Guest Post: Preparing For A North Korean Collapse

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Michael Miner of The Diplomat,

A report by Bruce Bennett and the RAND Corporation has brought attention to one of the most important issues for international politics. Ironically, despite being a region of vital interest within American foreign policy, there has been very little public discussion of what to do in the event of government collapse in North Korea. Bennett’s timely report provides a series of vital contributions to the discussion and further outlines the lack of preparation in political, social, economic and military terms. Yet beyond the critical end game for the Korean peninsula are deeper questions concerning how any international force might respond. Specifically, how can the U.S. and Republic of Korea effectively mobilize regional powers with their differing security and development goals?

International cooperation can alleviate geopolitical tension and inform policymakers while sharpening the tools of statecraft in preparation for engaging the uncertainties of an all but certain crisis on the horizon. The U.S. must begin to consider the requirements of intervention – not to depose a totalitarian regime for the sake of an ideological crusade, but as pragmatic, necessary planning in the event weapons of mass destruction enter the calculus as a credible, serious danger.

Unpredictable North Korean rhetoric offers scant evidence for anticipating or understanding Pyongyang’s tightly managed system of control. Indeed, many revolutionary or transformational periods in history have been poorly anticipated by external actors whom otherwise might have played a more constructive role in their outcome. Invisible factional rivalries, natural or man-made disasters, and blurred lines of sovereign authority are only a few factors that might contribute to the collapse of the totalitarian system. Resulting anarchy involving weapons of mass destruction and the internal struggle for power should prompt the most serious concern. The event of nuclear use, or clear evidence of momentary launch, could escalate to outright conflict and plunge East Asia into a tumultuous period with unforeseen consequences. Yes, nuclear threats and open hostility follow a longstanding pattern of belligerent rhetoric from Pyongyang, but prolonged uncertainty only heightens the risk of miscalculation. A major crisis scenario that destabilizes the North Korean government and its mechanisms of control, no matter how unlikely, should prompt the international community to consider a multilateral framework for intervention.

Any comprehensive framework committed to stabilization and reconstruction must consider cross-cutting principles that can be directed toward achieving the desirable end state of a peaceful Korean peninsula. First, Seoul could lead the process of Korean unification backed by the political legitimacy of a democratic state faced with an imminent threat on its territorial border. A legitimate claim to self defense reinforces the long-term goal of Korean unification under the auspices of a self-sufficient and transparent democratic government, a favorable outcome quickly gaining traction in Beijing. Second, and most important to the international community, stability could be achieved through a unity of effort by regional security partners seeking to move the peninsula from conflict to a manageable level of development. Quelling a potentially transnational civil war involving weapons of mass destruction is a vital interest of regional neighbors and the international community alike. Finally, the incorporation of non-governmental organizations holds the potential to dramatically accelerate the process of modernization and diminish long-term social and economic inequalities that could manifest into political grievances following unification. Toward this end game, and before major reconstruction, any intervening force must achieve minimal levels of stability in terms of physical and human geography.

The first step toward planning a credible response is to consider the absence of a totalitarian regime previously possessing rigid control over territory, weapons of mass destruction, and the civilian population. Working under the assumption that Chinese and South Korean border issues could be mitigated by their respective militaries, and WMD tracked and secured by American military forces working alongside integrated allies, the preeminent question becomes one of human security. Specifically, how to deal with twenty million physically and psychologically scarred individuals as an operational challenge. Regardless of the ongoing struggle for power and stability, these individuals represent a major hurdle for any external force crossing the 38th parallel and constitute the bulk of human terrain. For many, their day-to-day lives reflect a permanent wartime experience, an existence on the edge that has defined families for more than three generations. Devout loyalty to the North Korean system is arguably so ingrained within many citizens, it is difficult to project how the majority of individuals would behave after the cataclysmic event of totalitarian collapse.

There would likely be a profound absence of the overarching stability that has come to define the norm within Pyongyang’s invasive culture of oppression. Beyond fundamental necessities of food, water, shelter and physical security, what unforeseen conditions might an external group encounter among the civilian population? The disintegration, or even transformation, of this familiar norm would potentially compound dangerous social, economic and political inadequacies while pushing individuals past an already desperate state of existence. To paraphrase experts, exposure to an event involving potential death or serious injury to the self or others leads to intense states of fear, helplessness or horror. Under this scenario, an outside group would likely encounter upwards of twenty million individuals suffering from the effects of severe grief and incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder. These reactions might appear as abnormal reactions to normal stress, but inside the reality of North Korea, it would reflect a normal reaction to abnormal stress. Whether an intervening humanitarian force, or an individual state dealing with refugees fleeing across its border, responsible powers should not overlook such a traumatic moment for geopolitics.

Lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan point to a roadmap for civilian engagement strategies that could be applied though cooperative security action. Provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) represented a concerted effort to utilize joint civil-military teams to provide security and support development efforts during conflict and subsequent reconstruction. There have been three distinct models with varying composition that demonstrated different levels of effectiveness. In particular, the British model placed a high emphasis on civil-military integration and partnerships, in contrast to U.S. and German PRT models led by the military. The British model also had a high level of responsiveness to suggestions made by non-governmental organizations and other civilian organizations that specialized in the regional, cultural and social aspects of the operational environment. This cooperative aspect would be integral for any international force composed of distinct – and potentially rival – powers. Competitive realpolitik might further be dampened by sharing mission responsibilities and incorporating nongovernment organizations from each state involved – especially humanitarian organizations.

A larger variance of the British model could include units from regional security partners tasked with specific operational assignments dependent on capability. South Korea would take the lead in political and cultural affairs with the Ministry of Unification serving as the central governing authority working in tandem with local North Korean elements able to manage districts. The United States and China would be capable for providing major logistical and military support and, in addition to securing any weapons of mass destruction, assist South Korean forces in a shape, clear, and hold strategy with Seoul leading the building phase and directing international support to areas where it is most needed. This would represent an all-encompassing effort led by and for the Korean people to generate conflict-free zones of human development, areas paramount toward long-term stability where additional foreign aid could accelerate the healing process for a nation torn asunder for more than three generations.

Traditional units tasked with reconstruction could focus on adequate sources of fresh water and critical infrastructure. Japanese units with specialist medical and engineering equipment that performed admirably in the past could begin to tangibly mend historical divides between Seoul, Pyongyang and Tokyo. Currency guarantees and mechanisms for market stability could be implemented to address widespread looting, hording, black market trading, and increasing civil violence. North Korean political elites and individuals capable of assuming leadership positions in regional zones of development might be seconded as conduits for resource management. Outside specialist humanitarian units familiar with Korean culture would go a measurable way toward winning hearts and minds, or at least maintaining a sense of normalcy for a nation experiencing social, political, and economic trauma on a massive scale. Additional sociological attaches could only better equip forces to better redress problems as they arise: it could be a force multiplier. Indeed, the most effective force deployed alongside security teams might be a brigade of social scientists able to support field operations, an unconventional approach in many respects, but North Korea is the unconventional state of the modern era.

For the U.S., this reflects not only the reality of resource scarcity and austere military budgets, but is a better approach that draws on the expertise of non-government experts that comprehend social and economic dimensions better than many civil servants and military units spread across a wide assortment of responsibilities. Establishing cultural awareness and mapping the human terrain also creates major operational advantages for American forces. Burden sharing with South Korea, Japan and China not only alleviates stress on the United States, but can efficiently marshal capability without approaching the maximum, national effort often associated with the American way of war. Follow-up development efforts and foreign investment would also be most effectively applied when first directed by and for the Korean people. In concert with a limited military focus on security, these foundational partnerships can develop the capability and flexibility necessary for navigating the dangers of a major crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Nobody should actively seek intervention based solely on the rhetoric of human rights violations or ideological principles. Yet responsible great powers should prepare for the eventuality as seldom has a major crisis occurred with significant warning and the luxuries of foresight. Active stewardship can remedy grievous human rights violations, alleviate regional security concerns, and dampen great power competition. An evolving plan of action can equip the international community to deal with known challenges while simultaneously developing the organizational capacity to marshal an effective response to the unknown dynamics that emerge during a crisis. A credible plan of action might also encourage more responsible behavior by the Kim regime and decrease the likelihood of any major crisis requiring intervention. Zeroing in on the core human security dynamics that impact the day-to-day lives of each individual is the first step toward crafting a more complete picture of the humanitarian crisis in the Hermit Kingdom. Preparing for the unthinkable is not a simple moral imperative, but responsible leadership in the twenty-first century.

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XenoFrog's picture

Most western countries are too busy trying to model their governments into what North Korea has.

Hedgetard55's picture

Fuck the Koreans.


Listen to some genius here to get through this night.

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

I found the Koreans (South) to be pretty tough and well-educated.  The ones I dealt with (the export and production guys at their bearing companies ALL worked 60 hour weeks, they all had families) were all "world-class" businessmen and engineers.

If the Korean situation gets resolved in a peaceful way, with a democratic type government, East Asia will become a very different place.

thisandthat's picture

"well-educated"... but definitely not well-mannered, specially when you, as a tourist, start to speak anything other than korean on the bus, even just between foreigners...

Manthong's picture

If we can absorb 20 million Mexicans, the freaking Chinese can absorb 20 million North Koreans.

kaiserhoff's picture

I have no experience in Asia, but most people adjust to having more money and freedom in about .2 microseconds.

