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

By Robert D. Kaplan
Korean Soldiers
North Korean soldiers in a training exercise, staged in response to a joint military display by the United States and South Korea

The abbreviation for North Korea used by American military officers says it all: KFR, the Kim Family Regime. It is a regime whose demonization by the American media and policy makers has obscured some vital facts. North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, was not merely a dreary Stalinist tyrant. As defectors from his country will tell you, he was also a popular anti-Japanese guerrilla leader in the mold of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist tyrant of Albania who led his countrymen in a successful insurgency against the Nazis. Nor is his son Kim Jong Il anything like the childish psychopath parodied in the film Team America: World Police. It’s true that Kim Jong Il was once a playboy. But he has evolved into a canny operator. Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at South Korea’s Kookmin University, in Seoul, says that under different circumstances Kim might have actually become the successful Hollywood film producer that regime propaganda claims he already is.

Kim Jong Il’s succession was aided by the link that his father had established in the North Korean mind between the Kim Family Regime and the Choson Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula for 500 years, starting in the late fourteenth century. Expertly tutored by his father, Kim consolidated power and manipulated the Chinese, the Americans, and the South Koreans into subsidizing him throughout the 1990s. And Kim is hardly impulsive: he has the equivalent of think tanks studying how best to respond to potential attacks from the United States and South Korea—attacks that themselves would be reactions to crises cleverly instigated by the North Korean government in Pyongyang. “The regime constitutes an extremely rational bunch of killers,” Lankov says.

Yet for all Kim’s canniness, there is evidence that he may be losing his edge. And that may be reason to worry: totalitarian regimes close to demise are apt to get panicky and do rash things. The weaker North Korea gets, the more dangerous it becomes. The question that should be of greatest concern to the U.S. military in the Pacific—and the question that will likely determine the global balance of power in Asia for generations—is, What happens when North Korea collapses?

The Nightmare After Iraq

On the Korean peninsula, the Cold War has never ended. On the somber, seaweed-toned border dividing the two Koreas, amid the cries of egrets and Manchurian cranes, I observed South Korean soldiers standing frozen in tae kwon do ready positions, their fists clenched and forearms tightened, staring into the faces of their North Korean counterparts. Each side picks its tallest, most intimidating soldiers for the task (they are still short by American standards).

In the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, the South raised a 328-foot flagpole; the North responded with a 525-foot pole, then put a flag on it whose dry weight is 595 pounds. The North built a two-story building in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom; the South built a three-story one. The North then added another story to its building. “The land of one-upmanship,” is how one U.S. Army sergeant describes the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. The two sides once held a meeting in Panmunjom that went on for eleven hours. Because there was no formal agreement about when to take a bathroom break, neither side budged. The meeting became known as the “Battle of the Bladders.”

In other divided countries of the twentieth century—Vietnam, Germany, Yemen—the forces of unity ultimately triumphed. But history suggests that unification does not happen through a calibrated political process in which the interests of all sides are respected. Rather, it tends to happen through a cataclysm of events that, piles of white papers and war-gaming exercises notwithstanding, catches experts by surprise.

Given that North Korea’s army of 1.2 million soldiers has been increasingly deployed toward the South Korean border, the Korean peninsula looms as potentially the next American military nightmare. In 1980, 40 percent of North Korean combat forces were deployed south of Pyongyang near the DMZ; by 2003, more than 70 percent were. As the saying goes among American soldiers, “There is no peacetime in the ROK.” (ROK, pronounced “rock,” is militaryspeak for the Republic of Korea.) One has merely to observe the Patriot missile batteries, the reinforced concrete hangars, and the blast barriers at the U.S. Air Force bases at Osan and Kunsan, south of Seoul—which are as heavily fortified as any bases in Iraq—to be aware of this. A marine in Okinawa told me, “North Korea is not some third-rate, Middle Eastern conventional army. These brainwashed Asians—as he crudely put it—“will stand and fight.” American soldiers in Korea refer to the fighting on the peninsula between 1950 and 1953 as “the first Korean War.” The implicit assumption is that there will be a second.

