By Ari Kattan
Staff Writer

Much of what governments do with respect to world events is crisis management. This occurs when unforeseen events happen on the world stage and countries must act, either together or unilaterally, to mitigate the risks from the crisis and take control of the situation. This was the case with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the international community’s response to the uprising against Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. Both 9/11 and the Libyan uprising were unforeseen events; countries obviously cannot plan for things they don’t know are going to happen. But countries can and should plan for likely events, such as a future war between Israel and Hamas, and for possible events, such as the collapse of the North Korean state. The importance of the latter was brought to light with the death of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il, and his replacement with his young and inexperienced son, Kim Jong-un.

Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind wrote a fascinating piece in the fall 2011 edition of International Security, before Kim Jong-il’s death, detailing the various missions and their estimated force requirements that would be necessary in the event of a North Korean collapse. Missing from their article, however, are recommendations for which country — or combination of countries — should perform which missions and an explanation of why advanced planning is crucial to the success of such an operation and for regional security in the long term. They acknowledge that “Seoul and Washington should discuss with each other and with Beijing the prospect of Chinese participation in missions to stabilize North Korea after a government collapse. If Seoul and Washington oppose Chinese involvement, then they should be prepared to conduct these missions in ways that obviate the need for Chinese intervention.” They go on to say that “The prospect of unilateral Chinese military action, and the dangers associated with uncoordinated stabilization efforts, suggest the importance of advance and combined planning” but that China has so far refused such talks. First, it is almost inconceivable that the U.S. and South Korea could conduct operations in North Korea without sparking Chinese involvement, so preparing such a strategy is futile. Second, given the huge costs and troop numbers required for such an operation (to be described later) it would be impossible to perform without substantial Chinese involvement. Third, given that the outcome of the post-collapse operation will set the stage for regional security in East Asia for decades to come, all parties have an interest in making sure the operation is successful and that the system it leaves behind serves their interests. Using the Bennett and Lind article as a basis, this article will expand on their work and provide an outline for how South Korea, China, Japan and the U.S. should coordinate their activities and which countries should perform which tasks in the event of regime collapse in North Korea. It will go on to explain how, without advanced planning, a successful post-collapse operation and a peaceful East Asia are both unlikely.

Why Intervention is Necessary
In the event of a North Korean collapse, intervention would be necessary for three main reasons: alleviating the inevitable humanitarian and refugee crisis that will follow, securing North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and deterring or destroying any threat to South Korea and Japan posed by those WMD and the North Korean army. North Korea is already one of the poorest countries in the world and significant portions of its population already don’t have enough to eat. Regime collapse would disrupt the government’s already limited ability to provide enough food for its people, and mass starvation could result. This famine could, in the absence of law and order, cause social violence like looting and rioting, and a mass exodus from the country. People may try and cross the border with China or with South Korea searching for food. This would be problematic for both China and South Korea. China does not want to be responsible for any more North Korean refugees than it already is. And South Korea does not have the resources to absorb huge numbers of refugees all at once. Additionally, the chaos of large numbers of people trying to flee the country, or even roaming around North Korea in search of food, would make the process of reunifying the peninsula under South Korean leadership more difficult. It would be far easier if people stayed in place, which would allow South Korea to begin the long and expensive process of establishing its control over the entirely of the Korean peninsula.

Securing North Korea’s WMD would also be a top priority. North Korea reportedly has 12 to 15 nuclear warheads, in addition to thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons. Making sure these weapons do not leave the peninsula and find their way into the black market would be essential for global security.
These weapons, and conventional North Korean forces, pose serious threats to South Korea and Japan. If the regime collapses but the military doesn’t, rouge generals or soldiers acting on their own authority could launch conventional or WMD artillery shells and missiles at Seoul, U.S. military bases in South Korea and at Japan. The loyalty of North Korea’s 1.2 million-man army is questionable, considering their deplorable conditions, but North Korea has an estimated 100,000 Special Forces soldiers who are well-fed and well-trained. These special units will be harder to pacify and will be more likely to fight against an intervention force. A U.S. military official in South Korea said, “we might have to mount a relief operation at the same time that we’d be conducting combat ops. If there is anybody in the UN who thinks it will just be a matter of feeding people, they’re smoking dope.”

