SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 30 of 80 « Previous | Next »

North Korea Collapse Scenarios

Regime change in North Korea is inevitable. It is impossible for analysts to know how or when the current leadership will cease to rule the country; a stable and incremental evolution to a more humane regime is hoped for, but we cannot rule out the possibility of a sudden collapse of the North Korean state. Such a scenario is only one of many, and it is probably not even the most likely one, but North Korea’s continued development of nuclear devices makes the cost of mishandling a possible collapse so high that all contingencies must be planned for.

A concept of operations

The United States must be prepared to play a major and direct role in dealing with the effects of a collapse, should one occur. It may be somewhat natural to believe that North Korea collapse scenarios make the relative South Korean role larger than that of the United States. But this is a dangerous assumption and the U.S. must coordinate carefully – in advance – with South Korea, China, and other players to develop a basic concept of operations which should include three major missions:

  • Locating and securing nuclear materials: loose North Korean nuclear materials and/or weapons would be a nightmare for American security, immediately raising the urgency of this mission above that of the current Iraq and Afghanistan efforts. Locating these materials will be extremely difficult, as outsiders (and most insiders) have an imprecise idea of how many, and little to no idea of where nuclear materials and actual devices may be. This mission could be quite distinct in many ways from other aspects of the effort.

  • Restoring order and possibly combating remnants of the DPRK military: combined ROK-U.S. forces would need to be able to end a state of anarchy that is likely to exist if the state collapses. They would need to defeat any splinter elements (or even substantial elements) of the DPRK armed forces that were posing local resistance or attacking South Korean territory with long-range strike assets. They would also have to arrest top-level North Korean leadership unless an amnesty had been negotiated.

  • Providing basic goods and services: the North Korean people, including large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, will require food, medical care, and shelter. It is essential that services be delivered as quickly as possible, both on principle and to help ease possible opposition to the presence of foreign forces.

These challenges will be faced primarily by military personnel, especially at the outset. Nevertheless, the United States government is apparently deemphasizing major military scenarios on the Korean peninsula in the current era, relative to previous periods. There are several explanations for this situation. American strategists are already overtaxed by operations, responsibilities, and worries elsewhere. Policymakers are distracted by ongoing and potential military activities throughout the Central Command theater. Commanders of U.S. ground forces can hardly afford to consider another operation emphasizing U.S. Army and Marine Corps contributions when they are already so overextended elsewhere. And with the anticipated transfer of preeminent command responsibilities from U.S. Forces/Korea to the Republic of Korea’s own military in 2012, the United States may feel less obligated to lead allied efforts to prepare for possible contingencies.

A major role for the United States

Yet this thinking is not based on sound premises. The stakes in nuclear-armed North

Korea are enormous for the United States; the notion that somehow we could defer to a single ally of relatively modest means in stabilizing a country holding 8 to 10 nuclear weapons at unknown locations within its territory is illusory and irresponsible. Failing to do proper planning is unacceptable. It might require American forces to enter into North Korean territory at the last minute in an unforeseen manner—risking a tragic repeat of the same kinds of dynamics that led to Chinese involvement in the Korean War in 1950. There are four main challenges associated with scenarios for collapse (or “5029,” in the vernacular of war planners):

  • Designing a solid overall concept of operations such as described above, with appropriate emphasis on securing North Korea’s nuclear weapons as fast as possible—and limiting all vehicular movement by land, sea, and air out of the country in the meantime, to provide an added layer of defense against nuclear leakage (biological and chemical weapons could pose a parallel concern)

  • Fashioning an allied plan for sharing the burden of this operation, and for adjusting the plan accordingly as circumstances require—based on respect for Seoul’s leadership role in any such campaign but also on Washington’s need to have substantial influence in how the campaign is conducted

  • Establishing intensive, ongoing, and high-level coordination with China—both to secure the DPRK/PRC border, and to avoid any mishaps if and when PRC and ROK/US forces come into proximity

  • Developing shared principles with Beijing and Seoul for how to handle post-conflict foreign military presence on the peninsula, rather than assuming blithely that the understandings will naturally emerge on their own

The notion that the United States could somehow outsource most of this DPRK stabilization mission to its South Korean ally falls apart the minute one begins to consider the immediate stakes and the long-term strategic nature of some of the challenges listed above—and the possible degree of uncertainty, confusion, and violence that could accompany many collapse scenarios.