This helps explain why Korea may be the most dismal place in the world for U.S. troops to be deployed—worse, in some ways, than Iraq. While I traveled on the peninsula, numerous members of the combat-arms community, both air and infantry, told me that they would rather be in Iraq or Afghanistan than in Korea, which constitutes the worst of all military worlds. Soldiers and airmen often live on a grueling wartime schedule, with constant drills, and yet they also have to put up with the official folderol that is part of all peacetime bases—the saluting and inspections that fall by the wayside in war zones, where the only thing that matters is how well you fight. The weather on the peninsula is lousy, too: the winds charging down from Siberia make the winters unbearably frigid, and the monsoons coming off the Pacific Ocean make the summers hot and humid. The dust blowing in from the Gobi Desert doesn’t help.

The threat from north of the DMZ is formidable. North Korea boasts 100,000 well-trained special-operations forces and one of the world’s largest biological and chemical arsenals. It has stockpiles of anthrax, cholera, and plague, as well as eight industrial facilities for producing chemical agents—any of which could be launched at Seoul by the army’s conventional artillery. If the governing infrastructure in Pyongyang were to unravel, the result could be widespread lawlessness (compounded by the guerrilla mentality of the Kim Family Regime’s armed forces), as well as mass migration out of and within North Korea. In short, North Korea’s potential for anarchy is equal to that of Iraq, and the potential for the deployment of weapons of mass destruction—either during or after pre-collapse fighting—is far greater.

For a harbinger of the kind of chaos that looms on the peninsula consider Albania, which was for some years the most anarchic country in post-Communist Eastern Europe, save for war-torn Yugoslavia. On a visit to Albania before the Stalinist regime there finally collapsed, I saw vicious gangs of boys as young as eight harassing people. North Korea is reportedly plagued by the same phenomenon outside of its showcase capital. That may be an indication of what lies ahead. In fact, what terrifies South Koreans more than North Korean missiles is North Korean refugees pouring south. The Chinese, for their part, have nightmare visions of millions of North Korean refugees heading north over the Yalu River into Manchuria.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Location, Location, Location" (July 7, 2006)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

Obviously, it would be reckless not to worry about North Korea’s missile and WMD technologies. In August, there were reports yet again that Kim Jong Il was preparing an underground nuclear test. And the North test fired seven missiles in July. According to U.S. data, three of the missiles were Scud-Cs, and three were No-dong-As with ranges of 300 to 1,000 miles; all were capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. (Whether North Korea has such warheads is not definitively known, but it is widely believed to have in the neighborhood of ten—and the KFR certainly has the materials and technological know-how to build them.) The third type of missile, a Taep’o-dong-2, has a range of 2,300 to 9,300 miles, which means it could conceivably hit the continental United States. Though the Taep’o-dong-2 failed after takeoff during the recent testing, it did so at the point of maximum dynamic pressure—the same point where the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and the moment when things are most likely to go wrong. So this is likely not an insoluble problem for the KFR.

The Seven Stages of Collapse

Kim Jong Il’s compulsion to demonstrate his missile prowess is a sign of his weakness. Contrary to popular perception in the United States, Kim doesn’t stay up at night worrying about what the Americans might do to him; it’s not North Korea’s weakness relative to the United States that preoccupies him. Rather, if he does stay up late worrying, it’s about China. He knows the Chinese have always had a greater interest in North Korea’s geography—with its additional outlets to the sea close to Russia—than they have in the long-term survival of his regime. (Like us, even as they want the regime to survive, the Chinese have plans for the northern half of the Korean peninsula that do not include the “Dear Leader.”) One of Kim’s main goals in so aggressively displaying North Korea’s missile capacity is to compel the United States to deal directly with him, thereby making his otherwise weakening state seem stronger. And the stronger Pyongyang appears to be, the better off it is in its crucial dealings with Beijing, which are what really matter to Kim.

