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December 18, 2017
THOMAS PETER/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are so high that the U.S. and China recently discussed a matter previously unthinkable: North Korea's collapse. China has propped up the North Korean regime for decades in order to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula and keep American troops from their border, but recent developments have apparently spurred Beijing to entertain the possibility of dramatic change.

Last week, while speaking to the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Chinese officials that American troops would enter North Korea should Kim Jong Un's government show signs of deterioration. In particular, the U.S. would be focused on securing the regime's nuclear weapons, Tillerson said, adding the assurance that the U.S. does not desire "regime collapse." Still, should circumstances arise that "unleashed some kind of instability," Tillerson said the U.S. would be ready to act.

China and the U.S. have long avoided discussing life after Kim. Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP that China has long feared that any discussions with American officials regarding Kim's downfall would lead to Beijing's relationship with Pyongyang "becoming hostile."

But China appears now to be preparing for the worst: Last week, The New York Times reported that the Chinese government is building camps near the border with North Korea to prepare for a potential influx of refugees, while The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that a state-run Chinese newspaper recently spent an entire page on instructing how to survive nuclear fallout. China's foreign ministry gave a coy response to reports of Tillerson's remarks: "You may have to ask [Tillerson] himself about his meanings and intentions." Kelly O'Meara Morales