How to Prepare for North Korea's Regime Collapse
On February 16, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye warned that North Korea faces regime collapse if it does not abandon its nuclear program. As evidenced by this remark and her notorious “jackpot theory” on reunification, she believes North Korea’s collapse to be inevitable. The passing years have not only brought significant changes, but a shift in thinking among South Korean policymakers. Some would even postulate that to some extent it has also changed the South Korean public’s awareness of the environment for reunification. Nonetheless, if North Korean regime collapse were to happen today, from what the South Korean government is demonstrating in their preparations of possible collapse, it is not convincing that they are ready for such an event.
Experts extrapolate that Korean reunification is likely to come in one of three basic ways. The first scenario, known as a “soft-landing” is where Pyongyang would finally disregard the Military First Policy and commit to an economic reform based on the Chinese model, and gradually accept rapprochement with Seoul. The second scenario, known as a “hard-landing” is the eventual collapse of a moribund North Korea who will be absorbed by South Korea. The last scenario would indicate pandemonium, attaining reunification through an unavoidable military conflict – a Second Korean War re-instigated by the North.
Evidenced by North Korea’s latest fourth nuclear test and spending millions on developing Weapons of Mass Destructions, surely, Kim Jong-Un is detaching himself even from China. Pyongyang would likely never launch a conventional war because Kim Jong-Un and his colleagues recognize that a total war would represent the annihilation of the regime. This outcome is counter to the ultimate goal of Kim and his staff, who want to maintain their supremacy over the North Korean population.
That leaves us with the most plausible scenario, a “hard-landing” where the regime collapses and results in a hurried reunification. An imploded North Korea poses many urgent issues; the most exigent of all would be securing Pyongyang’s loose nukes. In order to avoid an influx of North Korean refugees across the border into China and South Korea, Humanitarian Aid/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) should be also at the top of the list. Simply put, a United States led coalition would need to provide security and humanitarian aid while maintaining a stable, yet temporary government.
Many including the South Korean Ministry of Unification claim that along with 28,500 United States Force Korea troops in the peninsula, South Korea’s well-equipped and highly trained military will be able to rapidly assume control of North Korea and avoid chaos until a civilian government takes over. For argument’s sake, we can even hypothesize that the US led coalition forces will be able to immediately control 1.2 million regular troops and the semi-starving 23 million civilians. But even after the collapse of the Kim regime, the threat from Pyongyang seems formidable. South Koreans should not underestimate the 100,000 well-trained North Korean special operations forces, and never forget that North Korea possesses one of the world’s largest biological and chemical arsenals. It has stockpiles of anthrax and cholera, as well as “eight industrial facilities for producing chemical agents”—any of which could be launched at US led forces who are conducting HA/DR for the North Korean population.
Pundits surmise that these may be major challenges, but with enough planning, South Korea can certainly overcome the adversity presented by a hasty reunification. Yet, if Kim’s government were to implode, compounded by the guerrilla mentality of Kim’s special operations forces, we may see a chaotic North Korea that is equal to that of Iraq, Syria, or worse.
For any nation, this is unmanageable, particularly when there is no clear end state and the enemy is not a conventional force that can be defeated by multiple direct attacks. The residual North Korean military would be an unconventional network embedded among the civilian population and extremely difficult to differentiate. Similar to Afghanistan and Iraq, the enemy will launch sporadic attacks designed to impose casualties on the US led coalition forces under the theory that in the long run South Koreans will find the cost of reunification greater than the benefit.
The United States has heavily trained its military on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, yet failed to establish democracy in Iraq after 10 years and billions of dollars. The US also has more than 10,000 officers and enlisted personnel who are solely trained in civil affairs and psychological operations, also known as PSYOP. In contrast, the South Korean military seems to have only a few Army officers per each of their divisions who wear the civil affairs hat during bi-annual exercises. Therefore, one can assume that the South Korean armed forces critically lack dedicated civil affairs units besides the border propaganda personnel. The sole objective of this unit is to only play K-pop music in hopes of persuading North Korean soldiers to doubt their own regime or even defect. Yet, these units are certainly not equipped nor trained to conquest counterinsurgency.
