The Day After In North Korea

Is the world ready for a post-Kim North Korea?

Bill Keller raises an excellent point about the future 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.

FILED UNDER: Asia, World Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Do we know such discussions have not taken place? If they had it wouldn’t be something the parties blogged.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Obama has been crystal clear that his national security team is committed to a strategic rebalancing of US forces and long-term commitments away from the Middle East and South Asia, which are sapping American resources and power, and towards Asia.
    N. Korea is considered part of Asia…is it not?
    He made a fool of Donald Trump while SEAL Team 6 was busy killing OBL.
    Admiral McRaven said, without prompting, about Obama and the OBL planning:

    “…I would contend he was the smartest guy in the room. He had leadership skills we’d expect from a guy who had 35 years in the military…”

    My guess is Obama can manage to work diplomacy in that region without the pundit class being aware of it. I mean…really…as news stories go…it ain’t Seamus and Bo.

  3. to dissuade China or Russia from sending in troops to take advantage

    Do we want to disuade China from sending in troops? Frankly, letting China occupy North Korea seems to me to be one of the better possible outcomes. While certainly not a great government, China would be a major improvement over the current NK government. It would save us from much of the costs of trying to stabilize NK ourselves. And the headache of dealing with NK would likely distract the Chinese leadership from making problems for Japan, the Phillipines, etc. so tensions in the South China Sea might be reduced as well.

  4. PJ says:

    to dissuade China or Russia from sending in troops to take advantage

    Do China or Russia usually send in troops to take advantage in situations like this?
    So, why would they do in this situation?

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Agreed ! I can’t think of anyone else equipped to stabilize NK.

  6. CB says:

    would china even want to take ownership by sending troops? i doubt they want millions of refugees streaming over the border.

  7. PJ says:

    There’s quite a difference between sending in troops to take advantage or to stabilize.

    And why would China or Russia want North Korea? What’s there to take advantage of? Famished farmers? Concrete?

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @PJ: Russia probably has no reason to get involved – not so for China. They would have every reason to want the country stabilized as quickly as possible. They would also want to get their hands on the nukes before some crazy general decided to lob one a Seoul.

  9. @PJ:

    And why would China or Russia want North Korea?

    China doesn’t want South Korea extending right up to their border. North Korea is their buffer zone, and if it can’t maintain itself, they’d rather be in charge of it than having the US or South Korea in charge of it.

    So really, they don’t want North Korea, but they want the other alternatives even less.

  10. al-Ameda says:

    If China wants to go in there and try to drain that swamp I say, let them have at it.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    I’m with al-Ameda: you want it? It’s all yours.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    North Korea has been a “short sale” property since 1955 and nobody wants it.

    Once the people are safely relocated to Somalia or Yemen, North Korea might be useful as a site for the world’s largest skateboard park.