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The Wake of a North Korean Collapse

[ 5 ] May 16, 2010 |

Minxin Pei thinks that the Pyongyang regime is unlikely to survive a transition from Kim Jong Il to his son. While the prospects for a collapse of the North Korean state are debatable, it’s unquestionably true that the regional states ought to be thinking and talking (at least privately) about how to respond:

What is most worrying about a possible North Korean collapse is that the key players in the region are not talking to each other, even informally, about such an eventuality. It’s almost certain that these powers—China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and, possibly, Russia—have all drawn up their own contingency plans for Pyongyang’s quick collapse. However, they’ve done nothing to explore a collective response to what is without doubt a geopolitical game-changer.

As a result, many crucial questions remain unanswered. For instance, how should the United States and South Korea react if China sends combat troops into North Korea to conduct ‘humanitarian assistance’ missions? In all likelihood, Beijing will be tempted to do so if millions of refugees start fleeing into China. Which country will take the lead in securing nuclear materials? How will China respond to the crossing of the 38th parallel by South Korean and US forces? Who will take the lead in reaching out to Pyongyang’s post-Kim regime? What will be the collective security architecture after the Korean peninsula is reunified?

These critical issues are deemed too sensitive for US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean government officials to discuss. As a result, few are thinking about these difficult issues, let alone exploring workable solutions that could help avoid a possible conflict between China and the United States over a collapsing North Korea and construct an enduring peace after the departure of the Kim dynasty.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in this discussion that the North Korean state will simply cease to exist following a leadership crisis. Collapse is certainly a possible outcome, but it’s also possible that the North Korean state could survive, at least for a while, under some sort of non-Kim military dictatorship. The attitudes of Seoul and Beijing would be particularly important in this respect; the health of a post-Kim North Korea would be greatly affected by China’s willingness to underwrite the regime, and by South Korea’s approach to manifesting claims on Korean national identity. In the German case, the Russians had no interest in continuing to prop up the Berlin regime, and West Germany was happy to advance the claim that it was the only legitimate German national regime. It’s also worth noting that nationalist sentiments could override such a pedestrian concern as the utter economic disaster that incorporating North Korea would wreak upon South Korea.

Via Unleashing Chiang.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Just as with the division of Germany, the division of the Korean peninsula is a purely artificial construct that has no basis in history or culture. I think the Koreans will get their reunited country one way or another, even if it means reunited Korea being in the economic shitter for a generation.

    I’ve always thought the Chinese would like that very much, cause I’d bet dollars to doughnuts there would be no American troops in a reunited Korea, and China would find it advantageous to have a weak Korea nearby to gain influence in.

    • wengler says:

      Germany historically has been disunited. Culturally, Bavarians and highland Germans have much more in common with Swiss and Austrian German speakers than the industrial northwest and the Prussian northeast. East Germany was probably the most developed socialist economy in the Warsaw Pact. The unification came more from the euphoria surrounding the collapse of Communist Party governments, but whether it has worked out well for either the East Germans or the country as a whole is an open question.

      Korea has been politically and socially dominated by other regional powers for a century. Even their division is a result of this. It’s hard to say whether they would be well-served to be one state or two.

      What I do think is that the DPRK will not have a total collapse of the control of the Communist Party system. While reports are sketchy it is very clear that even through times of mass famine and death the system survived. The cult belief in Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il infects every part of the culture. It would not simply be a collapse, it would be a religious revolution and those are rarely bloodless.

  2. I haven’t even finished reading this, and I probably won’t because of how ridiculous it all is in its assumptions; the United States is not “a key [player] in the region,” and the collapse of North Korea is not a “geopolitical game-changer.”

    The US troops in South Korea are incidental to the South Korean’s own defensive abilities, and that it about the limit of US influence in the Koreas. Sure, there are business dealings, but they hardly outweigh dealings from Japanese or Chinese or Russian interests, i.e. real, actual regional players.

    North Korea has nothing that any neighboring state particularly wants. Their natural resources are so-so, their agricultural sector would be a net negative on whomever wanted to control their territory, their military is large but ancient and their population is cowed and only semi educated even by Chinese standards. As such, the land and population on which North Korea sits is not a geopolitical anything, let alone a “game-changer.”

  3. Doug M. says:

    Something that gets missed a lot: the South Koreans watched German reunification with utter fascination, and took copious notes.

    They have well-developed contingency plans for reunification. As the article notes, these are not integrated with the plans of other regional powers. But one thing Seoul is clear on: while eventual reunification is an overriding priority, their very strong preference is to have a long interregnum first to bring the North up to speed.

    The South Korean plan has never been made public, but its outlines are clear: a non-sovereign North Korea under South Korean administration if not formal control, with limited movement of labor to the South.

    Obviously this plan may not survive contact with reality, and military or political imperatives may force a faster and more complete unification than Seoul wants. But the idea that the South will rush to unification the moment they can… well, let’s just say they’re smarter than that.

    Doug M.

  4. The South Korean plan has never been made public, but its outlines are clear: a non-sovereign North Korea under South Korean administration if not formal control, with limited movement of labor to the South.

    Doug is right. The whole long-term approach towards unification, on the part of SK, has for fifteen years of more been premised upon keeping North Korea intact while it’s people and economy gradually merges with the South. If that means helping behind the scenes to legitimize or prop up a non-Kim military dictatorship could keep the borders in place, I could easily see SK doing so. Moreover, that would be something that other players might well want to see as well–they just wouldn’t be open about such a plan, for obvious reasons.

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