ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronCrossEye IconFacebook IconIcon FacebookGoogle Plus IconLayer 1InstagramCreated with Sketch.Linkedin IconIcon LinkedinShapeCreated with Sketch.Icon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerIcon Opinion QuotePositive ArrowIcon PrintRSS IconIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronTwitter IconIcon TwitterYoutube Icon
A mushroom cloud rises with ships below during an Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll, the Marshall Islands, in this 1946 handout provided by the U.S. Library of Congress.   © Reuters
China up close

Why Chinese province is warning citizens of nuclear war

Newspaper's what-to-do list hints that Beijing is running out of options

TOKYO -- A Chinese Communist Party newspaper in Jilin, a northeastern province on the border with North Korea, has published a full-page instructional package warning residents to prepare for a possible nuclear strike.

The Dec. 6 splash on page 5 of the Jilin Daily titled "Knowledge about and protection from nuclear weapons," has since reverberated across China. It tells readers how they can shelter themselves in case of a nuclear attack or radiation exposure.

In an easy-to-understand manner, text and cartoon illustrations explain the basics of atomic and hydrogen bombs as well as measures that can be taken in case readers are exposed to radiation.

It instructs anyone who might be on a river bank at the time of a nuclear attack to dive into the water. It advises those who cannot find cover to immediately crouch down, backs to the blast. It tells survivors to wash their clothes, clean their ears and take showers.

The timing of the piece needs no explanation, and none was given. Tensions with North Korea over that country's nuclear and missile development programs are high in China, too.

There is no explicit mention of North Korea on the page. However, two historical events involving Japan and the U.S. are discussed, giving readers valuable insight into the current security situation surrounding Jilin and other parts of China. Reading the package, it would be easy to conclude that a crisis is imminent.

Look at Pearl Harbor, look at Hiroshima

The page compares air strikes by an enemy to natural disasters in that both can be unpredictable. The package cites the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

It mentions that during World War II, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and, in less than 100 minutes, almost annihilated the U.S. Pacific Fleet. It also notes that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima destroyed almost all buildings in the area and killed more than 70,000 people.

Readers can easily come away with the possible scenarios: A U.S. air strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities, an accidental nuclear blast, radiation leaks.

Chinese officials have cautioned against over-interpreting the information, saying it was provided as part of regular efforts to keep residents alert. But most residents are not taking this explanation at face value.

Immediately after the information was published, the Global Times ran a story on the international situation that linked the Jilin Daily package to North Korea's nuclear tests. The Global Times is affiliated with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

In this photo released on Dec. 3, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a local factory which the state media says supplied the tires for the 9-axis mobile rocket launcher from which the Hwasong-15 ICBM was fired.   © KNS/Kyodo

North Korea carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3. The force of the explosion was so strong that it left Jilin buildings swaying and the ground cracked. Later, the province was hit by several earthquakes, possibly triggered by the nuclear test.

Some people in northeastern China now live in fear. North Korea's underground nuclear test site is a little more than 100km from the border, and there are radiation concerns.

Since November, North Korea has also launched intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kim had stayed quiet during U.S. President Donald Trump's high-profile visit to China in November, but after Trump failed to convince his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to halt crude oil exports to North Korea, Kim went ahead with a launch of his new ICBM Hwasong-15.

Kim seems to be calculating that the Trump administration will not use military force against North Korea, at least not until after the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February.

Yet there is a wild card, Trump himself, who has made clear his belief that unpredictability is essential to winning good deals. Kim might be wondering: "Have I crossed the red line?"

For decades, many Americans viewed North Korea as little more than an irritant in Northeast Asia. Now, alarmed by North Korea's nuclear and missile advances, some Americans are calling for their compatriots residing in South Korea to evacuate the country, before Christmas, if possible, so that the U.S. military can have a freer hand responding to the blossoming threat.

The kingdom in the middle

While North Korea and the U.S. engage in a dangerous game of chicken, the player awkwardly stuck in the middle is China.

If the Trump administration resorts to an assassination attempt against Kim or conducts a strike on nuclear facilities, China will feel repercussions regardless of how surgical the attack is.

Beijing is preparing for the worst case scenario and thus the Jilin newspaper splash.

There is another worry for China: that of North Korea directly attacking China with a nuclear missile. The above-mentioned Global Times article talked about this possibility, despite calling it a "slim chance."

"Even if a war erupts on the peninsula, it is South Korea, Japan and the US bases in the Asia-Pacific that will likely be priority targets for North Korea," the article mentioned. "There is a slim chance that the US or North Korea will intentionally launch military attacks at China as they have no grounds. Meanwhile, as a powerful nuclear state, China will resolutely return like for like."

If Xi complies with Trump's demand and implements an outright ban on oil supply and everyday goods to Pyongyang, North Korea will head to collapse and all bets will be off.

Kim Jong Un could threaten Beijing with missiles to prevent the Communist leaders from taking such actions. The Chinese capital is a little more than 700km from the border between the two countries.