  Anyone remember the fall of the Berlin Wall?


Keyser's picture

The author of the article should be more concerned about the collapse of the western monetary system. Should NK go tits-up, the South Koreans and Chinese will step in. Why the west is even contemplating this shows their hubris to their own situation. 


mjcOH1's picture

The Chinese will eat them, make magic powders out of them, or grind them up as supplements in baby formula sold to the idle-entitled at Walmart.  Problem solved.

Freddie's picture

It is the scummy Rand Corp. - think tank for the NWO. They run simulations on how the elites could kill millions.   Search on a non-google search engine for Alex Jones Infowars and The Rand Corp.  He hates The Rand Corp.

johnQpublic's picture

author is out of his god damn mind



let them figure it out on their own, come up with their own form of freedom and government

oak's picture

the diplomat is based in tokyo, japan.

buckethead's picture

Here is an awesome documentary that eminated from North Korea. Just get past the Dear Leader crap in the beginning. There is real value here.

Landrew's picture

Yes Ido, I also know the most popular T-shirt in WEST Berlin is RE-BUILD THE WALL!  

AbbeBrel's picture

The former East Germany has had the benefit of 22 years and counting of a "Solidarity Tax" from the Deutschland states from the helpful former West German states.   It is a temporary tax, like all taxes LOL.   One can expect some sort of "Soli Tax" from the south to the north in the ritual SheepleShearing by promising politicians (is there any other species?).


Looking forward to the US Gubmint Soli Tax to bail out state's public pensions...

disabledvet's picture

I think California already has a "soli tax" actually. (utilities demanded all roof top solar be torn down or something to said effect.) Needless to say a "work around" has been instituted called Tesla and Solar City...among other things (Prop 9 or 13 or whatever that law is that caps your real value at time of purchase.) Just what America needs of course..."land war in Asia." you won't here me whining about "no engagement with Syria" if this is the alternative. But as with Syria the Service Chiefs are ready for this one as well.

A Nanny Moose's picture

East Asia will become a very different place.

Indeed. We will always have been at war with "them."

ebworthen's picture

China will be in there lickety split.

Arius's picture

exactly it is china's sphere of influence ...

Antifaschistische's picture

Do North Koreans feel more Korean, or more Chinese.   I apologize for my ignorance.

Either way...divide the country in some way...South Korean gets the south and China gets the North.   The North Koreans would probably be releived either way.

problem solved.

Call me Ishmael's picture

Maybe the North Koreans made those stock market trades right before 911 that profited from the attacks. Remember those?

Or maybe it was these guys...

You know, the guys that have cartel controls on finance, government, media, porn, The Eskimos of course. Did I say Eskimos? I meant Jews.

Call me Ishmael's picture

What if instead of Jews they were Gypsies, or Bloods and Crips? Would I be racists? Are they a race? What is their culture?

What gives this cult the right to take over centers of power with their buddy system?

They didn't get there by way of talent because they are incompetent and committing wholesale fraud.

unrulian's picture

That reminds me.... Where TF is Francis_S lately?

Colonel Klink's picture

Shitcanned by the new PC management I'm sure.

DoChenRollingBearing's picture




First, virtually all Koreans speak Korean, their history since about 800 AD has been as mostly one country.  They have their own word that translates, at least roughly, as "Koreanness".

I believe that the S Koreans really have a deep desire for a peaceful reunification.  Their policies may not be correct (but I am NO EXPERT on Korea) and erratic, but it is what they want.

I read through the Comments before posting this, a lot of you are very knowledgeable!  I have been there (SK) just once, as a buyer of Korean bearings.  My best guess is that if the US is out, and the Chinese retain a lot of clout (Korea has historically been closer to China than Japan) when the North Korean Kim Dynasty falls, that would be about the best we could hope for.  With some give-and-take, China manages the North, the South and the USA help.

The original author is right, IMO, that an serious international effort would be necessary to maintain a peaceful North Korea, a deeply scarred and clueless country.

And a commenter below remarked that a combined Korea (some 70,000,000) would be a serious economic power at some point.  Yes...

+ 1 to Tyler and to all of you for an excellent discussion of an obscure but very serious geopolitical problem.

Fiat Envy's picture

I would say that older conservative South Koreans have a strong desire to see reunification but younger South Koreans are much less interested in reunification given the economic problems it will bring.  I don't think China wants to be put in a position where they have to "manage" a collapsed North Korea either, I suspect that is why they prop up the Kim regime.  I think China would accept a unified Korea as long as it didn't result in US troops on their border. I do agree that a unified Korea would be powerful economically if they managed to make it through the first decade more or less intact but I don't think they could do it on their own.

NidStyles's picture

Except you're wrong it's the younger folks that want re-unification. The older folks just want to win their war...

