AUGUST 2021 DIRT PROJECT: NORTH KOREAN COLLAPSE SCENARIOS Part I

In the 21st Century, North Korea has demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to always land on its feet no matter the challenge faced. This has especially held true since 2011 and the death of Kim Jong Il. The ascension of his son Kim Jong Un to the position of Dear Respected Leader led to a wave of warnings from analysts and observers around the world forecasting an imminent collapse of North Korea ‘in the near future.’ These predictions have become commonplace ever since, popping to the surface in the wake of North Korean nuclear tests or reports of worsening conditions inside of the country. It’s fair to say the North, and Kim have dodged a number of bullets over the last ten years. To the point where it would appear North Korea has nine lives. Saber rattling, economic downturns, food shortages and political crises have been cited as events which could lead to a collapse. The North has weathered all of these at one point or another, sometimes in rapid secession.

There are multiple entrants from that pool of crises in play at the present time, creating an unprecedented, ambiguous dynamic. As well as a new one: Global pandemic. Despite official claims coming out of Pyongyang, COVID-19 did land in North Korea at some point. The spread of cases in the past year, and the course of action taken by the North Korean government to combat it has certainly led to a more unpredictable situation for the hermit kingdom. COVID forced lockdowns and borders to be closed, which led to an increase in economic hardship and food shortages. Continued UN sanctions have also played a role, as has the rash of typhoons the North has experienced in the past two years. The end result has been a North Korea sagging deeper into crisis.

As a rule, North Korean leaders never openly reveal hints about problems the nation is dealing with unless the situation is approaching dire status. Thrice this year, Kim has spoken publicly about the situation in the North, even going as far as making comparisons to conditions in the late 1990s at the height of the North Korean Famine. Naturally, this has brought about questions and concerns about how bad conditions in the North are and might become in the near future. Regional analysts are attempting to downplay the crisis North Korea is facing, pointing out that conditions are not as bad as in the 1990s and predicting China will do what is necessary economically to keep the country afloat and stable. In fact, China and North Korea are expected to resume cargo train service later this month. A positive development to be certain, but one that might not become reality at all, or if it does, may not have the impact anticipated.

So, this is the situation facing North Korea at present. Certainly enough to bring on a national collapse under certain circumstances. While the North has an admirable track record when it comes to getting itself out of tight spots, nothing lasts forever. Eventually, Kim and company will find itself in a position it cannot extricate itself from. That could occur in the next month, or years down the line. The point of this month’s project is to examine how a North Korean collapse can come about in the near future. In the next project entry next weekend, we’ll discuss why a North Korean collapse is considered a nightmare scenario by so many. Specific collapse scenarios will also be discussed briefly and then in depth later in August.

Kim Jong Un Health Concerns Revive Concerns of A North Korean Collapse Scenario.

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In the last 24 hours conflicting reports have emerged concerning the health of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Sources in the US government have stated that US intelligence received word that Kim Jong Un was in ‘grave condition’ following cardio-vascular surgery. As a result, the United States is closely monitoring reports on Kim’s health, and simultaneously reassessing the overall current picture in that part of the world. South Korea, on the other hand, has reported no unusual signs regarding Kim’s health. Seoul has been unable to confirm Kim’s alleged poor health.

In time, the correct status of Kim Jong Un’s health will become known. If he turns up on television looking healthy and vibrant at some point in the coming days, the US claim was obviously a false alarm. However, if the opposite holds true and Kim is either clinging to life, or is already dead, the world will once again be faced with the prospect of a North Korean collapse. At first glance, the prospect of the North Korean regime collapsing might seem promising. It is not. If Kim dies, then a vacuum develops in Pyongyang. This could touch off fighting between various factions of the North Korean regime, and its military, as they fight for the crown. China, South Korea, and the United States all have a stake North Korea’s future too, for competing reasons in most cases. The possibility of one, or more of these nations’ militaries intervening in some way is not outside the realm of responsibility. That is the point when things would really start to go south, no pun intended.

Then there is the wildcard in any potential post-Kim North Korea: whoever controls the nation’s weapons of mass destruction. The North has chemical, and nuclear weapons, along with the platforms to deliver those weapons at least as far as Guam, and possibly all the way to the west coast of the United States. If it appears as if the weapons of mass destruction are not under the control of a stable faction, or political official, the US, China, or South Korea may feel compelled to secure, or destroy those weapons.

In short, the death of Kim Jong Un is something which nobody in Washington, Beijing, or Seoul is rooting for. Yet until the truth about Kim’s health is revealed, there will be speculation, and preparation aplenty taking place in these capitals, and around the region.

Wednesday 3 August, 2016 Update: North Korea’s Latest Missile Tests

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To the casual observer, North Korea must appear to have an unlimited supply of ballistic missiles and rocket fuel. For the third time in a month, North Korea has conducted a ballistic missile test. This time it was with a pair of No Dong IRBMs. The first one exploded shortly after launch while the second missile landed in the Sea of Japan roughly 150 miles west of the Japanese coast inside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it an “unforgivable act of aggression that represents a grave threat to the security of Japan.”

