“There will be instability in North Korea that, I believe, will lead to the collapse of North Korea much sooner than many of us think,” predicts Gen. Walter Sharp, former commander of U.S. Forces-Korea. Pointing to Kim Jong Un’s tenuous hold on power, Asia expert Minxin Pei adds, “No modern authoritarian dynastic regime has succeeded in passing power to the third generation.”
If the Kim Dynasty’s days are indeed numbered, what will the end look like? History offers some helpful, albeit not always heartening, examples of how North Korea could collapse.
The ideal parallel—the “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe and peaceful unification of Germany—is among the least likely. After all, there is no North Korean Havel to channel the pent-up fury, no Korean pope to speak truth to power. And for East Germans, there was no “Dear Leader” or “Great Successor” to worship. By 1989, even the true believers knew the GDR was dead. This is not the case in North Korea, where the people are completely isolated from the outside world—and totally controlled by a propaganda machine that deifies the regime.
North Korea is a place where citizens are required to donate food rations to the armed forces, where people subsist on a diet that relies on “wild foods” (Pyongyang’s Orwellian euphemism for tree bark and grass), where the government diverts one-third of its GDP to the armed forces even as children are orphaned by mass-starvation.
So, a “Pyongyang Spring” seems unlikely. And if Kim ever calls for help, it’s difficult to imagine the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) remaining garrisoned like the armies of the Soviet bloc in 1989, 1990 and 1991. The NKPA is the most paranoid, propagandized and privileged part of North Korea. Why wouldn’t it turn against its own countrymen?
Still, Germany is instructive in that it gives us a sense of the staggering cost of unification: Germany has transferred some $1.9 trillion to its eastern half since unification in 1990. It’s estimated that North-South unification would cost upwards of $3 trillion.
While the likelihood of the NKPA ousting Kim in order to rescue the North Korean people is remote, the prospect of a power struggle between military factions and regime loyalists is not out of the question. At least 100 high-level military and government officials have been executed in Kim’s ongoing effort to consolidate power.
If the NKPA pushed back in order protect itself—or turned against itself—the parallel might be the civil wars in Syria or Libya.
It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario not drawing in China. Given Beijing’s interest in preventing the sort of collapse that would either a) invite U.S.-ROK intervention on humanitarian or self-defense grounds, or b) trigger a confrontation involving four of the world’s largest militaries, Chinese intervention is not unthinkable. Call it “preemptive pacification.”
In fact, in 2014, Beijing leaked a secret plan drafted by the Chinese military to deal with North Korea’s collapse. The document included contingency plans for: responding to civil unrest in North Korea, detaining some North Korean leaders and protecting others, preventing North Korean officials from directing military operations, and constructing refugee camps.
China was once like North Korea, a hermit kingdom ravaged by purges and paranoia. But today, China is open for business. China is one of the main pistons of the global economy. And although it has a long way to go on political freedom and human rights, China’s quasi-capitalist economy has lifted 600 million people out of poverty since 1978. Could North Korea follow China’s path to liberalization, or could Beijing “adopt” North Korea and teach it the ways of state capitalism?
Regrettably, Kim appears more like China’s revolutionary founder Mao Zedong than China’s modernizing reformer Deng Xiaoping. (Deng declared, “To get rich is glorious.”) Thus, the prospect of North Korea liberalizing like China is remote. This is a closed society, an economy smaller than all but two U.S. states, a country whose most lucrative exports are retrofitted Soviet-era missiles and counterfeit $100 bills.
Although Beijing managing the North by remote control looks good on paper, China seems unwilling to play such a hands-on role. Instead, Beijing is content to allow Pyongyang to hamstring and distract Washington. As President George W. Bush explained in his memoir, when he tried to enlist Jiang Zemin’s help with Pyongyang, the Chinese leader “told me North Korea was my problem, not his.”
Sharp warns that “There will be strong provocations, strong attacks by North Korea that could quickly escalate into a much bigger conflict.”
