Next Steps in North Korea

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.


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“North Korea as we know it is over,” according to Victor Cha, Asian affairs specialist to President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007. “Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together after the untimely death of its leader, Kim Jong-il.”

For the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate that Cha is correct. If the Kim Dynasty’s days are indeed numbered, what will the end look like?

History offers some helpful, if not always uplifting, examples of how North Korea could collapse.

The ideal parallels—the economic liberalization of China and the bloodless reunification of East and West Germany—also seem the least likely.

The prospect of North Korea following China into quasi-capitalism seems remote, at least for now. This is a closed society, an economy smaller than virtually every state in the U.S., a country whose most lucrative exports are retrofitted Soviet-era missiles and counterfeit $100 bills, a place where citizens are required to donate food to the armed forces.

But as Ralph Cossa of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes, “There appears to be some hope, primarily emanating from Beijing, that Kim Jong-un will take North Korea down the path of Chinese-style reform.”

One way, perhaps the only way, this could happen is if China decides to intervene directly in North Korea’s economic and political system. Given Beijing’s keen interest in preventing the sort of collapse in North Korea that would either a) invite intervention by South Korea and the U.S. on humanitarian or self-defense grounds or b) trigger a confrontation enfolding some of the most powerful militaries on earth, such interference by Beijing would not be unthinkable. Neither would it be unprecedented. In fact, it arguably would be akin to an economic version of China’s late-1950 invasion across the Yalu, which aimed to prevent a U.S. takeover of the North.

Cha notes that Beijing could, in effect, “adopt [North Korea] as a province” by offering massive aid and assistance packages conditioned on the younger Kim’s “promises of economic reform.” This could stave off the sort of dramatic, near-term change that so worries Beijing.

As to the German-reunification scenario, it pays to recall that North and South Koreans, quite unlike East and West Germans, fought each other in a brutal war, which means they bear scars and wounds that pre-unification Germans did not. Plus, for East Germans, there was no “Great Successor” to worship. By 1989, even the true believers understood that the communist state 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. Witness the mass-mourning by the North Korean people—all for a brutal tyrant who starved them.

In other words, North Koreans don’t appear to have the will or the wherewithal—or quite simply the strength, given a diet that relies on grass as a staple—to tear down the Kim Dynasty. So, a “Pyongyang Spring” seems unlikely. And even if there is some germ of a freedom movement in North Korea—some North Korean Havel ready to speak truth to power—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, if the younger Kim ever calls for help. The NKPA is the most paranoid, propagandized and privileged part of North Korea. Why wouldn’t it try to sustain the regime? Why wouldn’t it turn against its own countrymen?

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  • tarleton

    The N Koreans are dangerously paranoid AND nationalistic …they fear unification as an invasion …these folks are like a paranoid and bizarre cult that has collapsed and need to be treated with great caution …let reality ease upon them gently , drip by drip , like an anesthetic …sooner or later they will sober up to reality

  • tarleton

    The N Korean mindset is very much like the japanese of the WW2 era …quasi medieval and prone to hysteria and fanaticism …instead of Emperor worship they have the Kim dynasty…..even the S Koreans are hysterical christians …koreans tend to be emotionaly immature and fragile …they don't stand pressure or stress very well at all ….HANDLE WITH CARE

    • UCSPanther

      I fear you are right, especially with the North Koreans.

  • Brujo Blanco

    I lived in S Korea for quite sometime. NK is a maximumly indoctrinated country. They literally worship their leader as a God. They will tell you pont blank that all good things that happen to them are because of their beloved dictator. All bad things are becaus of foreign enemies. The enemies are the USA and S. Korea. There are many young S Koreans that believe the left wing rhetoric and carp for the demise of the USA.

  • Ghostwriter

    There are people from both countries who live here in America. Believe me,many of them have no love for the Kim Dynasty,I can assure you of that. I don't know what will happen. I guess we'll just have to watch and wait.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    The South Korean Military is anything but immature and fragile, they are some
    of the best soldiers on the planet in spite of the misinformation on this thread. I
    would challenge anyone to last a day in training with the S.K. Tiger Division. I
    remember how the VC were terrified of the South Korean Army.
    The North Koreans are unique in the intensity of the brain washing and suffering
    put on them by their leaders. If the North invades South Korea the invading
    troops will quickly throw down their weapons and hold up signs, "will work for food".
    William

    • tarleton

      The japanese in WW2 were formidable soldiers and yet it's undeniable that they were mentally unstable , emotionly immature and quasi medieval ..the ''rape of nanking and Bataan death march were something out of the hundred years war of 14th C Europe …infact ,the japanese were very much like moslems with their fanaticisms and suicide bombers /kamakases, love of swords , bayonets and head chopping ….BANZAI !!!!

    • John_Kelly

      Great insight William and many (myself included) may be unaware of the facts regarding the S.K. Tiger Division's reputation in Vietnam.

      Keep up the great work in 2012 and Happy New Year.

  • g_jochnowitz

    East Germany fell when large numbers of people were able to cross the border into what was then Czechoslovakia and travel to West Germany, where they were accepted as citizens. The United States should make an agreement with China and South Korea in which we agree to pay for flying North Korean refugees from China to Seoul and then help the South Korean government pay for their integration. We have enough economic problems, to be sure, but nothing would be more expensive than a nuclear war started by the crazy Kim Dynasty.

  • UCSPanther

    North Korea’s massive army looks good on paper, but it is full of starving conscripts and using weapons and gear that have been obsolete since the ’70s. For tactics, they probably would employ old Chinese and Soviet “Human wave” attacks that have long ago been phased out in the face of more modern warfare. It does not help that their leadership is on shaky ground either.

    The South, in comparison, is overall better armed with more modern hardware, their soldiers are better trained and they would utilize more modern tactics on the field. Their leadership would doubtlessly be more stable as well.

    For allies, the US would be forced to back the south and they could easily get help from other powers in the area, such as the Japanese. The North, on the other hand is pretty much isolated, and I suspect that China would not be very keen to come to their aid in the event of a war. If China does intervene, as pointed out in the article, it would be more to stop the war, and they would probably seize control of their erstwhile “ally” while they were at it.

    • tarleton

      The Norks are brainwashed political cultists …in defense of their nation/cult , their morale is high …remember what happened in jonestown and the David koresh compound ?…these nutcases will blow themselves up and commit group suicide if pushed into a corner

      • UCSPanther

        You are probably right, but that will very likely change in the event of a war, when the NKPA faces off with US and South Korean forces and they find out how weak they truly are.

        North Korean propaganda paints an extremely distorted picture of their strength. It portrays the North as a superpower that is feared by everyone, including the United States. They even go as far as to claim that the US sends them tribute.

        Simply put, the propaganda fueled arrogance would be the death of a lot of NKPA conscripts.

        • tarleton

          the future of N Korea is probably more of the same …the N Korean leadership are not going to surrender as they'd all be out of a job …the S Koreans don't want the burden of a mentally and physically handicaped brother …they are becoming an embarressment to China who will play the role of kingmaker
          The long term menace from the ''hermit kingdom '' is that they will develop increasingly lethal weapons and become a weapons bizarre for radical Islam ..now that's a frightening thought

  • BLJ

    I have a hard time believing that the rulers of North Korea nor the Chinese would ever allow a reunification of Korea. I also don't think the South Koreans want an economic basket case on their hands.

    Kudos to WilliamJamesWard on his comments about the South Korean military. They can handle themselves in a fight against the Reds.

  • tanstaafl

    Feed them. Air drop food over North Korea. What will the Korean military do when the population discovers they can't feed them?