NK collapse may trigger Sino-US war: expert

James Dobbins

In the event North Korea collapses, it could cause a war between the United States and China in the coming decades, a U.S. security expert warned Wednesday.

A report by James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND National Defense Research Institute, said in such a scenario the militaries might clash while trying to secure the impoverished nation’s borders and weapons of mass destruction.

“The likelihood of confrontations, accidental or otherwise, between U.S. and Chinese forces is high in this scenario, with significant potential for escalation,” he wrote in the report, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He added that economic or political instability would be likely culprits behind any collapse.

Planning for contingencies in North Korea has long concerned analysts as it raises the possibility of miscalculation when soldiers from the U.S., China, both Koreas and possibly Russia could be involved. It would also raise the prospect of the peninsula being unified under South Korean control. However, it remains a diplomatic minefield given Beijing’s close ties with Pyongyang.

In such a case, he said China would send troops into the North to secure its borders, predicting collapse could cause thousands or even millions of refugees to flee the country.

The United States, meanwhile, would move quickly with South Korea to try to secure ballistic-missile-launch and weapons of mass destruction sites, mobilizing special-operations forces.

“China…would view the insertion of U.S. and South Korean forces north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with concern, and might move its own forces in, if it had not already begun to do so, both to contain the disorder and to pre-empt a South Korean­American takeover of the entire country,” Dobbins said.

Whether and how the North could collapse has been a hot topic for decades. The debate was further fueled by the recent power transition to young leader Kim Jong-un following the death of his father Kim Jong-il last year, though the handover has thus far proceeded smoothly by outside accounts. Experts have projected that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be required to secure North Korea if it were to collapse even under benign circumstances.

The warning comes as Washington shifts its military’s focus from the Middle East to Asia, a pivot that aims to maintain its sway in the region and that analysts say is related to China’s rapid rise.

“Despite cautious and pragmatic Chinese policies, the risk of conflict with the United States remains, and this risk will grow in consequence and perhaps in probability as China’s strength increases,” Dobbins said.

He added other sources of Sino-U.S. conflict could include changes to the situation in Taiwan, Sino-American confrontation in cyberspace, and disputes arising from Beijing’s “uneasy” relations with Japan and India. <The Korea Times/Kim Young-jin>


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