Is The World Ready For A North Korean Collapse?
With tensions continuing to rise on the Korean Peninsula and the latest round of talks in China seemingly ending with no real progress, some analysts are wondering if the world is prepared for the effects of a collapse of the Pyongyang regime:
[G]iven the worsening economy, the inexperience of the putative successor and the unknown reliability of the Korean military and security forces in the event of Kim Jong-il’s death, the rest of East Asia should be prepared for a scenario of rapid collapse in North Korea.
What is most worrying about a possible North Korean collapse is that the key players in the region are not talking to each other, even informally, about such an eventuality. It’s almost certain that these powers—China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and, possibly, Russia—have all drawn up their own contingency plans for Pyongyang’s quick collapse. However, they’ve done nothing to explore a collective response to what is without doubt a geopolitical game-changer.
As a result, many crucial questions remain unanswered. For instance, how should the United States and South Korea react if China sends combat troops into North Korea to conduct ‘humanitarian assistance’ missions? In all likelihood, Beijing will be tempted to do so if millions of refugees start fleeing into China. Which country will take the lead in securing nuclear materials? How will China respond to the crossing of the 38th parallel by South Korean and US forces? Who will take the lead in reaching out to Pyongyang’s post-Kim regime? What will be the collective security architecture after the Korean peninsula is reunified?
Bonnie S Glaser and Scott Snyder voice similar concerns:
It is premature to predict near-term regime collapse in North Korea, but it is not too early for major regional parties to plan for the effects of instability, potentially including massive refugee flows and unsecure nuclear weapons, materials, facilities, and knowhow that could be smuggled out of the North and into the hands of the highest bidder. Responses to instability could include decisions by China, South Korea and the US to dispatch troops into North Korea to restore order and to locate and secure weapons of mass destruction facilities. Absent advance coordination, these forces could come into conflict with each other.
The US cannot afford to let great power politics stand in the way of planning an effective response to North Korean instability; the risks are simply too great. Instead, it should seek to create favorable conditions for the primary parties, namely itself, South Korea, and China, to discuss likely responses to North Korean instability, while keeping its ally Japan informed.
All three governments should be prepared to offer reassurances to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation in the event of instability in North Korea. For example, the US could assure that it would work with the United Nations; would coordinate with China to secure WMD facilities, materials, and expertise; and would not station troops north of the 38th parallel after stabilization and reconstruction operations are completed. At the same time, the allies should seek assurances from Beijing that it would not intervene in North Korea’s domestic political situation to prop up a failing regime and would not obstruct ROK reunification efforts. Moreover, all three nations should agree that their armies would not engage each other in the North, and that no nation would exploit instability in the DPRK as an excuse to threaten any other state.
Given China’s strange relationship with North Korea, it’s hard to know whether this topic has even been hinted at in any of the discussions with the United States and other powers, but if it isn’t, it most assuredly should be. In addition to likely being a massive humanitarian disaster, a sudden collapse of the Kim regime has the potential to be a powder keg that ends with two nuclear powers staring at each other across the 38th Parallel while someone tries to figure out how to deal with the 22 million residents of a former dictatorship.