The World Must Be Ready If North Korean Regime Collapses
Michael E. O’Hanlon | The Brookings Institution | June 2009
While North Korea's autocrat, Kim Jong Il, prepares for a transition of power, international experts are racking their brains to determine all possible future political scenarios in the region. Will Kim Jong Il's successor establish a more humanitarian system or will the entire regime come crashing down on the heels of its current iron-fisted dictator. These are certainly only two of the numerous possibilities. Meanwhile North Korea's arsenal of nuclear weapons is compelling the international community to prepare for the regime's potential ruin. The repercussions of a flawed reaction to a collapsing regime are immeasurable. The United States must play a key role in all scenarios. As soon as possible, therefore, the US must work out a basic strategy together with China, South Korea and other critical actors that fulfills the following three criteria:
- Locating and securing nuclear materials: Uncontrolled nuclear material, or worse, nuclear warheads falling into the hands of regime loyalists or even terrorists is one of the international community's worst nightmares. No one knows precisely where North Korea's nuclear arsenal is located or what control mechanisms would be in place should the regime fall apart. In the worst case, the United States would have no choice but to march into North Korea to secure all passages in and out of the country - by land, by sea and by air.
- Restoring order and possibly combating remnants of the North Korean army: In cooperation with South Korean armed forces, the United States must find a way to speedily restore political order to a chaotic North Korea. Additionally, any strategy must account for the threat of violent encounters with splinter groups of the North Korean army, who could instigate local resistance or even launch long-range rockets into South Korea. Top North Korean officials would have to be detained until an official amnesty was negotiated.
- Providing basic goods and services: The North Korean public, including numerous refugees, would need food, clean drinking water, medical provisions and emergency accommodation should the government break down. These provisions must be immediately available - not only on the basis of humanitarian need but also to attenuate possible resistance to foreign forces.
One of the most important strategic questions is how fast US troops can be deployed to the region and where they can be stationed. All efforts must be made to halt the movement of North Korean personnel and vehicles (most likely with nuclear material on board) across the border to South Korea - an effort that necessitates close cooperation with South Korean troops. Washington and Beijing must be absolutely clear on their modus operandi, otherwise a sudden deployment of American soldiers on China's border could ignite a dangerous conflict with China itself.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "North Korea Collapse Scenarios" published here by the Brookings Institution.