To Kim’s sure dismay, the American response to his recent missile tests was a shrug. President George W. Bush dispatched Christopher Hill, his assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, to the region rather than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I was in South Korea during the missile firings, and there were few signs of alert on any of the U.S. bases in Korea. Pilots in several fighter squadrons were told not to drink too much on their days off, in case they had to be called in, but that was about the extent of it.

What should concentrate the minds of American strategists is not Kim’s missiles per se but rather what his decision to launch them says about the stability of his regime. Middle- and upper-middle-level U.S. officers based in South Korea and Japan are planning for a meltdown of North Korea that, within days or even hours of its occurrence, could present the world—meaning, really, the American military—with the greatest stabilization operation since the end of World War II. “It could be the mother of all humanitarian relief operations,” Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell told me. On one day, a semi-starving population of 23 million people would be Kim Jong Il’s responsibility; on the next, it would be the U.S. military’s, which would have to work out an arrangement with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (among others) about how to manage the crisis.

Fortunately, the demise of North Korea is more likely to be drawn out. Robert Collins, a retired Army master sergeant and now a civilian area expert for the American military in South Korea, outlined for me seven phases of collapse in the North:

Phase One: resource depletion;

Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;

Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;

Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;

Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;

Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and

Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.

North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States. It has now gone back to Phase Three.

Kim Jong Il learned a powerful lesson by watching the fall of the Ceausescu Family Regime, in Romania: Take utter and complete control of the military. And so he has. The KFR now rules through the army. There have been only individual defections of North Korean soldiers to the South. Even small, unit-level defections—which would indicate that soldiers are talking to one another and are no longer afraid of exposure by comrades—have not yet occurred. One defector from the North’s special-operations forces told me that soldiers in the ranks are afraid to discuss politics with one another.

The North Korean People’s Army is simply too big to be kept happy and well fed, so the regime concentrates on keeping the elite units comfortable. The defector I spoke to—a scout swimmer—told me that while the special-operations forces live well, the extreme poverty of conventional soldiers would make their loyalty to Kim Jong Il in a difficult war questionable. Would they fight to defend the KFR if there were an unforeseen rebellion? The Romanian example suggests that it depends on the circumstances: when workers revolted in 1987 in Brasov, the Romanian military crushed them; when ethnic Hungarians did so two years later in Timisoara, the military deserted the regime.

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.

What Now, Lieutenant?

But middle and upper-middle levels of the American military worry less about an indiscriminate artillery attack on the South than about a very discriminate one. My sources feared that in the aftermath of the KFR’s missile launches in July, the Bush administration might actually have been foolish enough to react militarily—which might have been exactly what Kim Jong Il was hoping for, since it would have allowed him to achieve a primary strategic goal: splitting the alliance between South Korea and the United States. How would that happen? After the United States responded in a targeted fashion to the missile launches or some other future outrage, the North would initiate an intensive five- or ten- minute-long artillery barrage on Seoul, killing some Americans and South Koreans near Yongsan Garrison (“Dragon Mountain”), the American military’s Green Zone in the heart of the city. Then the North would simply stop. And after the shell fire halted, the proverbial question among American officers in a quandary would arise: What now, Lieutenant?

Politically speaking, we would be trumped. The South Korean left—which has been made powerful by an intrusively large American troop presence and by decades of manipulation by the North—would blame the United States for the carnage in Seoul, pointing out that it had been provoked by the Americans’ targeted strike against North Korea. The United Nations and the global media would subtly blame Washington for the crisis—and call not so subtly for peace talks. With that, the KFR would get a new lease on life, with more aid forthcoming from the international community to keep it afloat.

