I realize the title of this question is a bit odd and apparently counter-intuitive, and might give someone a good chuckle, but bear with me for a second.

The People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) are long-time allies, and spent the latter part of the 20th century united by being communist countries outside the Soviet bloc (with China seeking to become a "third power").

Importantly, DPRK has also acted and maintains its role as a buffer state between China and the US-aligned South Korea.

However, it is my understanding that:

  1. The chances of a conflict involving North Korea under the current regime and the US are growing monotonically
  2. China probably does have no incentive in entering a costly war with the United States, at the very least not in this decade.
  3. Even if China keeps neutral, it would probably not want to have a philoamerican government installed in North Korea, for obvious reasons.
  4. Even if China keeps neutral, I believe it would deem undesirable to have American troops that close to home for the duration of a conflict.
  5. China has so far been unable to defuse tension in the area through ordinary diplomatic action.

It seems to me that, simply because the other alternatives are worse, China would have good reason to urgently install a new regime or government in DPRK, through:

  1. diplomatic action
  2. espionage, or even...
  3. full-on military action

In fact, I would be inclined to think the optimum from a Chinese point of view would be staging or supporting a coup to remove the current leader along with high ranking officials while still keeping the WPK in charge, while, of course, denying all involvement.

What are the disincentives for China in doing that, and what are the superior alternatives?

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    This question assumes that a) a war is going to happen and b) China will enter the war in NK's side. Maybe the Chinese governments has a different assessment of the situation? Also, it makes it sound as if overthrowing a foreign leader is a easy, risk free operation (hint: it is not, specially if there are nuclear weapons involved).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:51
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    It is a bit of a speculative question, but: 1. Even if China could somehow kill Kim Jong Un and get away with it, would that mean the collapse of NK regime ? After all, it has survived the successive deaths of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il wihtout major changes in its shape. 2. NK can be a pain in the neck for China, but it sure is a bigger problem for the US and SK, and that might suit China's agenda somehow. 3. Even if NK regime collapses for X reason, it is very hard to say what would replace it. China wouldn't want a failed state at its border, nor a new government that might welcome US.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:53
  • @SJuan76: thanks, I edited the question to include "even if China keeps neutral [...]" Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:54
  • @OlivierPucher: Thanks, I do believe as well that PRC has reason to prefer that the WPK stay in charge and a total collapse be avoided. It's precisely because, in the event of a conflict, WPK would be removed altogether that I suspect a US-DPRK conflict would be most undesirable for China. I would upvote that if you posted it as an answer. Thanks. Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 12:02
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    NK has the same voice for "years: let's go to the negociation table before we disarm". The US never listened and said instead "disarm before we negociate". Furthermore, now the US have a president more unstable than NK's leader. So the actual solution is easier than ever: meet NK's demands on negociations instead of watching NK get better and better weapons and complaining about it. If you want peace, act as if you actually do. The US never did that so far. Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 17:59

8 Answers 8


Not taking over North Korea is not exactly because of the difficulties involved, since the Chinese have a relatively powerful military currently.

Rather, it doesn't benefit China much. Firstly, China would have to inherit the whole North Korean population and provide them with food, necessities, etc. It may even result in a refugee crisis for China should they cross the border into China which wouldn't be beneficial to China in any way, and may even result in economic costs.

Next, North Korea is a buffer state between South Korea and China, which already serves China's purpose. So, there isn't much practicality to take over North Korea. Conversely, China would have to put in more effort in terms of military defence should North Korea fall under their control.

Most importantly, North Korea isn't threatening to strike China and their ICBM tests don't pose a threat to them as much as to the United States.

  • Thank you. Next, North Korea is a buffer state between South Korea and China, which already serves China's purpose. So, there isn't much practicality to take over North Korea. Conversely, China would have to put in more effort in terms of military defence should North Korea fall under their control. My concern is exactly this: wouldn't China have reason to be afraid that North Korea would inevitably fall under American control if an armed conflict breaks out? Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 15:10
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    @TobiaTesan You're welcome! The odds of that the US taking control of North Korea are probably too small at the moment so China isn't that worried to take it over now.
    – Panda
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 15:16
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    @TobiaTesan If war broke out in the Korean Peninsula, it would mean the collapse of the Kim regime, but since China would still want a buffer state, they would prevent the US from occupying it (or re-unification). After the war, we'd have the same stand-off that we have today, just without the Kims. (Unless it develops into all-out war between the US and China, in which case, who knows what will be the ultimate political fate of the Korean peninsula.)
    – user151841
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 17:44
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    @user151841 they would prevent the US from occupying it (or re-unification) but how would they prevent that without entering into full-blown conflict with the US? Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 16:15
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    @AndréParamés China would be willing to go to war over it, and the US wouldn't. That's how China prevents it. That's basically how we arrived in the situation we are in today, some 60(?) years ago. If the US wants N. Korea, they have to fight all of China for it. The US doesn't want it that badly, while China does.
    – user151841
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 16:37

