While China is frequently assumed to have a number of “levers” it could use to control North Korea, in fact, its policies across the board—from security to economics—are much more limited. An examination of actions in March and April 2017, when China was confronted with the destabilizing prospect of unilateral U.S. military action against North Korea, and apparently responded by taking more vigorous steps with Pyongyang, provides some useful insight.  China allegedly put bilateral economic projects on hold, threatened North Korea in the press with an oil embargo, and may have further captured Kim Jong-un’s attention by mobilizing troops along its border with DPRK (Global Times, April 12). North Korea complained but backed down.
When documentation is scarce, claims of Chinese pressure in its various forms need to be sifted, weighed, and contextualized. Nowhere is this more true than in outside assertions about the posture and readiness of Chinese troops along the Sino-Korean border during periods of crisis.
As an intelligence and a signaling function dating back to the Korean War, the Chinese Communist Party has generally sought to mask specific military movements behind the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, while promoting an assumption in Washington, D.C., Tokyo and Seoul that Chinese strength in the border region was limitless, and that intervention could occur at any time.  Even in periods of political transition, the defense of the northeastern frontier has been a key function of the Chinese state, and the source of internal debate.  A reshuffle of PLA organizations during the “April crisis” and Xi Jinping’s related personal orders to every military unit might, therefore, benefit from more inspection as both domestic and international political acts (PRC Ministry of Defense).
The conventional wisdom outside of the PRC today seems to assume that mobilizing troops near the border signals to North Korea that China is ready to either roll in or to block the flow of refugees into China. Too often, analysis which highlights assertions of Chinese mobilization in the border region ignore the signals already being sent by the Chinese military press (as opposed to Chinese foreign affairs periodicals) with respect to North Korea, and the documentation of open-source data on related Chinese military drills.
Finally, if China was, in fact, using troop movements to intimidate North Korea, how would we know a) that troop movements were in fact happening and b) that China intended them to impress DPRK?
Analysis of the rumors which spread in April about troop movements on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea provides some clarity about how to interpret these events. Confirming regular PLA activities in Jilin province in the month prior to the crisis places this information and misinformation surrounding these activities into the larger context of the role of the PLA and its posture toward North Korea in the changing environment.
On the Chinese side of the Tumen River valley, the atmosphere in April 2017 was both hazy and tense. The haze was literal—farmers around Yanbian were burning down the stumps of last year’s corn crop, releasing nitrogen in the soil below and sending grey plumes of smoke into the sky (Yanbian Morning Post, April 4).
For geopolitical tension, one only had to talk to some locals in Yanbian, or read a bit of the national press to understand why (SCMP April 23, 2017; NBC, April 13). Under the circumstances, the occurrence of air drills over the border city of Yanji—a commonplace occurrence—seemed to take on greater meaning (Globe & Mail, April 28).As tends to happen at times of stress and tension on the peninsula, rumors began to circulate globally that Chinese troops were moving toward North Korea, reinforcing the frontier. The Japanese conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun published a report on April 9 that there were 150,000 troops moving to the border; this report was then picked up and amplified by the conservative South Korean paper of record (Chosun Ilbo, April 10). More dizzying third-hand reports that “about 25,000 troops of the Chinese military’s 47th Group Army of the Ninth Armored Brigade have been instructed to be ready to move long distances, close to the North Korea border” were subsequently generated in Hong Kong and passed along (UPI, April 12; for earlier, similar claims see UPI, November 11, 2016).
Nonetheless, the idea of a general Chinese military mobilization for crisis along the border spread further. In English, the Business Insider website was particularly successful in attracting web traffic by using questionable footage (which was itself at least a month old, and by no means certainly from the Shenyang region) to imply that troop movements were happening (Business Insider, April 14). News of troop movements was used as proof of the truth of the rumors, as were denials from the Russian Foreign Ministry (Reuters, April 21).
Outlets trafficking in disinformation seemed keen to portray the rumor as hard evidence that Donald Trump’s pressure on Xi Jinping (at Mar-a-Lago and the tweets that followed) had finally brought China around to threatening force against North Korea.  Anonymous U.S. officials actually encouraged rumors of Chinese mobilization for conflict and went so far as to indicate China had changed its posture along the border with North Korea (CNN, April 20).
Denials of these rumors were issued by Chinese officials at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the PLA, but other information circulating around the Chinese internet indicated that the government was mobilizing bureaucracies in border cities for a nuclear test or a North Korean collapse (Guancha, April 27).
So what were the facts?