As far as the South is considered there, they are still at war with the North.

Fiat Envy's picture

I have personally heard dozens of people over 55 say they dreamed of re-unification, and by that I mean peaceful re-unification.  I cannot recall having heard anyone under 45, or 46 if you prefer, say they dreamed of re-unification.  Younger people tend to wonder what that means for their standard of living and their childrens standard of living and give lukewarm support at best.  That said support for humanitarian aid for the poor in the north runs through ever age group and across party lines, if the north collapsed tomorrow people in the south would feel duty bound to help the people in the north.  Korea is a homogenous country and when Koreans settle on a course of action are capable of acting with a unity and devotion that is shocking to people raised in multicultural western countries.  It is possible that people in the south will feel it is their duty re-unite the country, if that happens they will simple do it, but I am telling you that support for re-unification isn't what you might think it is by watching the news or talking to older businessmen and diplomats.

 As far as winning the war goes, I don't think ordinary people in the south give much thought to the war other than on June 6th or when the north launches one of its hair brained attacks.  

Freddie's picture

The South had been a poor country decades ago and now they are fairly wealthy.  They like their higher standard of living and reunicication will cost a LOT of $$$.  West Germans, a few years into reunicication, wished they had built the wall higher because of the taxes they had to pay and things changed.  Russians and Easterners also had more access to reunited Germany.  A lot of older West Germans were not too happy about the whole deal.

N and S Korea are like two different planets.  The N Koreans are so brainwashed that they are like Americans who watch TV and Hollywood's shit.  Stupid and totally brainwashed robots.

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

Freddie wrote re Norks: "Stupid and totally brainwashed robots."

Harsh, but essentially true (is my understanding).

South Korea would be on the hook for many BILLIONS, but, the way those guys work, I think it could be done.  Then you have a new player in East Asia.

HoleInTheDonut's picture

Preparing for the NK collapse?  U.S. contribution should be to create about 50 moth-balled, prefabbed NIKE factories.  That's the future of North Korea.  No military prep required.

StychoKiller's picture

NIKEs?  Ya mean these Nikes, or the shoes?

sessinpo's picture

ebworthen    China will be in there lickety split.


Arius     exactly it is china's sphere of influence ...




I disagree. China only puts up a front. Of course China wants the sphere of influence. It has that already simply by logistics, regardless of what the US does. If the US has to get REALLY involved, that would be like the US paying alimony to an ex wife that is now living with the pool boy. In other words, financially, it would cost the US more then China.

screw face's picture

(((((BRIIICS)))))...will fix

GenXer's picture

Jim Rogers called the collapse of North Korea sometime ago. He even bought up as many regime minted gold coin sets as he could predicting their collectablity when the collaspe happens.

Capitalist87's picture

He actually bought all of them. I asked him how anyone else can invest in N. Korea because he bought all the gold coins and all he could say was, "Yes I did buy them all". Jim believes that Korea will be unified again within the next 4, 5, or 6 years. The South and North will combine and create a power house because of the cheap labor in the North and the capital in the South. I don't believe China will get involved because they have too many of their own to worry about, though I am sure some of the North Koreans will trickle into China at some point. Lets see if he is right yet again!

StychoKiller's picture

Currently, it's in China's best interests to have a split Korea -- one less competitor.

RSloane's picture

The US best be worried about the collapse of their Northern cities versus what happens anywhere else.

spanish inquisition's picture

So the issue with North Korea is that the wrong dictator is in charge.

Joebloinvestor's picture

First, make a lot of body bags.

prains's picture

Bullet Stoppers 'R US, hasn't fully implemented its recruitement plan, the SNAP cards are still being reloaded so any plan has to be stalled until the populas has been fully "motivated"

Peter Pan's picture

I think those crazy North Koreans will get what they want when they threaten to send a missile to Fukushima.

Having said that it takes a great deal of courage to prepare for the inevitable.

screw face's picture

+1 PP


They won't need to...somebody has bigger and better bombs...

Peter Pan's picture

I think those crazy North Koreans will get what they want when they threaten to send a missile to Fukushima.

Having said that it takes a great deal of courage to prepare for the inevitable.

Peter Pan's picture

Sorry for double post. I must be getting trigger happy.

jon dough's picture

Thank God, I thought it was the scotch...


Ever notice how TPTB never seem to arrive until AFTER the genocide? It is always perfectly clear that they knew about the carnage as it progressed but can't seem to mobilize to save the day until after millions are dead. WHY IS THAT? 

Clever Name's picture

I get your point, would prefer what exactly? US military intervention?


Canada, France, Italy... anyone that stills gives a rats arse about human life. N. Korea is pitch black in nightime satelite photos while S. Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree. You know why? Because there is hardly anyone left in that shithole. I weep for those poor bastards. How long before it is our turn?