The Day After In North Korea
The big question we should be asking is: What about the Day After? If the regime’s days are numbered, the end is likely to be messier than anything we’ve seen in the Arab Spring. Why aren’t we sitting down with the Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese and Russians and making a plan to prevent nuclear material from being sold to the Russian mafia or the Chinese triads; to keep some panicky general from incinerating Seoul (minutes away as the artillery shell flies); to dissuade China or Russia from sending in troops to take advantage; to prevent Nuremberg-minded prison commandants from bulldozing the evidence into mass graves; to fend off an even more monumental human calamity than the famine of the mid-90s? Then, how do we reunify Korea without bankrupting the South? These are the questions we and North Korea’s neighbors should be asking, together and urgently.
Because when North Korea goes, the Day After is likely to last 20 years.
This isn’t the first time that a question like this has come up, of course. I noted similar questions being asked by analysts nearly two years ago in the middle of the crisis that had developed on the Peninsula when the North had sunk a South Korean warship. Given the penchant of foreign policy and military analysts to plan for contingencies, one would think that this has already been discussed at some level at least inside the various governments that would potentially have an interest in the matter. Whether they’ve talked about it together is something we can’t know, obviously, but it would certainly seem prudent for at least some form of discussion to have taken place, especially now that the North is being led by an inexperienced young man whose control over the levers of state likely aren’t as strong as his father’s or grandfather’s.
Of course, the reality of the situation could end up being that no amount of planning would stop things in the North from descending into chaos. Absent a coup engineered from Beijing, the most likely way that the Pyongyang would collapse would be due to a crisis that causes the military, or some element of it, to rebel against the Kim regime. This could happen out of a sheer lust for power, or because Kim Jong Un loses the support of the military. (Along those lines, the recent stories that military food rations could be running low are particularly interesting.) If that happens, we’d likely be looking at a civil war that drags neighboring powers in out of sheer momentum. In the south you’d have South Korean and American forces wanting to contain the North Koreans on their side of the border. In the North, you’d have the Chinese who’d likely be dealing with a massive refugee crisis. That would be the point at which one would hope that the parties involved are at least talking to each other so that an internal crisis in North Korea doesn’t become something far more serious.
Beyond that, we’d be left with some 20 million people who are at least two generations behind the rest of the world, not just technologically but in terms of basic health and nutrition. The idea of Korean re-unification would seem to be something that would be far off in the future even after the Kim regime leaves. It’s going to to happen, though, whether it’s next week or years from now, so one can only hope that the world is ready for it.