Not a complete answer, but elements of thoughts:

  1. Even if China could somehow kill Kim Jong Un and get away with it, would that mean the collapse of NK regime? After all, it has survived the successive deaths of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il without major changes in its shape.

  2. NK can be a pain in the neck for China, but it sure is a bigger problem for the US and SK, and that might suit China's agenda somehow.

  3. Even if NK regime collapses for X reason, it is very hard to say what would replace it. China wouldn't want a failed state on its border, nor a new government that might welcome the US, nor a massive immigration of starving north Koreans, nor undefined groups to get control of nuclear weapons.

  4. As you point in a comment "a US-DPRK conflict would be most undesirable for China". I agree with that and China policy in Korea is precise to avoid any war. That's why their diplomacy towards NK is fluctuating between sanctions and cooperation depending on Kim's bravado or US reactions. And the best way to avoid war might not be to try and kill a foreign leader.

  5. The main reason is probably the one given by @SJuan76 in a comment: overthrowing a foreign leader is not an easy, risk-free operation, especially if there are nuclear weapons involved.

Here is a detailed article about China's position, incentives and policy towards North Korea, for anyone who can read French : https://www.alternatives-economiques.fr/un-voisin-menacant-chine/00079881

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    +1 for NK can be a pain in the neck for China, but it sure is a bigger problem for the US and SK, and that might suit China's agenda somehow. While not "a complete answer", I feel it's the most illuminating among all the the other excellent ones. Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 9:11

Basically, the reason is that everybody except the North Korean people are more or less happy with the way things are. If anything changes, Seoul gets bombarded, China loses its buffer state, and it has to deal with millions of starving refugees.

The only problem is, the country itself is unsustainable in a very basic sense-- as far as its ability to feed its people. North Koreans are always either starving or on the verge of starvation. The Kim family is able to keep itself in power by sheer tyranny and massive propaganda. A significant portion of the North Korean population literally lives in concentration camps.

For decades, North Korea has had an insurance policy in the form of a "gun to the head" of Seoul-- a massive artillery battery that, when fired, will kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, and flatten a large piece of Seoul. So they are holding Seoul hostage.

More recently they have developed another insurance policy in the form of a nuclear weapons, and may develop reliable ICBM, capable of threatening the continental US.

It's true that if North Korea ever attacked Seoul, or hit US territory with an ICBM, they would be overrun within a week. But the damage would still be done, and that's what North Korea is counting on.

So, nobody wants the collapse of North Korea, but it's likely to happen on its own, anyway, so the question is, how best to manage the chaos.

China doesn't want to run the mess of the country that North Korea has become, and they don't want have millions of its refugees living in China. They also don't want a re-unified US-ally Korea with US missiles and military bases right up on its border, so they have an interest in a separate, China-allied country of North Korea. If China just took over North Korea, then its borders move, and there is no more buffer state-- they have a US ally, South Korea, right on its border.

At one time, the US was worried about the spread of communism and didn't want another communist country in Asia, but that historical era has more or less passed, and the US isn't worried anymore about other countries becoming communist because North Korea is providing a shining example. So they're okay with North Korea being a communist country. In fact, it's probably great evidence against communism.

So, the US doesn't really care that North Korea is communist, or that it's a buffer state for China.

Probably the best case scenario is that some coup happens, perhaps covertly supported by China, where the problematic Kim family is deposed, and a general or someone is made leader of the country, and they actually do a better job of running the place, and remaining an ally of China and a buffer state.

Of course, China can't be seen as deposing the Kim family itself, because that sends a terrible message to other Chinese allies: "If you ally with us, and you make us upset, suddenly we'll decide to get rid of you." China is making large inroads in Africa, and they want to demonstrate the benefits of allying with China.