On 19 July, 2016 North Korea test fired three SCUD type shorter range ballistic missiles and earlier in the month a sub-launched ballistic missile was test fired but failed early on in flight. North Korea’s missile tests generally come as a counteraction to military or diplomatic moves by the United States, South Korea or Japan that Pyongyang regards as distasteful. The July tests were presumably made in response to South Korea’s decision to deploy the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) system.

The most recent test firings come a month after Kim Jong Un was placed on a list of ‘sanctioned individuals’ by the US. North Korea stated that the action ‘crossed a red line’ and was essentially a declaration of war.

The latest posturing by North Korea leads us to wonder about the internal pressures confronting the Kim Jong Un regime. The missile tests, coupled with the increasing bellicose tone coming from Pyongyang may suggest that Jong Un fears his hold on power is becoming less secure. Lashing out against the United States and other enemies in the region to divert domestic attention away from the deteriorating situation inside of the DPRK has been a tried and true gimmick for North Korean leadership for decades. How effective it is at the present time cannot be gauged accurately.

Suffice to say, the situation in North Korea requires close observation in the coming weeks. Between North Korea and China’s latest moves with regards to the South China Sea, the Western Pacific is becoming a very tense place.

Living On Borrowed Time: Five Questions About A Possible North Korean Collapse

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One of the core arguments in International Relations is that an abrupt shift in power can lead to war. This argument is present in explanations for the Peloponnesian War and World War I, to name a pair of examples. In the first case, as Thucydides wrote in History of the Peloponnesian War, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” For World War I, Germany’s perception that it was losing the arms race in 1914 moved its leaders to take a risk and declare war before Germany fell too far behind.

Now, take the current state of North Korea and consider the argument in a more unconventional manner. It is a state in terminal decline while neighboring states are moving in the opposite direction. With its power and influence draining away, Pyongyang is forced to resort to saber-rattling as its primary means of interaction with the outside world. The frequency and intensity of North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric is concealing significant domestic issues. This strategy will not last indefinitely. No states have the ability to effectively influence events in North Korea in a positive way, with the exception of China to an extent. Incentives have been given in the hopes of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and adopt a less aggressive platform. Long term, the goal was to get North Korea to realize that its self-induced isolation in everything from politics to economic matters was permanently retarding its ability to become a productive, respected member of the world community. These efforts have failed. Sooner or later the dam will burst, and North Korea will no longer be a viable nation-state.

If the regime in Pyongyang collapses, there will assuredly be a power shift in the region. What cannot be predicted with a degree of accuracy is the path that will lead to the redistribution of power in East Asia. It will be dependent upon the way that nations like South Korea, Japan, the United States and, most importantly, China react to a rudderless North Korea. Regional war, a humanitarian disaster the likes of which the world has never seen before, and a global war involving North Korean weapons of mass destruction are but three of the possibilities.

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It is just a matter of time before North Korea collapses. It could be years or it might happen tomorrow. Think of the nation as a terminally ill patient. Pyongyang is mustering every available fiber of resolve and strength to remain alive for as long as possible. As North Korea’s breathing becomes more labored, the world must be prepared for its imminent death. The long-term consequences of the event have to be given an appropriate amount of consideration and planning now.

Below, are five questions that should be pondered by politicians, diplomats and military leaders in the US, ROK (South Korea) Japan, and People’s Republic of China. Admittedly, these are only five questions of many that exist on the subject, but it is a start.

 

How will the North Korean military react to a government collapse, and how will it behave in the aftermath?

This is contingent on what role the military would play in a government collapse. If the regime is toppled as the result of a military-backed coup, the plotters will have firm control on at least a sizeable portion of North Korea’s military for a period of time. In the aftermath, if forces loyal to the toppled regime resist, there’s a high probability of a full scale civil war erupting. Factions will face off and contend for power, dragging the entire nation-state to the edge of the abyss. Given the rabid enthusiasm that a great number of North Koreans have for Kim Jong Un, the fight will be long and costly. North Korea itself will be little more than a burned out wasteland once the shooting stops.

Should the military itself be responsible for launching a successful coup, the aftermath could be more orderly. The nation’s armed forces would remain ready to deter moves by outside powers while the new government makes overtures for assistance from the outside. Most likely from the PRC. The ROK and US will still be viewed as adversaries not to be trusted. The end result would be a North Korea now firmly aligned as a Chinese satellite, still hostile to the US, ROK, Japan and the West, but more even-tempered since Beijing will be calling the shots instead of a reckless Kim Jong Un.

How much, if any, advance warning will the US, ROK and China have prior to a North Korean collapse?

