It sounded like big news. On Saturday, Japan’s Kyodo News published a story about China’s plans should North Korea collapse. The piece was based on documents reportedly leaked to them by an unnamed source in the People’s Liberation Army and sketch a scenario in which “foreign forces” bring down the regime, sending North Koreans streaming north.
The Kyodo report sparked a frenzy of headlines in the English-language press. We are hungry for any information about North Korea and this story offered the tantalizing prospect of something both clandestine and Chinese. “China’s secret plans for North Korea’s collapse, revealed,” read the Vox headline. The U.K.’s Telegraph took it a step further, claiming that Beijing’s “lack of faith” in the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un had been “exposed.”
Sounds rather exciting, but some skepticism is in order. Let’s start with sourcing. Kyodo is a respected news agency and the documents may well be genuine. They certainly seem to be in line with Chinese policy. But the fact is that their existence, and origin, have yet to be independently verified. The agency did not publish them online, nor did they name, or list the rank, of the Chinese military source who reportedly vouched for their authenticity. Headlines should reflect this.
Assuming the files are real, though, it should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that China has a plan. As North Korea’s neighbor and last remaining ally, Beijing will be directly affected by what happens there. Over the last few decades, thousands of North Koreans have already fled across the border. And it is no secret that Chinese officials are worried about an influx of refugees (see, for instance, this 2008 United States Institute for Peace report).
The news value is further diminished by the fact that contingency planning is, by its very nature, about multiple scenarios. “In every military in the world, soldiers train for war and officers plan for contingencies, that’s just what they do,” says John Delury, a Korea and China scholar at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “The Chinese process would certainly involve a whole bunch of contingencies, not just collapse.”
North Korea watchers are dead split on the question of regime stability, with some arguing Kim Jong Un has consolidated power and others that he is weak. What’s so striking is how information from the unverified Kyodo documents was used to bolster the theory that North Korea is finally, somehow, on the verge of collapse. “Could it all be over for the world’s most bizarre government?” read the Daily Mail’s over-the-top teaser.
The handling of the story “really raises questions about the whole issue of reporting on North Korea,” says Delury. “To go from this little piece, to saying that China thinks North Korea isn’t going to last long, it is a bounding leap from one to the other.”
Indeed, there is so far little evidence that Beijing’s posture has changed, or that they are readying for collapse. Adam Cathcart, a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, just returned from a research trip to several border cities. If China was preparing for an exodus, it certainly was not evident, he says. He cautioned against reading too much into the small amounts of text Kyodo quoted from the Chinese: “We are dealing with sentence fragments here, basically.”
Lost amid the fuss is what might be a more interesting and important angle: the leak. Who gave the documents to Kyodo, and how? Was it sanctioned? Why now? Right now, we know none of this. But that really would be big news.