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Hermit Kingdom

North Korea Has Collapsed: The Headline You Don’t Want to Ever See

DPRK Artillery
A North-Korean-built M-1978 KOKSAN displayed at the Al Anbar University campus in Ramadi, Iraq is to be removed by U.S. Forces.

What is left to say at this point when it comes to that “Hermit Kingdom” everyone loves to hate? North Korea, or also known as the so-called Democratic People’s Republic, is the ultimate Pandora’s Box and every president’s worst nightmare: A-bombs, chemical toxins, biological weapons, and missiles to lob them all over the world—including now at the continental United States. And Pyongyang knows how to get the news cycle to turn its way—thanks to making Northeast Asia shake with nuclear weapons tests.

And yet, while North Korea flexing its atomic muscles is certainly a big deal, the world is missing the real story: What happens if someday North Korea falls apart through a mass uprising, economic disaster, or war? Plus-sized bad boy Kim Jung-un is at the head of a state that would likely take trillions of dollars to turn around towards anything resembling normal—say nothing of putting the lives back together of millions of people who been brainwashed, starved, and treated as slaves.

Back in 2013, an excellent research paper, more like a book if you look at length alone, was released by the RAND Corporation that tackles this issue and is well worth your time. The author of the report, Bruce Bennett, lays out a chilling tale of what could happen, what it would take to put the pieces back together and what Washington and its allies should do to prepare for such a contingency. As I love to do, here are five highlights from the report, which I would argue, demonstrates the real issue when it comes to North Korea.

1. What ‘Type’ of Collapses Are Possible?

“Under what circumstances might the Kim Jong-Un regime collapse? Such a collapse could come in one of two forms: regime collapse and government collapse. In a regime collapse, the Kim family regime (and Kim Jong-Un, in particular) is overthrown, and some new leader takes control of North Korea, likely rising from within the military. Under this case, the national control mechanisms and organization could remain largely in place, although the overthrow will certainly disrupt the mechanisms for a period. The new ruler would be prone to purge many of the senior government leaders and replace them with personnel loyal to him.”

The next scenario is far scarier.

“The alternative kind of collapse would be a government collapse. In this case, the Kim family regime would fail or be overthrown, and no single individual or group would be able to form a new central North Korean government. Most likely, factions would develop, each trying to control parts of the country, with some possibly having very weak control even over their own areas. Many central government functions would fail, including much of the control system.

“Note that regime collapse could be a step along the path to government collapse. Indeed, collapse is both a process and an outcome. North Korea has not yet suffered either regime or government collapse, but the collapse process appears to be under way already. Thus, the Kim regime is perhaps best classified as a “failing or eroding totalitarian system.”

2. A Civil War Is Possible.

“A civil war in North Korea and especially the use of WMD could spill over into the ROK and cause serious damage. Factional forces could cause considerable damage with artillery and special forces attacks on the ROK, especially if nuclear and/or biological weapons are used. In addition, one or more North Korean factions could purposefully attack the ROK, potentially as a form of revenge if they perceive themselves unlikely to survive. Thus, ballistic missile attacks against ROK cities—especially ones using nuclear weapons or even chemical or biological weapons—could cause damage across the ROK. Besides the physical damage done, the ROK economy and society could be significantly affected. All these consequences could make it difficult for the ROK to pay for and manage unification. From a ROK perspective, the worst outcome could be destabilization of all of Korea, including the ROK, as crime and insurgency spread, if the ROK is unable to contain and defeat them.”

3. It Gets Worse: China Could Intervene.

“In addition, China could intervene; indeed, some say that China would be likely to intervene. In doing so, China could try to thwart unification… As ROK, U.S., and Chinese forces advance, conflict could develop between the ROK–United States and China. Both Chinese efforts to thwart unification and conflict with China could further jeopardize Korean unification.”

4. Famine Could Set In.

“Because North Korea already has difficulty feeding its population, a government collapse would likely plunge the North into starvation. Those with money would be motivated to hoard food to guarantee their access to it and because the price of food could well skyrocket in the postcollapse environment. As food disappears, the military and others with arms would likely increase their raids on those who potentially have food, stealing what little remains. The humanitarian aid organizations helping in North Korea would probably reduce their assistance as the security in North Korea deteriorates and could curtail their assistance if security decays to the point that their personnel are seriously threatened. The currently inadequate food supplies could be reduced below the starvation level for many people in North Korea.”

5. The Cost to Rebuild and Reunify with the South Will be HUGE.

“The potential cost of such a unification is generally perceived as very high—just the financial costs would likely amount to several trillion dollars, much of it in the first five years after a collapse and unification but with some costs continuing for decades.”