Official PRC Media Sources
Chinese military media itself provides a useful baseline. These often include formal denials from PLA spokespersons, documents that at least acknowledge the awareness of the Chinese state of a sort of externally generated hysteria. A less frequently used approach is to examine about military drills by the units concerned. In the case of the spring, such reports exist about drills for military preparedness in Jilin province.  These are not reliable sources of information about PLA border troop strength and posture, but these can help gauge if such actions were intended as a signal to North Korea, and indicate state attention to overall readiness. Movements of People’s Liberation Army troops near the North Korean border are a closely held secret. Equally important is the fact that these limited number of publicly available official sources are also available to North Korean observers, particularly the DPRK Consulate in Shenyang and the Embassy in Beijing.
Jilin Military Drills
What is known is that from March 22 to 28 military drills took place outside of Jilin City in an area of 15 square kilometers of hilly and rocky woodlands, called Dongman Fengshan. Military press releases indicated action took place in “unfamiliar terrain” of plains, hills, and forests. While China will occasionally carry out publicized military drills of small-scale directly on or just adjacent to the North Korean border, it should be noted that these March drills took place over 100 kilometers from the DPRK’s borders (for coverage of small drills in Tumen in July, see China News, July 7).
A close read of the most extensive report on the drills suggest only that there is little sense of how many troops participated, and in the press releases, the actions feel more like an exercise in morale building (China Armed Police Net, March 24; China News – Jilin, March 23). The troops went through a simulated “contaminated area” (染毒区), putting in 18-hour days wearing packs weighing 30 jin (half a kilogram). “There is no runner-up in war,” one press release reminded readers, while also noting that one soldier had an outbreak of hemorrhoids—indicating there was no room for weakness on the battlefield.
Strangely, in the hothouse atmosphere of international reporting on North Korea, some coverage of the drills which was written purely in military commissar style, was appropriated and used as evidence of threats toward North Korea. One member of the unit conducting drills said with emotion, “As we step onto the battlefield, we really must think that we are more complete than the enemy, that we understand the laws of war more clearly than the enemy, that we will shoot faster than the enemy, that we are more prepared, so that we are utterly victorious over the enemy, no shame!” (Jilin News Net, March 23). The U.K. newspaper Daily Star promptly reported the drills as a signal to North Korea (London Daily Star, March 29). If every drill with such language in Jilin were a signal to North Korea, then ‘devil week’ drills in the province in August 2016 and every other drill would require similar interpretation (China News Network, August 23, 2016).
China has published on other border issues that provide insight and reflection on the Korean case: the Chinese military press in these cases has gone to great effort to explain their motivations. This should make us cautious when ascribing signaling elsewhere when it is not similarly backed up in official press. Defense Times (Guofang Shibao; 国防时报) provided precisely such an essay with respect to another cross-border ally-cum-adversary, Myanmar, less than a week after the drills in Jilin concluded (Defense Times, April 3).
Published on April 3, Defense Times published an article sourced from Phoenix News, a Hong-Kong-based pro-mainland news outlet which has been used in the past to message for the CCP. It described in exquisite detail the type of signaling cross-border military drills were intended to send to potential adversaries—in this case, Myanmar. Reading a March 28 Xinhua dispatch on combined drills of PLA Marines, Air Force, and border guards, and artillery, the piece amounted to the analysis that the foremost purpose of the drills was “to intimidate (震慑) the other side…including the Myanmar government, army, its ‘courageous troops’ and militia.” The other purpose of the drills was to rehearse a possible counterattack over the border, and to boost the morale of the Chinese border-area citizens (边民) who had been frightened due to the cannon fire (sounds) from the other side of the border. Drills were also intended to “block refugees” (阻隔难民) from coming over the border. But in parallel to these intimidating acts, the article stated, was an explicit warning from the Chinese side, clear military-military coordination so the drills did not set off a crisis on the other side.
One final noteworthy instance of misinformation was found shortly after the drills, but in the Chinese military press. In late March, the Defense Times published a purported summary of a Western researcher’s Foreign Policy article describing how the PLA planned to “block” U.S. military access to Pyongyang in the advent of a North Korean collapse (Defense Times, March 31). The article seemed to offer a US-sourced vision that China would and could roll down the Korean Peninsula and again stop a U.S. advance, holding to the gains of the Mao years and preventing a repeat of the trajectory of the first Korean War. However, the Defense Times article was in fact based upon a single interview with Stratfor by the Business Insider website (Business Insider, March 16).
Personal experience is one flawed but important way to assess the broader environment in Chinese border regions. I was in the Chinese border region across from North Korea from April 8–18, and spent a couple of hours in Tumen in discussion with PLA border guards and ethnic Korean plainclothes police. I can therefore confirm other accounts that border security was tighter than usual in that period and that the PLA in Tumen had orders to keep “third-country nationals” (i.e., people who were not Chinese or North Koreans) at least 100 meters from the border as a whole. Border guards were also tasked with preventing photographs being taken of the North Korean side. It seemed clear that no foreigner on the ground was going to be able to get a sense of China’s military muscle near the border. Nor was the Chinese news media going to report on it.