That's a bit rambly, but this is a complex situation with several factors and factions to consider. Hopefully it makes some sense. Basically, China can't be seen as toppling the Kims if it hopes to have allies into the future, and it has to keep North Korea propped up more or less on its own, to function as a buffer state and not become responsible for its citizens.

  • Thank you. If I understand the gist of it, the answer is "indeed China has an interest to support a coup, it's just that we will never hear of any Chinese involvement if they know how to do their job"? +1 for pointing out China's african liaisons. Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 20:04
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    @TobiaTesan I think it would be a little too far to say they would support a coup per se; they're interested in stability. The Kims are a somewhat de-stabilizing factor. A coup might be one way to remove that factor, but it doesn't necessarily introduce stability.
    – user151841
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 21:01
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    @TobiaTesan rather than saying China has an interest in "supporting a coup", I would say they have an interest in "replacing the Kim dynasty with someone more stable". A coup could be a means to that end. The Chinese already have their man picked out, and if the opportunity ever arose (i.e. an actual organic coup occurred), rest assured that the Chinese would do everything to ensure that their pick rose to power in the wake of events.
    – user151841
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 16:37

China has a strict "non-interference in each other's internal affairs" foreign policy.

Even if there is a reason to topple DPRK's regime, the same reason will put some other regimes at the top of China's hit list. Take India for example. Its nuclear program is blatantly anti-China; its nuclear missile is dubbed "China Killer." For every belligerent rhetoric North Korea makes, India made a hundred more and a hundred times louder. If the US has no reason to put up with DPRK, China has even less reason to put up with India.

In plain English, for the same reason you think China should finish off DPRK, China should finish off India first.

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    +1 for highlighting non-interference policy. Old and recent experience strongly suggests that governments imposed from outside do not work in the end. Maybe PRC has understood this... unlike some US governments
    – Miguel
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 18:05
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    That last paragraph sure reads oddly to me. Are you saying the Chinese see the Koreans as special people who should not be interfered with, or are you saying the Koreans are special people and have special reasons why they should be left alone above others? Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:01
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    This doesn't really seem to answer the asked question beyond saying "China doesn't like to interfere with the countries around it", which may be generally true, but probably wouldn't apply to things China saw as threats to its safety. Also, the last paragraph reads like textbook propaganda. I wonder if the DPRK gov't has a presence on this site. Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:29
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    I don't want to see anyone met with fire or fury because, you know, they are human beings. It has nothing to do with whether they are, um, good looking or likely to "advance civilization", whatever that means. Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 20:26
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    China has a strict "don't interfere in our own internal affairs" policy, for sure, but they mess with the rest of the world all the time
    – gbr
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:35

I'll keep it pretty simple - North Korea has a massive conventional army (the majority of their money goes into military) and leadership that really doesn't care what happens to their people. Plus now they have nukes. If there was ever a time when it would be easy to march in and take them out, that time has long passed.

The other reason is - why would they? They are the one nation that North Korea never threatens, blusters at, or tries to confront. A relatively small nation putting a thumb into the eye of the USA, frustrating them and making them look less powerful in a region of the world China wants to dominate might not even be a bad thing, at all, in their eyes. They might be perfectly happy with this constant pain in the butt for the USA. In any case, it's certainly not going to bother them enough to risk thousand of Chinese lives and massive financial resources that any attempt at regime change would entail, for the sake of making things easier for the USA.

The status quo doesn't inconvenience the Chinese, themselves, that much. They tend to only step in and try to improve the status quo when there's the risk of of the other nations involved reaching a breaking point, which China wants to avoid because that means outsiders exerting more influence in the region.

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    When countries want to install a new leadership, they don't "march in", they provide backing (money, arms, etc) for internal opposition and run convert ops against specific targets. See the CIA's support for the Chilean coup against Allende, for example. Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 16:44
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    Unless "the country" is the USA, and "a new leadership" is wanted in the Middle East, of course.
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 5:29
  • @AndréParamés Not so effective in Cuba, neither will be in North Korea... Allende's was a weak goverment, like Venezuelan (although with the support of the military... for now). Truly regime change only happens if the goverment is weak enough, i.e. the implosion must come from within the goverment (like in the old soviet states). Syria is an example of what happens when there is a strong goverment in place even with direct military support. Lybia is the example of strong goverment, direct military action. Will US dare to a direct military action in NK? I doubt so...
    – user16073
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 10:55
  • @AndréParamés - Really? Afghanistan and Iraq might wonder what it is you are talking about. Also, if you'll notice, the OP specifically asked about "full-on military action." The concept of "internal opposition" really doesn't apply in North Korea, easily the most totalitarian and isolated society in modern history. But, yeah, my explaining why "marching in" is not practical here might be part of the reason why, generally, nations try other methods. Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 13:55
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    @AndréParamés there doesn't seem to be any internal opposition in North Korea, given that basically everyone has to spy on each other
    – gbr
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 16:06

