Preparing for a North Korean Collapse
Image Credit: REUTERS/KCNA

Preparing for a North Korean Collapse


A report by Bruce Bennett and the RAND Corporation has brought attention to one of the most important issues for international politics. Ironically, despite being a region of vital interest within American foreign policy, there has been very little public discussion of what to do in the event of government collapse in North Korea. Bennett’s timely report provides a series of vital contributions to the discussion and further outlines the lack of preparation in political, social, economic and military terms. Yet beyond the critical end game for the Korean peninsula are deeper questions concerning how any international force might respond. Specifically, how can the U.S. and Republic of Korea effectively mobilize regional powers with their differing security and development goals?

International cooperation can alleviate geopolitical tension and inform policymakers while sharpening the tools of statecraft in preparation for engaging the uncertainties of an all but certain crisis on the horizon. The U.S. must begin to consider the requirements of intervention – not to depose a totalitarian regime for the sake of an ideological crusade, but as pragmatic, necessary planning in the event weapons of mass destruction enter the calculus as a credible, serious danger.

Unpredictable North Korean rhetoric offers scant evidence for anticipating or understanding Pyongyang’s tightly managed system of control. Indeed, many revolutionary or transformational periods in history have been poorly anticipated by external actors whom otherwise might have played a more constructive role in their outcome. Invisible factional rivalries, natural or man-made disasters, and blurred lines of sovereign authority are only a few factors that might contribute to the collapse of the totalitarian system. Resulting anarchy involving weapons of mass destruction and the internal struggle for power should prompt the most serious concern. The event of nuclear use, or clear evidence of momentary launch, could escalate to outright conflict and plunge East Asia into a tumultuous period with unforeseen consequences. Yes, nuclear threats and open hostility follow a longstanding pattern of belligerent rhetoric from Pyongyang, but prolonged uncertainty only heightens the risk of miscalculation. A major crisis scenario that destabilizes the North Korean government and its mechanisms of control, no matter how unlikely, should prompt the international community to consider a multilateral framework for intervention.

Any comprehensive framework committed to stabilization and reconstruction must consider cross-cutting principles that can be directed toward achieving the desirable end state of a peaceful Korean peninsula. First, Seoul could lead the process of Korean unification backed by the political legitimacy of a democratic state faced with an imminent threat on its territorial border. A legitimate claim to self defense reinforces the long-term goal of Korean unification under the auspices of a self-sufficient and transparent democratic government, a favorable outcome quickly gaining traction in Beijing. Second, and most important to the international community, stability could be achieved through a unity of effort by regional security partners seeking to move the peninsula from conflict to a manageable level of development. Quelling a potentially transnational civil war involving weapons of mass destruction is a vital interest of regional neighbors and the international community alike. Finally, the incorporation of non-governmental organizations holds the potential to dramatically accelerate the process of modernization and diminish long-term social and economic inequalities that could manifest into political grievances following unification. Toward this end game, and before major reconstruction, any intervening force must achieve minimal levels of stability in terms of physical and human geography.

The first step toward planning a credible response is to consider the absence of a totalitarian regime previously possessing rigid control over territory, weapons of mass destruction, and the civilian population. Working under the assumption that Chinese and South Korean border issues could be mitigated by their respective militaries, and WMD tracked and secured by American military forces working alongside integrated allies, the preeminent question becomes one of human security. Specifically, how to deal with twenty million physically and psychologically scarred individuals as an operational challenge. Regardless of the ongoing struggle for power and stability, these individuals represent a major hurdle for any external force crossing the 38th parallel and constitute the bulk of human terrain. For many, their day-to-day lives reflect a permanent wartime experience, an existence on the edge that has defined families for more than three generations. Devout loyalty to the North Korean system is arguably so ingrained within many citizens, it is difficult to project how the majority of individuals would behave after the cataclysmic event of totalitarian collapse.

There would likely be a profound absence of the overarching stability that has come to define the norm within Pyongyang’s invasive culture of oppression. Beyond fundamental necessities of food, water, shelter and physical security, what unforeseen conditions might an external group encounter among the civilian population? The disintegration, or even transformation, of this familiar norm would potentially compound dangerous social, economic and political inadequacies while pushing individuals past an already desperate state of existence. To paraphrase experts, exposure to an event involving potential death or serious injury to the self or others leads to intense states of fear, helplessness or horror. Under this scenario, an outside group would likely encounter upwards of twenty million individuals suffering from the effects of severe grief and incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder. These reactions might appear as abnormal reactions to normal stress, but inside the reality of North Korea, it would reflect a normal reaction to abnormal stress. Whether an intervening humanitarian force, or an individual state dealing with refugees fleeing across its border, responsible powers should not overlook such a traumatic moment for geopolitics.

