Planning for North Korea's Coming Demise

The North Korean regime will eventually tumble, but will the U.S. and South Korea be ready?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un salutes as he watches a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. New intelligence suggests the leader has been testing long range rocket engines over the past month.

As the United States media focus on the "shutdown" of the federal government and the world obsesses over the ministrations of the new Iranian president, a shot of reality was fired by the National Security Division of the RAND Corporation about real issues in foreign affairs. A report authored by Bruce Bennett, entitled, "Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse," warns the great powers, particularly the United States, that a collapse of North Korea is looming and could usher in serious conflict between the United States and China. The RAND report should remind us that the serious business of national security does not stop because American focus is inward looking at precisely the wrong time in history.

The RAND report makes clear that the corrupt and rogue regime of the communist Kim dynasty is faltering and that North Korea is a failing state. If true, this is of great import to international relations, as it was thought unlikely that a distinct rogue regime would also be a failing one.

The precise nature of rogue states, like the former Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Bashar Assad's Syria, and Ayatollah Khamenei's Iran, is that they are equally effective at brutalizing and instilling terror in their own populations as committing acts of terror and brutality abroad. This is one, among many reasons, that members of the national security establishment should examine reports like this one out of RAND with serious consideration. The report does not intend to be prophetic, but reasonably postulates events and circumstances that could lead the North Korean regime to fall. These combine the disasters of a centralized economy, a possible assassination of Kim Jong-Un and factional civil war among the elites.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

The only reasonable course of action for the United States would be to support reunification by the Republic of Korea, our ally. However, neither government is prepared for such an eventuality. They are not prepared for the massive humanitarian crisis that would ensue; they are not prepared for the ideological war that would be fought with an indoctrinated North Korean populace; they are not prepared to quickly seize control of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. There is even a scenario where factions might use WMD against their own populace.

Two other issues cast a dark shadow on an already black future: the possibility of a North Korean insurgency spearheaded by members of the former North Korean military and intelligence services and Chinese intervention. Worse, the inability to properly prepare for such a scenario could give the Chinese the opportunity to simply turn North Korea into a satellite state or absorb it outright. The report makes clear the need to secure North Korea's prisoner camps before the North Korean regime can kill all prisoners and destroy all the evidence.

The goal here is not to predict the exact time the North Korean regime may fail. The importance of a report like this one is to refocus our attention to the real problems in foreign policy and world affairs at a time when the current national security team is more concerned with PR and affectation. Both the United States and the Republic of Korea will need to have sufficient military, diplomatic and intelligence assets to deal with an occurrence like this one in North Korea. In addition, the United States will need to prepare for variants of this in places like Syria and Iran.

The situation should be considered paramount as North Korea has demonstrated its willingness to test weapons of mass destruction, use terrorism as a state policy, inflict harm by conventional weapons, engage in kidnapping sanctioned by the regime and brutalize a starving population for the gain of a small communist elite.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

The ramifications of letting the North Korean situation spin out of control do not simply end on the Korean peninsula. It would have far reaching effects over all of East Asia, endangering our allies, like Japan, and emboldening potential adversaries, like Russia.

Only the United States can prevent what could be one of the worst humanitarian and security disasters in world history.

Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of "The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future," among other books.You can find out more at

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