The challenges with which North Korea currently finds itself contending – an apparently significant food shortage that is only being exacerbated by the country’s ongoing border shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic – are certainly pronounced.
Despite speculation otherwise, the Kim regime and the North Korean state are likely to persevere and survive as they always have. Even so, a collapse scenario is worth thinking through on a contingency basis given the potential severity of such a scenario.
Where to Start
Part of what makes a potential North Korean collapse scenario so difficult to properly examine is simply the range of possible causes of a collapse. The list of potential sources of instability leading to a North Korean collapse is long, and includes such things as a major humanitarian or refugee crisis brought about by a severe economic shock or food shortage, as well as political instability resulting from the erosion of regime control over either a public increasingly exposed to outside information and ideas or a potentially disaffected group of elites. The prompting events that lead to a collapse of the North Korean state will matter greatly for how the outside world chooses to respond: a major humanitarian crisis that leads to a breakdown of the state will invite a very different response than a collapse that results from infighting and even a civil war between opposing factions within North Korea, with the possibility also existing that a collapse scenario could result from a combination of several different factors.
The China Factor
Another variable for which neither the United States or South Korea can fully plan for in the event of a North Korean collapse is the potential role played by China. Given its shared border and its interest in maintaining stability both internally and in its near abroad, China will most assuredly deploy both People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP) to the border in order to control refugee flows into the country, but may also choose to more aggressively intervene in a collapse scenario in order to either control loose North Korean nuclear weapons or prevent a major shift in the geopolitical situation on the Korean Peninsula. It is also possible that, in an effort to prevent such a shift, China may look to deploy its forces early and quickly in a collapse scenario, taking advantage of its geographic proximity.
The United States and South Korea have given thought to a collapse scenario, with the U.S.-ROK Alliance maintaining operational plans for both a major military conflict with or the potential collapse of North Korea. Operation Plan (OPLAN) 5029 is the U.S.-ROK Alliance’s joint plan for responding to “sudden change” situations in North Korea, including revolt or internal conflict, internal displacement of people and mass migration out of the DPRK, the delivery of humanitarian and social assistance, and the securing of North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear material and its nuclear weapons.
While it remains unclear exactly how OPLAN 5029 would be implemented, it is clear that it would require the introduction of additional American military personnel beyond those currently deployed to South Korea. A 2017 RAND report, for example, assessed that an additional 162,000 American troops would be needed in order to locate and secure North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and prevent its proliferation beyond the Korean Peninsula. In addition, several thousand American military personnel will likely be required in order to help establish and maintain order on the Korean Peninsula in the aftermath of a collapse and unification scenario.
Indeed, significant military challenges are likely to emerge in the immediate and extended aftermath of such an event. Regardless of the cause of the instability that leads to a collapse, the North Korean military may still attempt to resist American and South Korean military forces entering into the country, while the possibility of a North Korean insurgency emerging in the aftermath of intervention also exists. In order to help mitigate this risk, the political and military officials that could emerge as leaders of such efforts should be targeted for influence operations in the hopes that they can be swayed to avoid resisting U.S. and South Korean intervention.
Any North Korean collapse scenario, however, is likely to be messy and bring with it significant regional stability and security threats, and responding to such a scenario will prove to be both complex and challenging.