If the US military tries to invade North Korea again, Beijing, obsessed with internal stability, after 35 years of Japanese occupation, would almost certainly not tolerate millions of refugees crossing into northern China.
From a Chinese perspective, it would be far better for those refugees to stay in North Korea. In the event of regime collapse, we could see the three People’s Liberation Army (PLA) armies in the country’s Northern Theater Command move south.
One option is to create a buffer zone in North Korea, but that would not solve the problem of political and economic instability. The most likely scenario is that China launches an all-out invasion to help Pyongyang defend its sovereign territory.
Of the sixteen armored, mechanized, infantry and artillery corps that make up the Korea People’s Army (KPA), only two are deployed along the Sino-Korean border.
Three more corps are stationed in and around Pyongyang, while nearly 70% of the KPA is stationed south of the Pyongyang/Wonsan line, sited to support a cross-border attack against South Korea.
China’s Northern Theater Command ground forces consist of the 78th, 79th and 80th Armies. These armies are what would be considered corps in the U.S. Army, collectively controlling eighteen combined arms brigades supported by three special operations, three aviation, three artillery and three engineering brigades.
This gives the PLA a powerful force equivalent, at least on paper, to roughly five or six U.S. combat divisions. Supported by the two air attack divisions of the Chinese Air Force assigned to the Northern Command, the three PLA armies could quickly cross the border and march south into the KPA’s strategic rear.
However, it’s difficult to foretell how well the PLA would do in wartime. The last time the Chinese Army engaged in such large scale combat was the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979.
Using inferior, outdated tactics, China’s ground forces suffered heavy casualties against their battle-hardened Vietnamese opponents, and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping vowed never to repeat such a costly war.
The PLA of today however is a completely different beast. While the PLA lacks the institutional skill of the battle-tested assassins of the U.S. Army, it is certainly better than the Japanese Army.
The army has modernized both its equipment and military doctrine—Xi Jinping’s repeated calls to be “combat ready”, often interpreted as outwardly aggressive, are more likely to be exhortations toward general readiness and against corruption in the ranks.
A recent and pervasive emphasis on high speed, mechanized warfare will pay the PLA dividends in a drive on Pyongyang.
The most dangerous aspect of a Chinese liberation of North Korea is if it is launched concurrent with a U.S. and South Korean assault northward from the demilitarized zone.
While the USA and South Korea would operate with the same objectives in mind, they would likely be very different from China’s. The possibility of fighting breaking out between those armies marching north and those marching south would be very real.
Barring a total collapse of the Pyongyang regime, China is unlikely to invade North Korea. The economic, political, and military costs outweigh the benefits — at least for now.
That having been said, if the calculus changes China maintains the forces, just over the border, to decisively intervene in its smaller neighbor. Whether China, South Korea, or anyone is ready for the outcome remains a very good question.
North Korea will however try to avoid millions of casualties, like what happened during the 1950-53 Korean War, when the US military carpet bombed North Korea killing nearly 7 million people.
National Interest / ABC Flash Point News 2020.