Following up with my opinion post on the latest crisis with North Korea, I’d like to explore what would happen in case of war with North Korea and the aftermath, assuming North Korea is defeated.
First, in the case of war, we can look to history for a clue as to what would happen. During the Korean War (1950-53), the US landed in Korea and beat back the communist forces to the Chinese border in the north. At that point China intervened, which led to the US forces being pushed back to 38th parallel, which is the border between the two Koreas to this day. In a hypothetical conflict with North Korea, US and South Korean forces would undoubtedly have the upper hand in terms of conventional forces. It is widely recognized that NK’s military is reliant on obsolete Soviet weaponry, though it has a numerically large army. The US would easily be able take control of the skies and the sea for bombing and logistics support for a ground invasion. The main factor in the conflict would again be the stance of China. A new factor not present during the Korean War is NK’s nuclear weapons. I don’t consider this factor too much, because in my opinion it rules out any conflict occurring in the first place. Obviously, destruction would be the result if nuclear weapons are used.
We have to remember that North/South Korea is a modern-day West/East Germany. Korea has been divided into two countries, each of which is the sphere of influence of China and the US. The Soviet Union lost East Germany, because it itself imploded. This would not be the case with China, which is a rising power and the US’s only real rival for power on the global stage. While it’s true that NK has been disregarding China more and more, there is no reason for China to give up its sphere of influence in Korea so easily. China would gain nothing from an NK taken over by the US. On the contrary its position would be hurt in a few ways : (1) It would no longer have a buffer state separating it from the US military installation in Korea; (2) It would no longer have a buffer state between itself and the nearest liberal country, which could create domestic political problems; (3) It is common opinion that a toppled NK would result in a surge of migrants into China.
So it is unlikely that China would allow NK to be occupied by the US or reunited with South Korea. China will work to maintain the status quo, because it’s currently in a favorable position geo-politically speaking. If the US (through South Korea, which is basically an US protectorate), shared a border with China, it would have more options to interfere in Chinese affairs and in turn, greater bargaining power politically. In the event that the US invades North Korea, we can expect China to mobilize into North Korea as well in order to maintain a buffer zone, and to promote continued partition of the Korean Peninsula. I can imagine China proposing a long-term plan for re-uniting the two Koreas, the type of plan that is so vague and drawn out that there is no chance of it actually happening.
From the Chinese point of view, if military force is inevitable, a limited operation that removes the current government and dismantle its military/nuclear facilities is ideal. Afterwards, it would be agreed that the country would become an internationalist, pro-market communist country (like Vietnam), and the US/China spheres would be maintained with benefits for the region’s stability and economy.
From the US point of view, taking NK completely and turning it into another US protectorate or reunifying it with South Korea would be a great improvement in its position in the region. Sharing a border with China would give it increased bargaining power, and contribute greatly to containing China as a rising great power. China would not let this happen obviously, and this is why it has recently increased its insurance at the NK border by increasing its presence by 150,000 troops.