On December 12 at the Atlantic Council, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed the United States had assured China that in future North Korean “eventualities,” U.S. military forces moving into North Korea would later pull back south of the 38th parallel—which currently divides North and South Korea—thereby signaling a willingness to work with Beijing to reach an understanding regarding the future of the Korean Peninsula. Similarly, the political scientist Oriana Skylar Mastro, writing in this magazine, argued that “China is no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival” and may in fact wish to cooperate with the United States in the event of a crisis.
If the regime of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was to collapse, whether from internal problems or external force, one of the most pressing problems facing the United States, China, and South Korea—as well as one of the most promising avenues for cooperation—would be how to respond to the resulting humanitarian crisis. A collapse of the regime would likely exacerbate the chronic food shortages North Koreans have endured for 25 years and worsen the country’s problems with infectious disease and public health. This would in turn provoke mass population movements from North Korea into China. To prevent these large-scale refugee flows, the United States, China, and South Korea would need to work together to provide food, clean water, and basic medical treatment for the North Korean population.
Outside of its strategic concerns, including the prospect of a U.S.-allied, unified Korea on its border, China’s main worry in the event of a crisis is to prevent a massive influx of North Korean refugees, which would create a crisis of public order that could include rising crime rates, potential radicalization within the refugee camps, and destabilization of the large ethnic Korean community in China’s northeastern provinces.