If the main task were to simply restore order in North Korea, rather than defeat a combined air-armor offensive by DPRK forces, it might seem logical to defer to Seoul as much as possible. South Korea may have the numerical capacity to handle North Korean stabilization. North Korea is a mid-sized country, slightly smaller than Iraq or Afghanistan demographically. Its population is estimated at just under 25 million. That implies a stabilization force of 500,000. South Korea has that many soldiers in its active Army, and eight million more between its reserves and its paramilitary. Such reassuring arithmetic may help explain DoD’s apparent inclination to view this problem as manageable largely by ROK forces themselves.

A complicated tactical and strategic challenge

The problem is more complex than a peacekeeping mission, however. To begin, some significant fraction of North Korea’s million-strong army may fight against South Korea even in an apparent collapse scenario. Collapse is likely to imply a contest for power among multiple North Korean factions rather than a literal, complete, and immediate dissolution of authority nationwide. Some significant amount of the South Korean army could therefore be in effect on war footing, fighting from village to village and city to city.

A calculation based simply on overall force requirements also ignores the dimension of time. How long would it take South Korea to spread out and establish control of the North Korean territory—and how much time can we afford? In fact, and of course, speed would be of the essence in any mission to find and control DPRK nuclear-related assets.

Demands for American forces could vary greatly with the specific scenario, within an overall 5029 war plan framework. If the problem developed very fast, available American main combat forces would of course be limited in number to those already on the peninsula, and perhaps also to some of the Marines on Okinawa. In this situation, South Korea’s activation of its own reservists could likely happen more quickly than any U.S. effort to respond with forces based back home. But even for this scenario, the role of American special forces in helping search for nuclear weapons could be quite significant (assuming they could be flown across the ocean quite quickly). They might team up with not only ROK forces, but even an element of a North Korean unit that had possession of the materials and was under siege by larger parts of the DPRK army; Seoul and Washington might strike a deal with any such DPRK unit holding nuclear weapons if that was the only viable way to secure the dangerous materials. Locating nuclear materials will require a major effort in intelligence collection and analysis.

A variant on the collapse scenario might involve the more gradual descent of North Korea into internal conflict—in which case the United States might well have the option of deploying forces from the U.S. homeland in appreciable numbers on a meaningful and relevant time scale. Explicitly depicting some of these kinds of alternative scenarios would be important in this effort.

Assuming U.S. forces could be deployed in significant numbers fast, the question would then become—what should they do, and where should they go? And it is here that the most nettlesome questions of all arise. There would be major challenges within the U.S.-ROK alliance and even larger challenges in working with China.

Due to the importance of stopping DPRK vehicles that could be carrying nuclear materials, it would be crucial to coordinate U.S. and ROK forces to avoid friendly fire incidents and other tragedies. Otherwise, in attempts to stop North Koreans from moving about, allied forces could wind up firing frequently on each other. Many troops would also have to be transported fast by air to secure borders. This means that they would be flying when the DPRK air force would likely still be functional, and therefore when an active air war was underway. Matters such as identification friend-or-foe (IFF) and careful coordination of the airspace would be more difficult than they probably were in either major Iraq war (since in the first, a long air war preceded any meaningful movement of allied forces by ground or air, and in the second, the United States handled central, western, and northern Iraq essentially on its own).

Even more crucial would be how to handle coordination with China. If the United States could position some forces in the general theater before the North Korean state truly failed, perhaps on Okinawa, it might be better equipped than the ROK to help secure northern North Korea. With its amphibious and air assault capabilities, the United States might be able to handle such deployments more rapidly than South Korea could. But that possibility immediately raises the question of how Beijing would react to U.S. forces again approaching its borders.

Without the nuclear worry, this issue might not have to be faced; northern North Korea could simply be left for last, as allied forces led by the ROK gradually moved up the peninsula securing cities and towns and military facilities. But in the current situation, borders would have to be sealed as fast as possible all around the country. If American forces were to deploy to the Chinese border, however, several major concerns would have to be addressed. We would have to know that China was not itself moving into northern North Korea to create a buffer zone and handle humanitarian issues there rather than on its own territory—requiring rapid and clear communications with Beijing at a minimum. Or, to avoid that potentiality, we might have to develop a legal basis—and if not, a U.N. Security Council resolution—explaining why American forces had the right to occupy part of North Korea while Chinese forces did not. We might also need to quickly promise that American forces would subsequently withdraw from North Korean territory as soon as practical, even if the peninsula was reunified under a Seoul government that wanted to preserve the U.S.-ROK alliance thereafter. Several other issues would arise and require attention as well. All of these matters must be discussed—before a possible crisis or war, since in the event, it will be too late to ensure smooth handling and safe resolution of the hugely delicate matters the scenario would raise.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 30