In the last few months, North Korea has again displayed remarkable temerity. First, the regime threatened to conduct more nuclear tests if the United Nations does not withdraw its recommendation to prosecute the country’s leaders for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Moreover, US officials claim that the regime mounted a clandestine cyber attack on Sony Pictures, allegedly over objections to The Interview, a slapstick movie premised on an assassination attempt against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Then, in yet another melodramatic twist, Kim offered in his New Year’s address to resume talks with South Korea.
The Kim regime’s actions obviously merit consideration. But they should not divert attention from the real risks on the Korean Peninsula: Kim’s uncertain grip on power and the dangers that could be unleashed should his regime fall apart. Indeed, none of the region’s key strategic players—China, the US and South Korea—seem to be adequately prepared for such a scenario.
That needs to change. Crucially, the long-standing presumption that the US should take the lead in responding to what happens in North Korea also needs to be reconsidered.
The North’s behaviour almost certainly reflects mounting turmoil among the elite. For more than a year, the regime has been carrying out a purge of high-level officials, beginning with the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, in 2013.
Subsequent executions of Jang’s entourage and advisers, the recall of Jang’s associates from posts abroad, and the attempted kidnapping in France of the son of one of his assistants attest to the level of alarm in Kim’s inner circle. The elevation of Kim’s inexperienced 27-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jong, to a senior post, is another indication of growing anxiety.
The potential for instability has not gone unnoticed in China. An article published late last year in the official media by a prominent retired People’s Liberation Army general describes the North Korean regime as terminal. The article’s appearance is a clear sign that China’s leaders are debating how deeply they can afford to be drawn in if the regime collapses.
A similar discussion needs to take place in the US. There is no question about what America’s responsibility would be if the Kim regime’s downfall led to all-out war. The security agreement between the US and South Korea mandates a military response. What is less clear is the role that the US should play in the event of a peaceful collapse.
America’s contingency planning is classified. But publicly available evidence suggests that US forces and resources are expected to play the primary role. In 2013, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence wrote that America’s interests could require major use of US armed forces. Last year, the Rand Corporation estimated that as many as 270,000 troops would be needed just to secure the North’s nuclear weapons. In light of the costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US should give careful thought to its plans—and consider limiting its involvement as much as possible.
Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, South Korea is well equipped to take the lead in the event of a North Korean collapse. With a trillion-dollar economy, world-class technology, a 500,000-strong military, and a vibrant, well-educated society, the country is capable of planning, manning, and paying for the aftermath of a peaceful end to the Kim regime.
In order to do so, however, South Korea will need to invest in its capabilities to stabilise North Korea and manage its transition. Plans for major cuts in the South Korean military, along with a lack of public discussion about the country’s role in the wake of Kim’s fall, suggest that much work remains to be done.
If South Korea takes the lead, the US will be able to concentrate on its top priority: North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Whether the Kim regime collapses with a bang or a whimper, the country’s nuclear weapons will present both an immediate danger and a future proliferation threat. Ensuring that these weapons are not used, moved, or exported is a task that will require the capabilities of the US armed forces.
Communication with China will be essential. If North Korea collapses, the Chinese may well send troops. As US and South Korean forces would most likely be operating on the same territory, they will need to avoid misperceptions or mistakes that could cause unintended clashes. China’s military relations with its North Korean counterparts also could play a stabilising role, particularly if the Kim dynasty’s demise unleashes internal strife.
Given the instability in North Korea, each country should define its role now. Careful consideration, not events in Pyongyang, should drive their discussions, and the understandings and policies they produce.
By Kent Harrington & Bennett Ramberg