The Risks of Intervention
Intervening to alleviate famine and chaos, secure WMD stockpiles, protect South Korea and help it with its daunting task of reunifying the peninsula has serious short-term and long-term risks. Bennett and Lind estimate that the total number of troops required for a post-collapse operation is between 260,000 and 400,000. Transporting, deploying and supporting such a large number of troops from different countries will be chaotic, and there is a high risk of accidents and miscalculation when different militaries are operating in close proximity to one another. South Korean and American aircraft flying over North Korea — especially near the North Korean-Chinese border — and an increase of American naval assets operating in the Yellow Sea would understandably worry China, and create an environment where a confrontation between Chinese and American forces would be more likely than not. Not only are the U.S. and China already mistrustful of each other, but in the event of a North Korean collapse both sides would be wary of the other’s designs for North Korea and for the future of East Asia as a whole, a fact that could cause escalation during a time of chaos. This is precisely why advanced planning is so essential, both for the operation itself and for the future of East Asia. Working out the logistical and tactical details ahead of time will help ensure a more smoothly run operation, but this necessary cooperation can only work if the U.S., China and South Korea all trust each other and have faith in the system that the operation would leave behind. In other words, coming to an agreement ahead of time on the future of the Korean peninsula will enable the post-collapse operation to take place (because it would help create the trust necessary for the operation to be effectively carried out) and create an opportunity to prevent future tension between the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan over regional security in East Asia. Without planning for both, neither outcome is likely to occur.

The Post-Collapse Mission: Who Does What?
Bennett and Lind outline five missions that would need to be carried out if North Korea collapses. I will focus on four of those missions here. The first is the humanitarian mission, feeding people and establishing law and order. Second is border patrol: preventing an exodus from the country and preventing WMD from leaving the country, either by land or by sea. The third mission is securing WMD sites located throughout North Korea. The last mission — and the one hardest to prepare for — is deterring the North Korean army from attacking South Korea or Japan, and destroying the units that do. The number of soldiers required to execute these missions, between 260,000 and 400,000 depending on the level of resistance from the North Korean army, is far too great for any one country to handle. Executing these missions will require collective action. Bennett and Lind divide North Korea into five tiers. Dividing each mission among South Korea, China and the U.S. using this tier system is the most effective way to accomplish each mission in a timely manner and the most effective way to avoid accidents and miscalculation.

For the humanitarian mission, China should take control of tiers 5 and 4, the two tiers closest to its border. Within these tiers, China’s military will be the only force providing humanitarian relief and law and order. Introducing U.S. or South Korean forces into these areas will place them into close proximity of Chinese forces, something that should be avoided. Tiers 1, 2 and 3 should be controlled by South Korea, meaning its military will be the only force on the ground. Considering that most of North Korea’s population is on the coasts, naval forces should be used to deliver humanitarian aid (in addition to patrolling the seas, making sure that no WMD are leaving the country). Each navy should have a “zone of operation” where it is the sole force responsible for patrolling that coastal area. These zones of operation should largely correspond with the tiers each country is responsible for, meaning China will be responsible for the coastal areas of tiers 5 and 4, and South Korea (and the U.S.) will be responsible for the coastal areas of tiers 1, 2 and 3. However, an exception should be made for the east coast of North Korea. In order for China’s navy to get to the east coast of tiers 4 and 5, it would have to go around the entire peninsula, through South Korean waters and through the coastal areas of tiers 1 through 3. Thus, South Korea and the U.S. should be responsible for humanitarian relief along the east coast of tiers 4 and 5, even though China is responsible for those tiers. The beachhead along the coast that South Korea would be responsible for should be well defined and South Korean forces should not go past a predetermined point.

