It is commonly known that 2009 was the first time the U.S. and China jointly discussed such a scenario. At the venue in Beijing of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a research arm of China's main spy agency, South Korean media headlines stated that America and China were having their first consultation on the sensitive matter. However, after checking directly with one of the U.S. participants in the meeting, things were different than reported.
Firstly, the meeting's agenda covered a broad range of East Asian security topics, including the presence of U.S. troops in the region, U.S.-China relations, the Korean Peninsula, and Sino-Japan relations. In that context, the U.S. side also raised the need for a joint U.S.-China contingency plan in case of sudden turmoil in North Korea.
"Duly noted," was the response from the Chinese side, according to the American participant in the meeting. The Chinese refused to be drawn to elaborate. This cannot be called a "discussion."
The second U.S.-China talks on the topic were allegedly held when U.S. Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno paid a visit to the Chinese military in Shenyang in 2014. The visit received keen attention because Shenyang is close to the North Korean border and the Chinese military there would be the troops that would be first deployed in case of a North Korean crisis.
However, the visit was part of confidence-building efforts agreed upon during the 2013 U.S.-China summit during which the two nations acknowledged that they lacked military exchanges. In particular, the news that the U.S. side received a Chinese briefing on "North Korean troop movements" did not conform to the fact.
Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy under Obama, told me that while he was in charge of North Korea affairs in the U.S. government, there had been no official discussion between the U.S. and China on the North Korean contingency. It was 2014. (He and I were both visiting scholars at Stanford University, with his office next to mine.) I asked Ambassador Bosworth if it would be okay to make his remarks public. He graciously agreed.
In August 2017, in Beijing, Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Fang Fenghui, Chief of Joint Staff of the People's Liberation Army, agreed for the first time in the history of the two militaries, to open a dialogue channel, the Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism (JSDM), to prevent miscalculation. Paradoxically, this meant that there had been no such consultation mechanism between the U.S. and China previously.
In November of that year, Maj. Gen. Shao Yuanming and Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke sat down in Washington D.C. The contents of their discussions were later made public by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While attending a forum on the Korean Peninsula in Washington, he said the U.S. discussed a North Korean contingency plan with China. According to Tillerson, the U.S. presented China with the so-called "four no's" principles regarding North Korea.
"We do not seek regime change; we do not seek regime collapse; we do not seek an accelerated unification of the Korean Peninsula; we do not seek a reason to send our own military forces north of the demilitarized zone," he said, adding "That is our commitment we made to them."
Critically, however, the Chinese position was not known.
When rumors of Kim Jong-un's death emerged in April, a former U.S. official who handled the North Korea affairs stressed the need for such a dialogue between Washington and Beijing. The person said the U.S. and China have never had a "meaningful" level of dialogue on North Korea's contingency to this day.
To summarize, despite years of speculation, there is no evidence that the governments of the United States and China have agreed upon a specific action plan in the event of sudden turmoil in North Korea. A North Korean contingency is a critical issue that determines the fate of the Korean people if it ever occurs. It's an opportune time for the South Korean government to review and update relevant facts.
Lee Seong-hyon (email@example.com), Ph.D., is director, the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute.