World

China allowing debate on contingency plans

Beijing preparing for possible conflict or collapse of North Korean regime

BEIJING North Korea's nuclear antics have rattled its alliance with China to the point that Beijing is allowing the previously unthinkable to be discussed: Is it time to prepare for the renegade regime's collapse?

While China's official goal is to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table, it is also permitting a once taboo debate on contingencies in case war breaks out in the isolated nation.

Observers say the public debate might be a tactic to try and coerce Pyongyang into cooling its weapons programme, with its nuclear and missile tests visibly angering Beijing, which has backed tough new United Nations sanctions on the country.

But it may also indicate growing calls to overhaul its relationship with the North, a long-term ally that it defended during the 1950-53 Korean War and has a mutual defence pact with.

Mr Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, raised eyebrows earlier last month when he published an article entitled "Time to prepare for the worst in North Korea".

The paper was published in English in East Asia Forum, a website of the Australian National University, but it is unlikely that he could have released it without the approval of Chinese authorities.

"When war becomes a real possibility, China must be prepared. And, with this in mind, China must be more willing to consider talks with concerned countries on contingency plans," Mr Jia wrote.

Discussions about the end of the North's regime could be aimed at scaring Mr Kim Jong Un and pleasing Mr Donald Trump before the US leader's trip to Beijing next month, a Western diplomat said.

SHIFT

But there are also signs of a genuine shift in perceptions over how China should handle North Korea.

Mr David Kelly, director of research at Beijing-based consultancy China Policy, said the thinking among Chinese academics was: "We could do better without them, a unified Korea would be incredibly good for China, the north-east would boom".

Mr Barthelemy Courmont, a China specialist at the Institute of Strategic and International Relations in Paris, said Pyongyang's downfall could be good for Beijing, especially economically.

"China now believes that a collapse of North Korea would not necessarily be to its disadvantage," Mr Courmont said.

Mr Deng Yuwen was suspended from his job as editor of the journal of the Communist Party's Central Party School in 2013 after writing an article saying China should abandon North Korea.

But this year he wrote unimpeded about post-conflict planning.

"If the two Koreas reunified, there would no longer be the need for the presence of US troops in South Korea and the South Korean people would not let them stay," Mr Deng said in April in an article published by the Charhar Institute think tank. - AFP

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