China has positioned 500,000 troops on its border with North Korea.  This article has been updated to reflect that information.