When North Korea Falls

The furor over Kim Jong Il’s missile tests and nuclear brinksmanship obscures the real threat: the prospect of North Korea’s catastrophic collapse. How the regime ends could determine the balance of power in Asia for decades. The likely winner? China
How to Prevent Another Iraq

Stephen Bradner, a civilian expert on the region and an adviser to the military in South Korea, has thought a lot about the tactical and operational problems an unraveling North Korean state would present. So has Colonel Maxwell, the chief of staff of U.S. Special Operations in South Korea. “The regime in Pyongyang could collapse without necessarily its army corps and brigades collapsing,” Maxwell says. “So we might have to mount a relief operation at the same time that we’d be conducting combat ops. If there is anybody in the UN who thinks it will just be a matter of feeding people, they’re smoking dope.”

Maxwell has conducted similar operations before: he was the commander of a U.S. Army Special Forces battalion that landed on Basilan Island, in the southern Philippines, in early 2002, part of a mission that combined humanitarian assistance with counterinsurgency operations against Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, two terrorist organizations. But the Korean peninsula presents a far vaster and more difficult challenge. “The situation in the North could become so messy and ambiguous,” Maxwell says, “that the collapse of the chain of command of the KFR could be more dangerous than the preservation of it, particularly when one considers control over WMD.”

In order to prevent a debacle of the sort that occurred in Iraq—but with potentially deadlier consequences, because of the free-floating WMD—a successful relief operation would require making contacts with KFR generals and various factions of the former North Korean military, who would be vying for control in different regions. If the generals were not absorbed into the operational command structure of the occupying force, Maxwell says, they might form the basis of an insurgency. The Chinese, who have connections inside the North Korean military, would be best positioned to make these contacts—but the role of U.S. Army Special Forces in this effort might be substantial. Green Berets and the CIA would be among the first in, much like in Afghanistan in 2001.

Obviously, the United States could not unilaterally insert troops into a dissolved North Korea. It would likely be a four-power intervention force—the United States, China, South Korea, and Russia—officially sanctioned by the United Nations. Japan would be kept out (though all parties would gladly accept Japanese money for the endeavor).

Although Japan’s proximity to the peninsula gives it the most to fear from reunification, Korean hatred of the Japanese makes participation of Japanese troops in an intervention force unlikely. Between 1910 and 1945, Japan brutally occupied not only Korea but parts of China too, and it defeated Russia on land and at sea in the early twentieth century. Tokyo may have more reason than any other government for wanting to put boots on the ground in a collapsed North Korea, but it won’t be able to, because both China and South Korea would fight tooth and nail to prevent it from doing so.

Whereas Japan’s strategic position would be dramatically weakened by a collapsed North Korean state, China would eventually benefit. A post-KFR Korean peninsula could be more or less under Seoul’s control—and China is now South Korea’s biggest trading partner. Driving along the coast, all I saw at South Korean ports were Chinese ships.

Other factors also work in Beijing’s favor. China harbors thousands of North Korean defectors that it would send back after a collapse, in order to build a favorable political base for China’s gradual economic takeover of the Tumen River region—the northeast Asian river valley where China, Russia, and North Korea intersect, with good port facilities on the Pacific. De facto control of a future Tumen Prosperity Sphere would bolster China’s fiscal strength, helping it to do economic battle with the United States and Japan. If China’s troops could carve out a buffer zone in the part of North Korea near Manchuria—where China is now developing massive infrastructure projects, such as roads and ports—Beijing might then sanction the installation of an international coalition elsewhere in the North.

Russia’s weakness in the Far East is demonstrated by its failure to prevent the creeping demographic conquest of its eastern territories by ethnic Chinese. It will be truculent in guarding its interests on the Korean peninsula. And Russia does have a historical legacy here: North Korea was originally a Soviet creation and client state. Keeping Russian troops out of Korea would probably be more trouble for the other powers than letting some in.

Of course, South Korea would bear the brunt of the economic and social disruption in returning the peninsula to normalcy. No official will say this out loud, but South Korea—along with every other country in the region—has little interest in reunification, unless it were to happen gradually over years or decades. The best outcome would be a South Korean protectorate in much of the North, officially under an international trusteeship, that would keep the two Koreas functionally separate for a significant period of time. This would allow each country time to prepare for a unified Korean state, without the attendant chaos.

Following the Communist regime’s collapse, the early stabilization of the North could fall unofficially to the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and U.S. Forces Korea (which is a semiautonomous subcommand of PACOM), also wearing blue UN helmets. But while the U.S. military would have operational responsibility, it would not have sole control. It would have to lead an unwieldy regional coalition that would need to deploy rapidly in order to stabilize the North and deliver humanitarian assistance. A successful relief operation in North Korea in the weeks following the regime’s collapse could mean the difference between anarchy and prosperity on the peninsula for years to come.

If North Korea Attacks

But what if rather than simply unraveling, the North launched a surprise attack on the South? This is probably less likely to happen now than it was, say, two decades ago, when Kim Il Sung commanded a stronger state and the South Korean armed forces were less mature. But Colonel Maxwell and others are preparing for this possibility.

Simply driving through Seoul, one of the world’s great and congested megacities, makes it clear that a conventional infantry attack on South Korea’s capital is something that not even a fool would contemplate. So if the North were to attack, it would likely resort instead to a low-grade demonstration of “shock and awe,” using its 13,000 artillery pieces and multiple-rocket launchers to fire more than 300,000 shells per hour on the South Korean capital, where close to half the nation’s 49 million people live. The widespread havoc this would cause would be amplified by North Korean special-operations forces, which would infiltrate the South to sabotage water plants and train and bus terminals. Meanwhile, the North Korean People’s Army would march on the city of Uijongbu, north of Seoul, from which it could cross over the Han River and bypass Seoul from the east.

But this strategy would fail. While American A-10 Warthogs, F-16 Vipers, and other aircraft would destroy enemy missile batteries and kill many North Korean troops inside South Korea, submarine-launched missiles and B-2 Spirit bombers sent from Guam and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri would take out strategic assets inside North Korea. In the meantime, the South Korean army would quickly occupy the transport hubs, while unleashing its own divisions and special-operations forces on the marauding People’s Army. The KFR knows this; thus any such invasion would have to be the act of a regime in the latter phases of disintegration. North Korea’s lone hope would be that the hourly carnage it could produce—in the time between the first artillery barrage on Seoul and the beginning of a robust military response by South Korea and the United States—would lead the South Korean left, abetted by the United Nations and elements of the global media, to cry out for diplomacy and a negotiated settlement as an alternative to violence.

And there is no question: the violence would be horrific. Iraq and Afghanistan would look clean by comparison. A South Korea filled with North Korean troops would be (in military parlance) a “target-rich environment,” in which the good guys and the bad guys would always be close to each other. “Gnarly chaos,” is how one F-16 Viper pilot described it to me. “The ultimate fog of war.” The battlefield would be made more confusing by the serious language barrier that exists between American pilots and South Korean JTACs, or Joint Tactical Air Controllers, who would have to guide the Americans to many of their targets. A-10 and F-16 pilots in South Korea have complained to me that this weak link in the bilateral military relationship would drive up the instances of friendly-fire and collateral civilian deaths—on which the media undoubtedly would then concentrate. As part of a deal to halt the bloodbath, members of the KFR might be able to negotiate their own post-regime survival.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent at The Atlantic and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. His latest book, Imperial Grunts, was published in paperback last month by Vintage.

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