The possibility of a major war with North Korea – which would likely see casualty figures counted in millions – ensures that the Korean Peninsula remains one of if not the most critical geopolitical hotspots in the world.
But such a conflict is not the only – or even the most likely – concerning potential crisis on the Peninsula. A collapse of North Korea is also a very worrying prospect, and could itself trigger violence as well as major regional instability. Indeed, the potential severity of such an event has led the United States and South Korea to devote attention to planning for a potential North Korean collapse alongside preparing for the outbreak of a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
U.S.-ROK Alliance contingency planning for major events on the Korean Peninsula has focused on both the possibility of a resumption of major hostilities as well as a possible North Korean collapse scenario. In 2015, the alliance announced updated plans for a possible armed conflict with North Korea in the form of Operation Plan (OPLAN) 5015, replacing the previous OPLAN 5027. Whereas OPLAN 5027 envisioned only a defensive role for alliance forces until the arrival of U.S. reinforcements, OPLAN 5015 allows for a more immediately offensive posture for joint forces including the possibility of preemptive targeting of North Korean weapons systems and “decapitation raids” directed against the DPRK leadership. In addition, OPLAN 5015 is a more comprehensive plan, focusing not only on a major armed attack launched by North Korea but also on responses to smaller DPRK provocations.
The U.S.-ROK Alliance has, meanwhile, also given attention to the possibility of a North Korean collapse. Alliance contingency planning for joint operations in such a scenario are codified in OPLAN 5029. Like its counterpart plan focused on military conflict with North Korea, much of OPLAN 5029 remains secret, but the plan reportedly focuses on “sudden change” crisis scenarios in North Korea and designates elements of both U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) as a combined force tasked with destroying North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction in the event of a DPRK state collapse.
The vague description of OPLAN 5029 as focused on preparing for and responding to “sudden change” crisis scenarios illuminates one of the challenges associated with contingency planning for such scenarios: the sheer number of potential causes of instability that could lead to a North Korean collapse. Indeed, North Korean collapse could come about as a result of a major humanitarian or refugee crisis brought about by a major economic shock or food crisis, but could also be the result of an erosion of regime control over either a public increasingly exposed to outside information and ideas or a potentially disaffected group of elites. OPLAN 5029 is complicated, then, by the need to prepare for a number of different potential operations ranging from the possibility of an internal North Korean revolt to the provision of humanitarian or social assistance and the management of a mass migration of people, all the while managing the security and proliferation risk presented by North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Securing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will likely require the introduction of a large number of additional U.S. military personnel while maintaining stability in the aftermath of a collapse will also likely require the extended deployment of several thousand American service personnel.
Since its formulation in 2009, South Korea has resisted calls for the institutionalization of OPLAN 5029 – which on that basis may be better understood as a Concept Plan (CONPLAN) rather than a more formal OPLAN. South Korea’s concerns with the plan stem largely from questions over sovereignty and the possibility that Combined Forces Command – and not South Korean military and political officials – would be responsible for leading responses to “sudden change” scenarios that could lead to unification. As the United States and South Korea continue to work towards the transfer of operation command (OPCON), this will no doubt be an issue that requires addressing.