ANALYSIS: Chinese military on edge after death of Kim Jong Il - AJW by The Asahi Shimbun
January 23, 2012
By KENJI MINEMURA / Correspondent
BEIJING--China, fearful that North Korea could be plunged into turmoil following the death of Kim Jong Il, is casting a watchful eye over its longtime yet unpredictable ally in case its own national security is threatened.
In late December, Chinese President Hu Jintao told senior military officials not to let their guard down for fear of unexpected armed conflict breaking out. He was apparently concerned about instability in North Korea following the Dec. 17 death of Kim Jong Il.
“The national security environment around our country is complicated and rapidly changing,” Hu, who chairs the Central Military Commission, was quoted as telling an expanded meeting of its members. “We need to further advance our preparations for a military combat.”
Hu was addressing representatives from the military regions of the People’s Liberation Army, gathered at the August 1st Building in central Beijing, known as China’s Pentagon.
The Central Military Commission, the PLA’s top decision-making body, holds an expanded meeting only when the international situation changes or when it decides on key personnel appointments. In principle, the meeting is held behind closed doors.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula after the death of the North Korean leader was one of the key agenda items, according to Chinese military sources. The participants included officials from the Shenyang Military Region, which is in charge of the area around the border with North Korea.
China had been paying close attention to Kim Jong Il’s health, fearing a prolonged period of instability as his third son, Kim Jong Un, prepared to take over.
Kim Jong Il traveled to China on four occasions from 2010 to 2011. It was generally believed that Kim Jong Il was recovering from a stroke he suffered in summer 2008.
But China learned that his health condition had actually worsened some months earlier, according to sources familiar with China-North Korea relations.
The PLA played a key role in gathering information on Kim Jong Il.
For example, heart and brain experts at the PLA General Hospital, said to be China’s top medical institution, examined his medical records and X-rays and gave advice at the request of North Korea, sources said.
The Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang learned that something unusual had happened because senior North Korean government officials were summoned on the night of Dec. 17.
On Dec. 18, a day before Kim Jong Il’s death was announced, China was unofficially informed of the development by North Korea through the North Korean Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy.
During his visit to China in May 2010, Kim had promised Hu that North Korea would inform China when important domestic issues arose.
China gathered information on Pyongyang's leadership through the PLA General Staff Department and the Communist Party after it was notified of the death of Kim Jong Il.
Chinese officials concluded that North Korea was unlikely to resort to military provocations, such as nuclear tests, in the immediate future, sources said.
The decision was based on an observation that Jang Song Thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, had taken Kim Jong Un under his wing and that Ri Yong Ho, chief of the general staff at the Korean People’s Army and an ally of Jang, had a firm grip on the military, the sources said.
But some senior military officials in Pyongyang are believed to be unhappy at the swiftness of the transfer of authority orchestrated by Kim Jong Il to a new generation of military officials to smooth over the succession of power to his son.
“How to stabilize the situation in the coming six months will be the make-or-break issue,” a Chinese military source said.
The PLA did not redeploy its forces after Kim Jong Il’ death was announced.
According to diplomatic sources in Beijing, U.S. satellite photographs of the northeastern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, which border North Korea, showed PLA forces in their usual positions on Dec. 19.
According to some media reports, China dispatched about 2,000 troops to border areas, but a military source denied this.
“Exactly because the timing is sensitive, we should not provoke North Korea by moving our army unnecessarily,” the source said.
The calm response was based on a 2010 confidential report from the Academy of Military Science.
The PLA think tank set up a group to study how to manage a crisis on the Korean Peninsula in 2007, when Kim Jong Il’s declining health first became apparent.
The report, compiled mainly by Col. Li Xiaodong at the academy’s world military studies department, described the peninsula as an important area that is inseparable from China’s national security.
It concluded that the most important issue is not to provoke North Korea, citing the maintenance of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula as the basic principle.
China fears that it might be flooded with refugees in the event of a crisis. North Korea also serves as a buffer zone between China and South Korea, where U.S. troops are stationed.
The report also said North Korea’s nuclear development program “could lead to an all-out war if there was the slightest misunderstanding, confusion or provocation.”
It said the "top priority is to immediately prevent nuclear proliferation” if the situation in North Korea becomes unstable.
Officially, both the PLA and the government have denied the possibility that China would send its troops to North Korea to put its nuclear facilities under control or regain order in times of crisis.
However, a military source said: “Our forces have enhanced mobility. We will be able to enter Pyongyang in a little more than two hours if necessary.”
China and North Korea are said to be in an “alliance sealed in blood” since China dispatched soldiers to North Korea after the Korean War broke out in 1950.
The two countries concluded a mutual aid and cooperation friendship treaty, under which each country is required to provide military support when the other comes under attack.
A delegation of senior military leaders, including Liang Guanglie, minister of national defense, and Ma Xiaotian, PLA deputy chief of staff, made a condolence visit to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Dec. 27.
“The PLA, with the Korean People’s Army, will actively work to solidify and develop the traditional relationship of cooperation and friendship between the two countries and the two military forces,” Xu Caihon, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and head of the delegation, said.
But a military source in Beijing said Xu stressed the close ties between the two military forces partly “to send a message that China will not let North Korea take military action on its own.”
A source at a military think tank also said: “The emphasis on friendly relations is the flip side of the tensions that exist. The two military forces have deep distrust in each other.”
China and North Korea became estranged after Pyongyang conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, notifying Beijing only immediately beforehand.
China has consistently opposed North Korea's decision to acquire nuclear capability for fear of nuclear warfare breaking out between the United States and North Korea and also giving Japan a rationale to go nuclear, according to Col. Yang Guanghai at the PLA institute of international studies.
China suspended military exchanges and energy-related support because the tests “would have an adverse impact on the six-party talks and hurt the international reputation of China as chair of the talks,” Yang said.
China reactivated military exchanges in the latter half of 2009, when North Korea started full-scale preparations for the succession of power.
In 2011, China and North Korea sent reciprocal missions led by senior military officials on seven occasions, following five such visits each in both 2010 and 2009.
North Korean delegations included Kim Jong Gak, of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, and other senior officials said to be close to Kim Jong Un, apparently reflecting the PLA’s wish to strengthen ties with next-generation military leaders.
Despite recent improvements, certain limits have been placed on cooperation between the two military forces.
For example, the PLA has not conducted a joint exercise with the Korean People’s Army.
According to sources close to China-North Korea relations, North Korea asked China to provide Chinese-made J-10 fighter jets and other weapons, but Beijing did not accept the request.
By KENJI MINEMURA / Correspondent