Which is why some of the military and civilian experts I spoke with argue for economic warfare against the North. Stop helping the regime with humanitarian aid, they say. The North Korean population has been on the brink of starvation for decades. The forests are denuded. People are eating tree bark. Stop prolonging the agony. Help the KFR collapse.

Of course, one problem with this strategy is that it could end up making North Korea’s direst military options more likely; as noted, regimes like this one, in the latter stages of collapse, are apt to behave irresponsibly, possibly resorting to WMD. Another problem is that we can’t do much to squeeze the North Koreans economically; it’s China, not the United States, that is really keeping the regime alive. The Chinese are already in the process of gaining operational control over anything in North Korea that has strategic economic and military value: mines, railways, and so on. Thus, any soft landing for the KFR would more likely be orchestrated by Beijing than by Washington, even though the Chinese might not mind saddling the Americans with the short-term military responsibility of stabilizing a collapsed North Korea.

After Reunification

If the peninsula could be stabilized after the fall of the KFR, this Greater Korea would have an instant, undisputed enemy: Japan. Any Korean politician would be able to stand up in parliament and get political mileage out of an anti-Japanese tirade. The Japanese know this, and it’s helping fuel their remilitarization. (The Japanese navy, in particular, has been emphasizing the latest diesel submarines and Aegis destroyers.) In July, there was a saber-rattling contest between Tokyo and Seoul over disputed islets that South Koreans call Tokdo and the Japanese Takeshima, in what the Koreans refer to as the East Sea and the Japanese the Sea of Japan. Harsh words were exchanged after South Korea sent a survey ship to the area. The United States has a history of underestimating historical-ethnic disputes: in the 1980s, it paid insufficient attention to ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia; more recently, it mistakenly downplayed Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq. It should not make the same mistake in Asia.

Here it is useful to review Korean history. In the medieval era, the Koreans fought wars against Chinese dynasties like the Sui and the Tang. But later on, following the rise to power of Korea’s own Choson Dynasty, in 1392, Japan gradually caught up with China as Korea’s principal adversary. There was a brutal Japanese violation of the peninsula at the end of the sixteenth century, culminating in an orgy of rape and murder, and a savage occupation at the beginning of the twentieth, which ended only with the Soviet and American conquests. (The Japanese effect on the peninsula has not been all negative: South Koreans may have trouble admitting it, but Japanese colonialism in the early twentieth century nearly doubled the life expectancy of the average Korean.)

Reunification would provide at least one benefit to Japan. As Park Syung Je, an analyst at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, explained to me, a unified Greater Korea might serve to balance against an even more significant threat to Japan: a rising China. But this Greater Korea would still be a linchpin of China’s twenty-first-century Asian economic-prosperity sphere, a more benign version of Imperial Japan’s Co- Prosperity Sphere of the 1940s. America could be pushed to the margins. Although Korean businessmen would resist economic domination by China, lingering anti-Americanism in South Korea might outweigh that resistance—especially once the generation that still remembers the sacrifices of American servicemen during the 1950s disappears entirely. America’s large troop presence will have granted Korea a free society, just as a similar American presence helped to make Germany a free society. But younger generations of South Koreans may remember U.S. troops only negatively—and what is more indelibly inscribed in the Korean national memory is America’s support for the Japanese occupation of Korea following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905. (This was in exchange for Imperial Japan’s support of America’s occupation of the Philippines a few years earlier.)

Greater Korea’s troubled relationship with China may ultimately be determined by what America does, and specifically by the degree to which the United States can get Japan to recognize its war guilt. If Washington continues to maintain a military alliance with Tokyo without Japan’s publicly coming to terms with its past, Greater Korea will move psychologically toward China. President Bush’s recent love fest with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at Graceland may have played well in the United States, but it was seen as an insult in South Korea because of Koizumi’s earlier visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the Japanese war dead—including war criminals. If the United States continues to treat Japan as a golden stepchild, then China and its implicit ally, Greater Korea, will have a tense relationship with Japan and its implicit allies, the United States and India. But because of its own manifold business interests in China, America could only balance against China very delicately.