The U.S. and Japan have significant roles to play in the humanitarian mission, but deploying forces on the ground is not one of them. North Koreans have been brainwashed to hate Americans and would be deeply distrustful of them at best. Koreans also have a longstanding ethno-political conflict with Japan; their presence on the ground would not be welcomed by either the North or the South. The U.S. should play a role by providing much of the supplies needed for the relief effort and assist with command, control and intelligence. Japan can help finance the effort and use its diplomatic clout to encourage others to give money as well.

Border patrol is the easiest of the missions. China will secure its border and South Korea will secure its border. Little coordination is needed for this mission. In contrast, the WMD mission is massive and complicated, and, like the humanitarian mission, will require a division of labor in order to be successful. All parties have an interest in a WMD-free Korean peninsula, but no one country has the resources to locate, secure and destroy all of North Korea’s WMD. China, South Korea and the US should plan ahead of time which countries will secure which sites. This is essential because of the nature of the mission: the humanitarian mission can be done incrementally, but securing WMD sites must be done all at once and as quickly as possible to prevent proliferation or the usage of those weapons in potential resistance by the North Korean army. China, South Korea and the US should all share their intelligence on existing sites with one another as a signal that they harbor no secret intentions. Then, all the known high-priority sites should be divvyed up between them. Immediately after a North Korean collapse, Special Forces and WMD-disposal teams will secure the sites assigned to them. Specialists from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency should be brought in to monitor and help. WMD sites that are not high-priority do not have to be hit immediately, but an eye would still need to be kept on them to make sure weapons aren’t looted. These surveillance and reconnaissance operations should also be divided up, with each country focusing on sites within its tiers.

Undoubtedly, North Korea has many sites that the U.S., South Korea and China do not know about. When each country’s Special Forces and WMD specialists raid and secure their sites, they will gather intelligence that will lead them to previously unknown sites, or will reveal new information about a low-priority site, turning it into a high-priority one. When this happens, the country that performed the operation that found the new intelligence should be the country that raids and secures the new site. A secure and reliable communications network must be set up so that each military can inform the others of its movements and intentions, helping to avoid accidents and maintain trust that no country is hiding sensitive and important information.

Deterring units of the North Korean army from shelling Seoul and launching missiles at Tokyo will be the most risky mission. And here, just as with the humanitarian mission, China’s help will be essential. China is the only country that has strong diplomatic and military ties with North Korea. If the regime collapses, China will likely be the only country with access to top generals and military commanders. If China can convince the North Korean elite and their military to stand down as the intervention force performs the humanitarian and WMD missions, many lives will be saved on all sides, and the operation will have a much higher probability of success.

Long-Term Planning: Building Confidence through Compromise
It is clear that the scale of a post-collapse operation makes it impossible for South Korea and the U.S. to go it alone. China’s manpower, unique relationship with North Korea and its long-term interests mandate that China be involved. But there is a web of mistrust and suspicion that will derail collective action between the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan if a strategic compromise isn’t found ahead of time. China does not want U.S. troops in a country that it borders. Japan is worried about the political, economic and military clout of a unified peninsula. The nature of defense ties between the U.S. and South Korea are uncertain after North Korea collapses, creating competition between China and the U.S. for influence in Korea. Each side has its own interests, but war is clearly the worst possible outcome for everyone. Thus, a mutually acceptable compromise is possible, but this cannot come about during the heat of a crisis. It must be scripted ahead of time so that all countries will be singing from the same sheet of music. As stated earlier, China has been hesitant to enter into such talks. This is most likely because planning for the collapse of North Korea would anger the regime and cause China to lose influence. That is why such planning must be done in private, and only at the highest levels of government to avoid leaks. American leadership is essential in bringing this plan about. There is too much historic animosity and mistrust between the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans for them to sit down and come to a mutually acceptable compromise by themselves. And the dangers of not coming to an agreement ahead of time are obvious for all to see. Because all four parties have different interests, during the chaos of North Korea’s collapse, each side will scramble to gain influence and shape the regional scene to their liking. The uncertainty about US troop deployments and the intentions of all players can lead to escalation and miscalculation. This will not only weaken the probability of success for the post-collapse mission, but it will set up an East Asian framework that makes conflict between China and the US more likely.