Around Longjing, the lack of roadblocks along key crossings and avenues of advance also casts doubt on the idea that broader operations were ongoing. In the future, similar confirmation of real facts on the ground will likely be even more difficult, as the national anti-spy campaign is not going to make legitimate foreign reporting or academic fieldwork in the border region any easier (Xinhuabao wang, April 18). Did Chinese troops truly flood the border region during the “April crisis” to the tune of 150,000 troops? We have no way of knowing, based upon press reports or personal experience. But the signaling in the press had its purposes.
Questions of information quality ought to figure high among our concerns during this analytical process—observers of this issue need to filter out what was legitimate intelligence and data, and which “events” were, in fact, propaganda meant to confuse.
A few axioms may be useful for understanding the border research environment:
- Chinese reports from the border region during tense periods are few and far between, and generally not helpful.
- First-hand accounts on the border during a crisis is only marginally more useful, but are better than official reporting. Talking to journalists and reading their reports is useful in this respect. The new counter-espionage campaign will likely make this more difficult.
- The Chinese military press tends to be more abundant than we give it credit for, but needs to be read more widely and carefully.
- Statements from the PRC Foreign Ministry and Global Times newspaper are of very limited use.
- Statements by some academics are useful as signaling.
- There may be far less drama than we imagine; Consider the possibility that DPRK has been informed of military movements by the PRC side, making them less threatening.
Chinese reports from the border region, when they do emerge are tightly controlled and rarely move much beyond Xinhua copy (Huanqiu, April 27). Part of the reason that rumors spread is that China itself maintains such a grip on the narrative, and does not allow domestic reports. Adding to the ostensible weight of any dispatch filed from the border region was the fact that, with a few exceptions, Chinese reporters were themselves forbidden from covering anything related to North Korea.
At the apex of the worries of war between the US and North Korea, precisely one report was filed from the outskirts of Tumen city, where a sheep breeder had suffered huge losses due to nighttime attacks from an endangered species of northeastern tiger (Yanbian Morning Post, April 14). This was a kind of an alternate reality, having nothing to do with border guards or international conflict. Had the farmer’s sheep been plundered by hungry North Korean border guards, the very forces known for stealing farm animals from the communities downriver? No, rather, it appeared to be a rare instance of a Northeastern Tiger (Dongbei hu) shredding sheep in the early morning haze.
Adam Cathcart is Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Leeds (UK). He has presented policy papers on North Korea’s northern regions to Chatham House, the Korea Economic Institute of America, and the UK Foreign Office, and does regular fieldwork on the Chinese-North Korean border. He is also the editor of the SinoNK.com research website. Adam Cathcart can be followed on Twitter @adamcathcart.
- The argument that Chinese pressure in Pyongyang was working was made by several Western journalists: John Everard,”Trump’s North Korea policy might just be working,” CNN, April 20, 2017; Kelly Mclaughlin, “China ‘deploys 150,000 troops to deal with possible North Korean refugees over fears Trump may strike Kim Jong-un following missile attack on Syria’,” Daily Mail online/Reuters, April 10, 2017, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4399076/China-deploys-150-000-troops-North-Korea-border.htm
- Allen S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu (New York: Macmillian, 1960), pp. 64-67; Bruce Cumings, Origins of the Korean War, Volume II: The Roaring of the Cataract (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 738-745; see also Robert Rigg, Red China’s Fighting Hordes (Harrisburg, Pa.: Military Service Publishing, 1952).
- Dai Maolin, Zhonggong Zhongyang Dongbeiju, 1945-1954 (Shenyang: Liaoning Renmin Chubanshe, 2017).
- For examples of disinformation or poorly sourced reporting see: Tyler Durden, “China Threatens To Bomb North Korea’s Nuclear Facilities If It Crosses Beijing’s “Bottom Line” ZeroHedge, Apr 12, 2017; Alex Jones, “North Korea Backs Down in Nuclear Showdown with Trump,” Infowars, April 14, 2017. ; Jack Posobiec, “Inside Trump’s deal with China on North Korea,” The Rebel Media, April 28, 2017.
- Adam Cathcart, “Evaded States: Security and Control in the Sino-North Korean Border Region,” in Routledge Handbook of Asian Borderlands, Alexander Horstmann, Martin Saxer, Alessandro Rippa, eds., (Routledge: December 2017).