It could be a month or as little as an hour. If conditions in North Korea deteriorate to a point where collapse is imminent, the states that would be most active in a post-collapse North Korea will be prepared to move rapidly when the moment comes. A faction of the government, covertly supported by one of the external nation-state players, might be prepared to move and seize power in the event of the regime collapsing. This would give at least one nation ample warning and an opportunity to be prepared. On the other end of the spectrum, if collapse comes like a bolt out of the blue, nobody will be prepared to respond initially.

With the second possibility in mind, the nation-state that arrives in post-collapse North Korea firstest with the mostest is going to have the most influence in shaping the future. Barring a confrontation, of course. There’s always the possibility that two nation-states could move simultaneously and with similar motives in mind. Specifically, the ROK and China come to mind.

 

In the event of a collapse what will become of North Korea’s WMD stockpiles? Who will have control of them?

It is assumed that the present regime has a firm hold on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. In the event of a collapse, will the safeguards in place come undone? And if they do, what becomes of the weapons? I leave this question open because I’m working on a larger article addressing it and will post in the near future.

Obedience to the state is a cornerstone of life in North Korea. Given this, how will the North Korean populace respond to a collapse of the government they have been conditioned to follow for their entire lives?

For one moment put yourself in the shoes of the average North Korean. You have been conditioned for your entire life to regard the regime as nothing short of god-like. The regime controls every aspect of your life. You and your family’s health, wealth, material goods, education, etc is because of the regime’s benevolence. And then one morning you wake up to find that the regime is no longer there. How do you respond?

The situation would be similar to a world in which all of the parents and adults have suddenly vanished, leaving ill-prepared children in control of themselves. Unless an authority figure takes the reins of control quickly, chaos will erupt. North Korea is already in a precarious position socially. While the elites and supporters of the regime enjoy the benefits, large numbers of ‘undesirables’ rot in prison camps, and legions more starve in rural areas.

North Korea might degenerate into a thousand small communities struggling to survive in a Lord of the Flies writ large type of environment.

 

If the ROK responds instantly and unilaterally to a North Korean collapse with the objective of reunifying the peninsula under Seoul’s leadership it could potentially lead to war with China. What steps can the US take to prevent its ally from moving down that dangerous path?

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The most effective action that the United States could take in this scenario is absolutely nothing. Provide no support to South Korea should it embark on a military expedition to reunite both Koreas under its leadership. Close the door entirely. A unilateral South Korean move into North Korea is borderline reckless. China will not stand by and allow the ROK to assume complete control of the peninsula. Beijing will respond militarily and from there the situation will only go from bad to worse. The United States will have no choice but to come to the aid of its ally and once again US and Chinese soldiers will be killing each other on Korean soil.

It’s unclear whether the ROK would move into North Korea without at least the tacit blessing of Washington. The US-ROK alliance remains strong, but if the South Koreans sense a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, all bets are off.

 

 

Is The End In Sight? Five Questions About A Potential North Korean Collapse

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The prospect of a North Korean collapse has been receiving a great deal of attention lately and for good reason. Kim Jong Un has been in power for just under twenty-six months. During that time, he has faced challenges from North Korea’s military leadership and most recently executed Jang Song-Thaek, his uncle. From the information coming out of the region, the move appears to be punishment for Song-Thaek plotting against his nephew. For whatever reason, Un viewed his uncle as a potential threat and dealt with him accordingly.

In the aftermath of the gruesome execution, it is fair to wonder if North Korea will soon collapse like the Denver Broncos did at the Super Bowl yesterday here in New Jersey. Sorry, I had to say it.

North Korea is a paradox far beyond description or explanation. In the spirit of that reality, it is safe to say that the interests of the United States and our Pacific allies might best be served by Kim Jong Un remaining in firm control of North Korea. As depraved and incompetent as Un has been, it’s better to deal with North Korea as a sovereign nation-state rather than a decapitated and ruderless North Korea. The level of uncertainty and the potential dangers which the later option could bring are worrisome to say the least.

Below, I’ve listed five questions that need to be pondered by politicians, diplomats and leaders in the US, ROK (South Korea) Japan, and PRC. Admittedly, these are only five questions of many that exist on the subject. Because of time constraints, I am not able to give my answers at the moment. In the meantime, please feel free to mull the questions over and see what kind of answers you come up with.

  • How will the North Korean military react to a government collapse, and how will it behave in the aftermath?
  • How much, if any, advance warning will the US, ROK and China have prior to a North Korean collapse?
  • In the event of a collapse what will become of North Korea’s WMD stockpiles? Who will have control of them?
  • Obedience to the state is a cornerstone of life in North Korea. Given this, how will the North Korean populace respond to a collapse of the government they have been conditioned to follow for their entire lives?
  •  If the ROK responds instantly and unilaterally to a North Korean collapse with the objective of reunifying the peninsula under Seoul’s leadership it could potentially lead to war with China. What steps can the US take to prevent its ally from moving down that dangerous path?