A compromise could look something like this. South Korea and North Korea will not unify immediately. Instead, North Korea will become a South Korean protectorate under the auspices of the UN. Over a period of a few generations, South Korea will facilitate projects that will raise the standard of living in North Korea and prepare it for eventual reunification. Special care should be given to updating North Korea’s infrastructure, educating its children, and instilling a sense of civil society and democratic values so that reunification becomes economically and culturally realistic. U.S. troops will remain in South Korea and assist with this project, along with China and Japan. After reunification, however, U.S. forces will leave the peninsula, assuaging China’s fears about US troops in a neighboring country. This need not cede Korea out of America’s sphere of influence, though it will probably weaken our influence there. Korea would still be allowed to have strong defense ties with the U.S., but no U.S. troops could be stationed in the peninsula after reunification.

China would have to pledge that it will allow a unified peninsula and won’t sabotage efforts at reunification in order to maintain North Korea as a buffer state. South Korea, in turn, would need to pledge not to use its historic conflict with Japan to whip up nationalist sentiment. In order to reduce the attractiveness of such propaganda in Korea, Japan should issue an official apology for its war crimes during WWII and during its occupation of Korea. This is unlikely to happen without significant US prodding.

In the event of a North Korean collapse, this plan should be brought out of the darkness and taken to the UN Security Council for endorsement. The appearance of agreement and cooperation between the US, China, South Korea and Japan will increase the international community’s confidence in the short-term mission and the long-term stability of East Asia, and they will be more willing to contribute money to the reunification endeavor, one that will surely be one of the most expensive projects of this century. International backing will also make the commitment of foreign forces to eventually withdraw more credible.

Lastly, the advanced planning and its eventual execution will serve as a confidence building measure between the parties, especially between the US and China. Communicating American sincerity regarding China’s security concerns and pledging ahead of time to remove U.S. troops from Korea after reunification will strengthen trust. The relationships built during the planning will also bring the two countries closer together, and those relationships can help deescalate a future potential conflict.

Given how important East Asia is for U.S.-China relations and world security, failing to plan in advance for the very real possibility of a North Korean collapse would be the height of irresponsibility. The status quo in North Korea prevents structural changes to the security dynamic in East Asia. As soon as the levee breaks, the situation can either improve or deteriorate over the long-term. Without advanced planning, the success of a post-collapse operation is unlikely, and a stable East Asia is unlikely without a successful post-collapse operation. This post-collapse operation cannot happen without collective action, which cannot happen without allaying fears among all players that other players will not exploit the new dynamic to their detriment. The key to making both the post-collapse operation and the future of East Asia successful is advanced planning for both, in tandem with one another. Advanced planning now will increase the post-collapse operation’s probability of success and help set the stage for a more stable East Asia and better U.S.-China relations.

Image Courtesy of Flickr user, Kalleboo


  1. Very well written, Ari! You described the problem of the North Korean collapse,
    clearly outlined why intervention is necessary and the risks of intervention,your focus on four of the five necessary missions, long term planning and the conclusion.
    It’s a huge many faceted concern and you made it interesting to read, Ari.
    Keep it up! Love, Judy and Art


  2. Very well written, Ari! You described the problem of the North Korean collapse,
    clearly outlined why intervention is necessary and the risks of intervention,your focus on four of the five necessary missions, long term planning and the conclusion.
    It’s a huge many faceted concern and you made it interesting to read, Ari.
    Keep it up! Love, Judy and Art


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