South Korean media reported on December 10 that the People’s Republic of China has increased security in the region along the China-North Korea border in the wake of the arrest and removal of Jang Song Taek within North Korea. Also, a large unit of the Chinese military is conducting a training exercise in the border region. The Chinese are taking precautionary measures to prevent an increase in the flow of North Korean refugees or react in case the regime becomes less stable.
The Chinese government placed units of the People’s Armed Police, China’s internal and border security force, on emergency duty status in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province. This region, which includes the Chinese side of the Tumen River, is the primary route for North Korean defectors crossing into China. The population of the Yanbian prefecture is about 40 percent ethnically Korean, allowing for North Korean border crossers to more easily interact with and blend in among the local population, an important factor considering the Chinese policy of repatriating North Korean defectors. On top of increasing physical security, the People’s Armed Police have heightened public security and education about the North Korean defector issue among the people in the area.
Following the purge of Jang and his associates, China has become more concerned about security along its shared border with North Korea. China has long worried that internal instability, natural disasters or war could trigger a wave of mass defections across the Tumen and Yalu Rivers into China.
Such a refugee crisis would not only place an economic burden on China, but also a large political burden. China would likely face international pressure on how to handle the refugees and may feel threatened by a surge of ethnic Koreans in its territory.
In addition to the heightened internal security, the Chinese military is conducting an exercise near the Korean border. Three-thousand troops of the 39th Group Army, under the Shenyang Military Region of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, moved to the area near Mount Baekdu on the border to participate in a winter training exercise. Though China made no mention of the situation in North Korea with regards to the training, which began on December 4, it is possible that the specific location was chosen on short notice so that there would be a large unit near the border as a contingency. Though not confirmed until the 9th, rumors of Jang’s ouster had already begun circulating by the day the exercise started.
The PLA 39th Group Army began the training without first conducting site surveys or having the soldiers undergo acclimation training for the cold mountain climate. While the PLA cited a focus on realism as the reason, it is highly unusual for a military unit to begin field training without the cadre doing any prior surveys of the site. This is yet more evidence that the exercise was a last-minute decision. This is not first time that China has conducted military exercises along the Korean border during a time of uncertainty about North Korea. China wants to have the ability to react as quickly as possible in the event of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, making military readiness in the area a necessity.
While a mass defection or a breakdown of the regime are certainly not imminent, a small but significant increase in defections could occur as the result of North Korean citizens losing confidence in or becoming more fearful of the regime. Either way, China does not want to risk finding itself unprepared.
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