Pyongyang’s provocations are serious and numerous: In 2010, North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan. In 2012, North Korea conducted two long-range missile tests under the guise of satellite launches. In 2013, Kim set the region on edge by detonating a nuclear bomb, proclaiming the 1953 armistice “dead” and threatening nuclear strikes against the U.S. In 2015, Beijing reported that North Korea had manufactured 20 nuclear warheads. And this year, Pyongyang detonated another nuke; test-fired an intermediate-range missile, which could bring Guam and Alaska’s westernmost islands in range; and tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
This is the sort of recklessness that could trigger a military response: What if a North Korean missile goes awry and hits Japan or South Korea? What if South Korea runs out of patience the next time the North lashes out? What if an ROK field commander responds in kind to North Korean aggression? It pays to recall that Seoul recently delegated retaliatory counterstrike authority to ground commanders, authorizing them to “respond strongly…without political consideration,” in the words of President Park Geun-hye.
No one of sound mind wants another war in Korea. But events can take on a life and momentum of their own.
Pyongyang’s outlaw nuclear program and erratic behavior have led some to propose preemptive strikes. In 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the Pentagon to develop plans for preemptive action against North Korean nuclear sites. In 1998, the Air Force even conducted simulated counterproliferation strikes. Those plans never were executed, and understandably so. As the Congressional Research Service concluded, “The tactical success of a counterproliferation mission could be lost in the consequences of another war.” Moreover, if preemption was ever an option, it’s certainly off the table today, especially given the American public’s post-Iraq fatigue and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
Korean War II
That brings us to the nightmare scenario. How Korean War II would start—another surprise invasion, a Cheonan-type incident, an errant missile test, an AWOL drone—is not as important as what it would unleash.
The toll from Korean War I should give us pause: 38,000 Americans, 103,000 South Koreans, 316,000 North Koreans, 422,000 Chinese and some 2 million civilians killed during three years of conventional warfare. Sixty-three years later, we have the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over the sequel. Even if Pyongyang is unable to tip its missiles with nukes, it could still deliver nuclear weapons via unconventional means: North Korea’s air force commander says his men are prepared to imitate kamikaze tactics and “load nuclear bombs instead of fuel for return and storm enemy strongholds to blow them up.”
The best version of this worst-case scenario would feature China doing the opposite of what it did during Korean War I: using its military leverage to end the North Korean regime rather than sustain it and shorten the war rather than prolong it. But even a short war would be brutal and bloody. In their 1998 book The Next War, the late Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweizer predicted that a second war on the peninsula would claim almost 19,000 American casualties—in less than 90 days of fighting.
Kim’s arsenal includes 13,600 field-artillery pieces/rocket-launch systems, 4,100 tanks, 730 combat aircraft and hundreds of missiles. Gen. Leon LaPorte, former commander of U.S. Forces-Korea, noted in 2005 that every third round fired by North Korea would be a chemical weapon.
Seoul would bear the brunt of the blow. With its 10.5 million residents, Seoul’s outer suburbs sit just 25 miles from the DMZ—a sobering thought given that 70 percent of the North’s ground forces are deployed within 60 miles of the border zone. That explains why experts talk of “World War I levels” of casualties.
Moreover, Korean War II would directly impact four of the largest economies on earth (South Korea, Japan, China and the United States) representing almost 50 percent of global GDP.
The fact that a second war would end the beastly Kim Dynasty is of little comfort. Such a war would give new meaning to the term “Pyrrhic victory.”
Rebuild the Shield
Like an anxious coach trying to run out the clock, Washington is hoping the Kim Dynasty falls like a rotten tree before it explodes like a time bomb. To prepare for either outcome, Washington must rebuild and revive America’s military.
The only thing that has maintained the fragile peace in Korea since 1953 is America’s deterrent strength. Yet the U.S. defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent today; and if current projections hold, to just 2.7 percent of GDP in the coming decade. The last time America invested less than 3 percent on defense was, ominously, 1940. This is the best way to invite the very worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
As North Korea’s neighbors warily await the Kim Dynasty’s next move, Washington should brace for the worst, shield America’s allies in the region, cooperate with China where necessary and try to keep the powder keg from exploding. That’s how presidents have measured success in Korea for 63 years—a low bar, to be sure. But given what Korean War II would look like, it’s a worthy goal.