China Versus America

With so many complex and subtle interests to weigh here, what should the American strategy be over the long term? South Korean army Colonel Chung Kyung Yung, a professor at Seoul’s National Defense University, says that after the KFR collapses and the North is stabilized, the wisest thing for the United States to do would be to keep 10,000 troops or so on the peninsula. Such a contingent, he told me, would serve as a statement that the United States is not abandoning Korea to a militarily resurgent Japan. The best way to stabilize Asia, Chung emphasizes, would be to prevent Greater Korea—which would be fragile in the period after the North’s collapse—from becoming a source of contention between China and Japan. Peter Beck, the director of the International Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project, agrees. “Because the United States is the furthest away of all these powers,” he told me, “it should be perceived as the least dangerous—the one power without territorial ambitions.”

Unfortunately, South Korean politics might make it more difficult to keep American troops on the peninsula long term. Yes, it’s true that of the few prominent statues of foreigners in the country, two are of Americans (General Douglas MacArthur and General James Van Fleet, the father of the South Korean armed forces). And it is also true that, because of late-nineteenth-century missionary activity, American-style Protestantism is practically the dominant religion in South Korea. (If North Korea collapses, expect Christian evangelism to quickly replace the Communist regime’s Juche ethos of self-reliance: Pyongyang was once the “Jerusalem of Asia” for missionaries.) And yet despite all this, the South Koreans have largely convinced themselves that they need to be as worried about the Americans as they are about the Chinese—just as they have convinced themselves that they should be as afraid of the Japanese as they are of the North Koreans. The fact is that South Koreans may not want any American troops in their country.

Already the American air and ground troops who would defend the South if the KFR were to attack are facing increasing restrictions on their training, because of South Korean political pressures. The A-10 squadron that would be flying nonstop sorties near the DMZ in the event of a war had to train in Thailand this past winter, because of limitations Seoul placed on its flight patterns. This is all part of yet another frustration that U.S. troops in South Korea must endure: having to be on a war footing in order to defend a government that wants to be defended but publicly pretends otherwise.

The truth is, many South Koreans have an interest in the perpetuation of the Kim Family Regime, or something like it, since the KFR’s demise would usher in a period of economic sacrifice that nobody in South Korea is prepared for. A long-standing commitment by the American military has allowed the country to evolve into a materialistic society. Few South Koreans have any interest in the disruption the collapse of the KFR would produce.

Meanwhile, China’s infrastructure investments are already laying the groundwork for a Tibet-like buffer state in much of North Korea, to be ruled indirectly through Beijing’s Korean cronies once the KFR unravels. This buffer state will be less oppressive than the morbid, crushing tyranny it will replace. So from the point of view of the average South Korean, the Chinese look to be offering a better deal than the Americans, whose plan for a free and democratic unified peninsula would require South Korean taxpayers to pay much of the cost. The more that Washington thinks narrowly in terms of a democratic Korean peninsula, the more Beijing has the potential to lock the United States out of it. For there is a yawning distance between the Stalinist KFR tyranny and a stable, Western-style democracy: in between these extremes lie several categories of mixed regimes and benign dictatorships, any of which might offer the North Koreans far more stability as a transition mechanism than anything the United States might be able to provide. No one should forget that South Korea’s prosperity and state cohesion were achieved not under a purely democratic government but under Park Chung Hee’s benign dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s. Furthermore, North Koreans, who were never ruled by the British, have even less historical experience with democracy than Iraqis. Ultimately, victory on the Korean peninsula will go to the side with the most indirect and nuanced strategy.