The author later details that:

“To put these costs into context, the ROK government budget runs about $250 billion per year. If unification were to cost $2 trillion ($500 billion for military operations, $500 billion for damage suffered in the ROK and North Korea, and $1 trillion for economic development of the North), that would be about eight times the annual ROK government budget. Paying for unification in ten years would require the government budget to increase significantly, potentially causing up to a doubling of the ROK tax rates—something few ROK citizens would desire. And this estimate ignores the humanitarian aid, health.”

Clearly, the danger that is North Korea far extends beyond nuclear weapons. The issue of a North Korean collapse or some sort of forced snap reunification with the South will very likely be a challenge America and its allies in Asia will have to tackle at some point in the future as history shows no dictatorship lasts forever. So instead of scouring the headlines looking for the latest news on the DPRK’s nuke test. . . read this report instead.

Harry Kazianis is a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of The National Interest. 

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C., a Washington D.C.-based think tank founded by President Richard Nixon in 1994. Kazianis in the past served as Editor-In-Chief of the Diplomat and as a national security-focused fellow at CSIS, the Potomac Foundation, and the University of Nottingham (UK). His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. George J Kamburoff

    June 26, 2021 at 3:41 pm

    The massive North Korean Army is weak, in poor health, and are dying from poor nutrition. The Army defector a few years ago was riddled with parasites, and the NK Army has special facilities now to treat Army malnutrition.

    The government is terrified of word from outside getting in, but will lose either that effort or The People.

  2. Richard

    June 26, 2021 at 10:03 pm

    Kim would probably be sheltered in China and China would invade claiming they were invited in.

  3. Erik

    June 26, 2021 at 11:48 pm

    Chinese intervention WILL happen in any collapse scenario. North Korea will be propped up as a vassal state so that China will not have a common border with s US ally. This is certain.

  4. Andrew X

    June 27, 2021 at 10:15 am

    These are surely frightening scenarios. Every bit as frightening as they were when I read them back in 1992…. and 1997…. and 2002…. and 2005…. and 2011…. and 2015…. and 2019….

  5. Huw S

    June 27, 2021 at 6:45 pm

    Most of the analysis above has been said before, but yes, it’s all quite possible, and reintroducing civilisation to North Korea would certainly be a gigantic project which would take vast resources over several decades.

    If the DPRK government collapses, the most likely scenario is rapid and massive Chinese intervention, to take over the whole DPRK before RoK/USA/others have had time to decide how to react. They’ve already positioned forces near the border, with many more rapidly deployable to the border, so they’re already preparing for their chance to move in. Unlike humanitarian countries, the PRC wouldn’t feel remotely obliged to spend vast sums rebuilding the DPRK; they’d simply install a puppet administration to continue the enforced supply of cheap Korean labour to Chinese industry (currently at about 1/10th of the wages paid to native Chinese workers), and send several million Chinese colonists to North Korea to make sure it stays subservient to China because “a majority” (which will by then be mostly a Chinese-colonist majority) want it to be run by China (which is what they have already done in Tibet and are currently doing in Xinjiang).

    An additional possibility, less probable but worth considering, is that if the Kim regime starts to lose its grip but Kim himself survives for a while, then he’s likely to feel that he has been “betrayed” by his own population (just as other egomaniacal dictators have felt during the process of falling from power in other times and places). As a last act before the angry mob breaks in and hangs him from the nearest lamp-post, Kim might therefore try to take revenge for the “betrayal” by ordering a WMD strike against his own country rather than his neighbours. That makes the outcome even more horrible suffering for the ordinary people, although the eventual end-game is still most likely a Chinese takeover, because the PRC will send in vast numbers of troops (sorry, “humanitarian assistance volunteers”, which they’ll cheekily ask the rest of us to help pay for) while the ruins are still too contaminated for any other country’s agencies to risk crossing the border, but in this case they’ll probably be a little slower finding enough willing colonists to consolidate their grip.

    Whatever way it eventually goes, the likelihood of Chinese expansionist intervention is probably the main constraining factor in everyone else’s calculations of what to do about the DPRK. It probably wouldn’t be very difficult to foment the overthrow of the Kim regime (since the people are horribly abused and the army is starving), and getting rid of the current monsters surely sounds like a good thing, but if all that changes is that the people are treated as slaves by Xi Jinping instead of by Kim Jong-Un (and with racist prejudice now added to the abuse – ask the Tibetans or the Uyghurs), then it might not work out so well as we might hope.

    Probably the best hope for an eventual decent outcome for the North Korean people would actually be for there first to be regime change in China to reduce the threat of Chinese imperialism. Unfortunately for the North Koreans, the Chinese regime is not currently showing much sign of imminent collapse.

  6. Cornfed

    June 27, 2021 at 11:50 pm

    “If unification were to cost $2 trillion… that would be about eight times the annual ROK government budget.”

    Not to worry. The U.S. would just fire up the printing presses. It would be a better use of money than the trillions the U.S. is throwing around these days.

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