January 23, 2014 at 00:46

Why can’t this parasite of a disguise as a human Kim Jung un just die off.

November 11, 2013 at 08:27

When the CIA tell the Admin they are close to collapse the US will throw them some crumbs to keep them from collapsing via talks.

Rodney E. Armstrong
November 10, 2013 at 16:08

 "and WMD tracked and secured by American military forces working alongside integrated allies,"

I've seen several other American analysts of North Korea's possible collapse make this sort of bland assumption about the willingness of the South Koreans and the Chinese to accept the Americans coming in to "safeguard" the "loose NK nukes." The Marines on Okinawa, bereft of any real mission, have looked around for a credible mission and said they would be the ones to go in and fulfill this function. This is naivete squared and cubed. The Koreans and the Chinese will be the ones to decide what happens to the NK nukes and the engineers who have developed them. Monolingual Americans around at such a delicate time would not be welcome. My guess would be that in event of a NK collapse, American satallite and other intelligence would be welcome, but the Americans themselves will be asked, even required,  to remain peacefully south of the 38th parallel.

November 5, 2013 at 20:05

@Little Helmsman.  My message. I merely call for Koreans to decide what to do best for themselves should a collapse of NK happens.

At the moment, there are only non-Koreans…outsiders… offering their thoughts.

Kim's Uncle
November 5, 2013 at 15:41

Why would China prepare for a North Korean collapse?  They should stick with the dictatorship they helped to prop up regardless.  A lot of dead Red Chinese troops are litted all over Korea to help ensure the survival of the Kim Family Regime!  Do not change horse!  China should go to the brink of nuclear war in order to defend this red regime.  There are not a lot commie regimes left in the world so China should be nostalgic that PRC and DPRK as well as Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Lao People's Republic and Cuba are all that is left of the Commie empire !!  LOL  


China should have its own juche policy!  No more trade with West!  China does not need Western technology, managerial skills, know how, education, etc.  China should revert back to Maoism since it gave China universal equality where everyone in China is dirt poor like North Koreans.  That's what communism is!  Communism eliminates inequality by making everyone poor and without toilet paper.  Mao and Kim Il Sung were commie geniuses.   

China should get its pride back by carrying out a second Cultural Revolution.  China needs more disorder.  Scientists, engineers, university professors, and managers should go to the countryside and dig ditches and raise pigs.  They can be purified through Maoist labor and be reborn into Communist Man! 



Little Helmsman
November 4, 2013 at 05:32


"Will the North and South Koreans please come forward to tell us what measures are best for them" ?

I don't know if this is a joke but this has to be one of the silliest comment I have ever heard.  North Korea is a Stalinist regime where information is tightly controlled.  North Koreans do not have access to the Internet like we take it for granted living in civilized society!!!   Hello?

North Korea can barely generate electricity.  Just take a look at the difference from satellite pictures at night between the DPRK and ROK.  The North is completely pitched black while the South is lit up.  The battle of ideology matters and when one side has a toilet bowl ideology that cannot change and is inflexible, irrational, and unrealistic, then the results speak for themselves.  China under Mao was toilet.  North Korea under Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un, etc. is a modern toilet.  




November 3, 2013 at 17:56

Will the North and South Koreans please come forward to tell us what measures are best for them ?



Little Helmsman
November 2, 2013 at 05:32

North Korea is probably the most primitive country in the world.  It is very much like Maoist China in the 60s paranoid, xenophobic, irrational, and violent.  I hope one day North Koreans will be freed from this sick regime.  North Korea illustrates the best example what happens when a country is ruled by ignorant fools.  Leadership counts a lot in society.  If a country has a political system that allows unchecked power, then it is a recipe for disaster.  

All the Asian countries that became Communist turn out to be worse off than it could ever have been imagined.    

China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba are the remaining countries with a Marxist Leninist dictatorship.  Hopefully, a second Berlin Wall moment will become a reality one day.

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