The long-term success of America’s basic policy on the peninsula hinges on the willingness of South Koreans to make a significant sacrifice, at some point, for the sake of freedom in the North. But sacrifice is not a word that voters in free and prosperous societies tend to like. If voters in Western-style democracies are good at anything, it’s rationalizing their own selfishness—and it may turn out that the authoritarian Chinese understand the voters of South Korea’s free and democratic society better than we do. If that’s the case, there may never actually be a Greater Korea in the way that we imagine it. Rather, the North’s demise will be carefully managed by Beijing in such a way that the country will go from being a rogue nation to a de facto satellite of the Middle Kingdom—but one with sufficient contact with the South that the Korean yearning for a measure of reunification will be satisfied.

Keep in mind that Asia—largely because it is so economically dynamic—is politically and militarily volatile. Its alliance structures are not nearly as developed as those in Europe, which has NATO and the European Union. Conflicting nationalisms are expressed in Asia through more than just soccer games. Thus, the question of whether it’s to be the American or the Chinese vision of North Korea’s future that gets realized may hinge on political-military decisions made in the midst of an opaque and confusing crisis.

North Korea and the Future of Asia

Before I left Seoul, I met with a local military legend. Retired General Paik Sun Yup, now eighty-six years old, was the 1st Infantry Division commander during the Korean War and worked hand in hand with General MacArthur. When we spoke, Paik insisted that crisis-driven political-military decisions here will ultimately determine the balance of power throughout Asia, the most important region for the world’s economy. “This peninsula is the pivot,” he said.

When I reflected on Paik’s words later, it occurred to me that while the United States is in its fourth year of a war in Iraq, it has been on a war footing in Korea for fifty-six years now. More than ten times as many Americans have been killed on the Korean peninsula as in Mesopotamia. Most Americans hope and expect that we will withdraw from Iraq within a few years—yet we still have 32,000 troops in South Korea, more than half a century after the armistice. Korea provides a sense of America’s daunting, imperial-like burdens.

But South Korea also provides a lesson in what can be accomplished with patience and dogged persistence. The drive from the airport at Inchon to downtown Seoul goes through the heart of a former urban war zone. South Korea’s capital was taken and retaken four times in some of the most intense fighting of the Korean War. Korean men and women who lived through that time will always be grateful for what retired U.S. Army Colonel Robert Killebrew has called American “stick-to-itiveness,” without which we would have little hope of remaining a great power.

In the heart of Seoul lies Yongsan Garrison, a leafy, fortified Little America, guarded and surrounded by high walls. Inside these 630 acres, which closely resemble the Panama Canal Zone before the Americans gave it up, are 8,000 American military and diplomatic personnel in manicured suburban homes surrounded by neatly clipped hedges and backyard barbecue grills. I drove by a high school, baseball and football fields, a driving range, a hospital, a massive commissary, a bowling alley, and restaurants. U.S. Forces Korea and its attendant bureaucracies are located in redbrick buildings that the Americans inherited in 1945 from the Japanese occupiers. Korea is so substantial a military commitment for us that it merits its own, semiautonomous subcommand of PACOM—just as Iraq, unofficially anyway, merits its own four-star subcommand of CENTCOM.

The United States hopes to complete a troop drawdown in South Korea in 2008. Having moved into Yongsan Garrison when Korea’s future seemed highly uncertain, American troops plan to give up this prime downtown real estate and relocate to Camp Humphreys, in Pyongtaek, thirty miles to the south. The number of ground troops will drop to 25,000, and will essentially comprise a skeleton of logistical support shops, which would be able to acquire muscles and tendons in the form of a large invasion force in the event of a war or a regime collapse that necessitated a military intervention.

Patience and dogged persistence are heroic attributes. But while military units can be expected to be heroic, one should not expect a home front to be forever so. And while in the fullness of time patience and dogged persistence can breed success, it is the kind of success that does not necessarily reward the victor but, rather, the player best able to take advantage of the new situation. It is far too early to tell who ultimately will benefit from a stable and prosperous Mesopotamia, if one should ever emerge. But in the case of Korea, it looks like it will be the Chinese.

Photograph by EPA/Corbis

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/10/when-north-korea-falls/305228/