If North Korea Implodes, Its Neighbors Should Pick up the Geopolitical Pieces

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains sui generis, a communist monarchy wrapped in mystery, prone to sporadic brinkmanship and violent spasms.  The young leader’s surprise execution of his uncle suggests regime instability, which might spark new international provocations for domestic political purposes. 

The latest events have rekindled predictions of a possible North Korean collapse.  In a recent study the Rand Corporation’s Bruce Bennett argued that “There is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future.” 

Of course, DPRK has outlived the Soviet Union by more than two decades.  Pyongyang may continue to surprise the West with its resilience. 

Nevertheless, the system is under increasing stress.  Columnist Steven Metz observed: “The execution could be a sign that the cohesion of the North Korean elite is crumbling.”  Jang’s elimination suggests weakness, not strength. 

Any future political battle could turn even more violent, including possible civil war.  The resulting hardship could exceed that resulting from the 1990s famine, which killed a half million or more North Koreans.  We should not expect a peaceful German-style resolution. 

Although most people presume reunification would follow a North Korean collapse, Bennett warned that “China could take political control of much of the North, likely in cooperation with one or more North Korean factions.”

What should Washington do?  Analyst John Guardiano advocated unilateral American military intervention: “we likely will have to occupy and rebuild the country.”  Seoul might not approve of the Pentagon turning the North into an American colony.  More likely, the South would lead any Western military effort. 

However, Beijing also would be tempted to act militarily.  Its incentive to act would be even stronger if U.S. forces entered as well. 

The DPRK military might resist.  Worse would be a clash between allied and Chinese forces.  Worried Bennett: “The forces of both sides would have significant incentives to advance rapidly into the North, leading to a risk of accidental combat between them.”

In short, a North Korean implosion could be an explosion as well.  Concerned governments should begin pondering likely contingencies.

South Korea has the most to do.  It should adopt reunification legislation, since under its constitution North Koreans currently are considered ROK citizens. 

However, consultations should not stop in Seoul.  So far China has been reluctant to enter talks regarding its ally, but relations between the two states have frayed.  The execution of Jang, a friend of Beijing, introduced new tensions in the relationship.

Desirable would be regional cooperation, including providing forces for reconstruction duties. 

However, the U.S. should limit its role.  Humanitarian aid should primarily come from multinational agencies and the North’s neighbors, especially South Korea, China, and Japan, which have the most at stake. 

America should reject any direct military role.  In no case should the U.S. be involved in occupying and pacifying the North.  The U.S. could provide logistical aid for any South Korean military move, though by now Seoul should be able to support its own forces.

Washington also might consider limited operations to secure nuclear materials and other WMDs.  However, even this mission would be complicated:  China is closer to many facilities, such the Yongbyon nuclear complex, and might quickly occupy them.  Moreover, the ROK might decide that reunification was a convenient opportunity to augment its own military capabilities.

And as I explain in the National Interest online:

Most important, the U.S. should ease Chinese fears about America’s role in a reunified Korea.  Although troops along the Yalu might seem minor compared to air and sea forces in the Asia-Pacific, the former would be a potent symbol and resurrect memories from the Korean War.  Beijing would see less need for a buffer state if there were no U.S. ground forces against which to buffer.

Kim Jong-un celebrated Jang’s execution as demonstrating national unity.  More likely, however, the regime’s foundation is cracking. 

The North’s neighbors should prepare for “what if?”  Washington’s most important role would be to limit expectations as to what the U.S. would do.  Ultimately Pyongyang is a South Korean and Asian rather than an American responsibility.