The South Korean armed forces also lack wartime experience. South Korea has not fought on the peninsula in nearly six decades and has the luxury of enjoying a war-free existence within its national borders. The Zaytun Division deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan; yet it did not conduct any military or civil affairs operations. South Koreans only conducted medical, supply, and service support missions.
This daunting task would be easier if South Korea could involve Japan or China, and convince them to jointly develop North Korea collapse scenarios and contingency plans. In the event of Pyongyang’s possible demise, a coalition that could deploy rapidly in order to deliver HA/DR operations would possibly provide stability in North Korea. Successful HA/DR operations in the North immediately following the regime’s collapse could mean the difference between chaos and prosperity on the peninsula for years to come.
Envision the following: a semi-starving population of 23 million would be Kim Jong-Un’s responsibility one day; the next day, after the improbable North Korea collapse, it would be South Korean military’s. I carefully conjecture that in order to successfully control the meltdown of North Korea, within days or even hours of its occurrence, we would need at least half million active duty soldiers in order to conduct the greatest stabilization operation since the end of World War II. This is based on academics and military planners’ assumption that approximately 20 peacekeepers are needed per 1,000 population, which will require about 460,000 troops. Subsequently, the rest would need to secure the 38 parallel and the Chinese-North Korean border, secure the loose nukes, disarm the 1.4 million North Korean armed forces, and combat possible insurgencies. However, the Park administration has already announced that her active duty armed forces will be shrinking by almost one-fifth in the next eight years (640,000 to 522,200). Thus, even before the operations, South Korea will be severely limited to conduct what could be the mother of all humanitarian relief operations.
However, all is not lost. As Secretary Carter said recently, “US-ROK alliance has never been stronger than it is today.” But it can be even better. We should work on a number of initiatives to make it stronger and more balanced, with the ROK military assuming more responsibility regarding civil affairs and PSYOP. We must realign our priorities to ensure that we are best able to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Even after a potential “hard landing” scenario, we need a smaller footprint that creates less of an impact on South Korean civilians, but which provides a robust deterrent necessary to maintain peace on a possible unified Korean Peninsula.
No one knows when or how the North Korea might collapse, or if it will ever relinquish its nuclear arsenal and commit to economic reform. But given the magnitude of the potential consequences triggered by a regime collapse, first, the South Korean armed forces need to implement proper training that is primarily focused on a “hard landing” scenario. A stronger emphasis on accurate training would enhance their capabilities taking on such a daunting task. Second, the South Korean Ministry of Defense needs to revamp its military branches and create units that are exclusively dedicated to civil affairs and PSYOP missions.
Civil affairs soldiers are trained to identify critical requirements needed by local citizens in combat or crisis situations. Moreover, these soldiers would be responsible for the analysis, and distribution of information used for psychological effect. Simply put, they will be able to induce North Korean populace’s attitudes and behavior favorable to South Korean government’s objectives. Correspondingly, PSYOP units will be used to secure South Korean national objectives. While not a form of force, PSYOP activities are force multipliers that use nonviolent means in potential violent settings. Under PSYOP missions, South Korean soldiers will be able to disseminate truthful information to North Korean refugees in support of their policies therefore securing its national objectives. With these two unique units, the South Korean government will be able to convince remnants of the Kim Family Regime and North Korean refugees to take action favorable to South Korea after the collapse.
Conducting the bi-annual military exercises such as Ulchi Focus Guardian or KEY RESOLVE that only focus on OPLAN 5027 and 5029 is not enough. A disintegrating North Korea could turn the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophic and dangerous hot zone, in which uncontrolled nuclear weapons and an exodus of North Korean refugees could combine to be the worst destabilizing event imaginable in Northeast Asia with enormous implications for U.S. security. Nonetheless, by employing the aforementioned operational strategies to their military, South Korea can hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be unsurprised by anything in between.