State-run KCTV footage taken from a Pukguksong-2 missile launched by North Korea on May 21 shows Chinese territory.

In May, North Korea launched a ballistic missile equipped with a small camera. When it released the footage later, the camera showed the skies over Beijing, as it headed toward the Sea of Japan in the opposite direction. The message was clear: All of China is now within gunshot, should relations deteriorate.

Beijing nuclear shelters

This is not the first time China has tried to prepare for a possible nuclear strike. In the 1960s, it moved industrial hubs inland and built subterranean fallout shelters in cities. At that time, the potential enemies were the Soviets and Americans.

Today, one of these shelters is in the basement of an old Beijing apartment building. To get to it, one has to pass through a heavy iron door.

This door leads to an underground nuclear fallout shelter in Beijing that was built in the 1960s and now accommodates members of the so-called "ant tribe."

The shelter is now inhabited by the "ant tribe," low-income young people, often college graduates, who migrate to big cities from their rural birthplaces.

There was a time when North Korea and China would describe theirs as a "friendship cemented in blood" -- an allusion to the Chinese troops who fought the Korean War on behalf of the North.

The two Koreas technically remain at war; the 1953 armistice only calls for a cessation of hostilities. In the decades since, there has been no peace settlement, and now North Korea has suspended top-level contacts with its neighbor.

In October 2015, Liu Yunshan visited North Korea and met with Kim. He was the last Politburo Standing Committee member to meet the North Korean leader. Led by Xi, the seven-member committee is the Communist Party's top decision-making body.

This screenshot from CCTV shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Liu Yunshan watching a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2015.

The Chinese president and party general secretary has made a series of miscalculations regarding North Korea. Xi has even received two humiliating "gifts" from Kim this year: one a ballistic missile test and the other a nuclear test. Both came as Xi was about to open major international conferences.

On May 14, North Korea launched a ballistic missile hours before a Belt and Road conference got underway in Beijing. On Sept. 3, Kim conducted a nuclear test as Xi was preparing to host a BRICS summit in Xiamen, Fujian Province. The acronym refers to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

By then, China was already losing patience. In a clear sign of China's pent-up frustration, Vice Premier Wang Yang recently spoke his mind.

"[North] Korea was once a country with which China had relations of friendship cemented in blood," Wang said on Dec. 1. "But this is not the case now. Bilateral relations have grown confrontational."

The remarks were made in Beijing in the company of Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.

Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, right, greets Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of Japan's Komeito in Beijing on Dec. 1.   © Kyodo

Wang, who was apparently speaking on behalf of Chinese leaders, joined the Politburo Standing Committee in October.

Senior Chinese officials have previously acknowledged Beijing's deteriorating relations with Pyongyang. But Wang's talk with Yamaguchi marked the first time for a Standing Committee member to publicly describe bilateral ties as "confrontational."

North Korea, however, remains a formal ally of China; the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance has not been abandoned.

Under the treaty, China is obliged to come to the aid of North Korea should the latter come under attack. But Wang's remarks suggest China will no longer help North Korea, even if it is hit with air strikes.

A researcher at a Chinese security-related think tank talked about the situation with a sense of urgency. "China cannot and will not stop a U.S. military attack (on North Korea)."

On Dec. 4, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly expressed his frustration. "After two months of relative quiet, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have increased again," Wang said when asked to comment on the U.S. decision to consider imposing more sanctions on Pyongyang after its latest missile test.

Wang said it is regrettable that the parties involved have failed to seize the opportunity of dialogue China had called for.

China has been championing simultaneous freezes of North Korea's nuclear and missile tests as well as of U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Wang's remarks officially acknowledge that China's call has fallen on deaf ears.

But China's freeze-for-freeze proposal had little chance of succeeding. Unlike North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile tests, U.S.-South Korean military drills are recognized internationally.

Essentially, China was pursuing an impossibility for its own convenience.

Damage control

The proposal was a diplomatic maneuver partly made to fend off criticism that China is not really trying to resolve the crisis. But with North Korea immediately resuming its chest-thumping after Trump concluded his Asia tour with an ICBM launch, China knows that the threat level has entered a new stage.

In previous days, when China enjoyed influence over its isolated neighbor, it may have used its diplomatic prowess to somehow end the nuclear brinkmanship between Trump and Kim Jong Un. But those days are gone and China's playbook has run out of go-to plays.

"China thinks the U.S. military could attack North Korea at any time," an expert on China-North Korea relations said, reading between the lines of Wang Yang and Wang Yi's comments. "The recent remarks by the two Wangs are intended as damage control and are a message to the Chinese people: Prepare for the worst."

You have {{numberReadArticles}} FREE ARTICLE{{numberReadArticles-plural}} left this month

Subscribe to get unlimited access to all articles.

Get unlimited access
NAR site on phone, device, tablet

{{sentenceStarter}} {{numberReadArticles}} free article{{numberReadArticles-plural}} this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most dynamic market in the world.

Benefit from in-depth journalism from trusted experts within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends September 30th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media