IMO, North Korea's nuclear program poses a much larger threat to China as compared to the US. Even with North Korea's newest ICBM, only a small part of the US (Guam, Northern Marianas, parts of Alaska which are barely populated, and probably parts of Hawaii) are under threat. Also, let's not overlook the fact that the US has a huge and mature National Missile Defense. So, even if Kim Jong-Un gets crazy and decide to fire his missiles, the US has a good chance of taking them down before they hit their target.

Major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, OTOH, are well within the range of North Korea's missiles, and China's missile defense program is nowhere as sophisticated as NMD. In this respect, the North Korean missiles are much more concerning for the Chinese government.

I have no way to know about the inner workings of any foreign affairs agency, but I am pretty sure that, if given a practical option to bring Kim Jong-un out of power and install a new leadership, Beijing will almost certainly choose to do so. In fact, Kim Jong-un's assassinated brother, Kim Jong-nam, recieved protection from and lived in China for years. The mysterious Cheollima Civil Defense, which has protected Kim Jong-nam's son, claimed to have received assistance from the Netherlands, China and the US. These traces show that the Chinese government have a genuine interest in establishing a new leadership in NK.

On the other hand, why don't they do it? Well, how are they going to do it. Well, most close relatives of Kim Jong-un have been effectively banished from the country. Moreover, through a series of purges, Kim has executed most of his political rivals. At this point, it is hard to stage a coup whatsoever; a coup is not going to succeed without some support in the North Korean court.

Well, China (or the US) could invade North Korea, but that would likely mean nuclear welfare and catastrophic outcomes. A lose-lose situation.

  • Thank you, great points and very relevant facts. If you could add a few links for the benefit of future lazy readers, that would be awesome. Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 13:59

China is a government that throughout this political conflict has shown prudence and maturity. It is for this reason that it makes sense that it defends North Korea, since the threats of US imperialism are not rational, let alone if we think of the history of policies that the United States has imported to the rest of the world, thus capitalism A real threat to the world, always.

At this time, the People's Republic of China has tried, seriously, to mediate through dialogue and diplomacy. But with the United States, it is difficult to talk. It always was. Otherwise, let us recall the successive military interventions in the Middle East, the Korean War, verbal aggression against Russia, the arms race against the USSR in the Cold War, based on its anti-communist hatred and fundamentalism, or Implementations of the most bloody dictatorships in Latin America. We also see Trump's threats to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. In fact, Donald Trump is the most honest face of savage capitalism.

Socialist China has always been an economic and political ally of North Korea, not only for such interests, but also for geographical convenience, since it is not convenient to have more American territory nearby; And remember that an important border in China is the one that shares with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and the surrounding seas.

Anyway, if China already intervened in favor of North Korea in the Korean War, pushing back the Yankee empire once, there is no doubt that it could do it again, considering that they are now stronger than before.

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    This answer could benefit from addition of references. Also, some parts could (should) be rephrased to be more neutral (e.g. pushing back the Yankee empire may be regarded as pejorative; the same for Donald Trump is the most honest face of savage capitalism).
    – Alexei
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 14:44
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    Problem is that it is an empire, especially in Asia.
    – chiggsy
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 12:14
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    @Alexei, since when it is "pejorative" to call an "empire" people that are defined by their president as "exceptional nazion"? Do you remember what happened when Germany used pretty much same words last time? Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 19:35
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    @OlegV.Volkov - No, "empire" is fine (at least for me). Yankee might be pejorative in some contexts: "The informal British and Irish English "Yank" refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones" (source.
    – Alexei
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 20:33

China long abides to the principle of non-intervention. Breaking the principle may have causalities for its image on diplomacy. Look back what happened when USSR invaded Afghanistan and when Russia invaded Crimea.

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