Responding to the North’s collapse

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Responding to the North’s collapse


Michael Green

President Park Geun-hye’s administration has encouraged new thinking about unification of the Korean Peninsula with talk of a “jackpot” or “bonanza” should the North and South come together. Like President Lee Myung-bak, her administration wants the Korean people to retain confidence about unification, which would free millions of North Koreans from oppression and unleash new economic dynamism on the peninsula.

The problem has always been how to navigate all the risk to get to that point. Regime change from without has not been an active strategy for Seoul or Washington for many decades. Since the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, however, Seoul and Washington have had to consider how we would manage instability or collapse in the North. The odds of instability are probably low, but of course, that is what analysts said about the Berlin Wall coming down or the Arab Spring spreading before those historic transformations occurred. The erratic and violent nature of Kim Jong-un’s leadership suggests that however low the odds of instability may have been, they are now considerably higher. Not planning would be imprudent.

That said, planning for instability in North Korea is one of the most difficult tasks for any Korean government. The very act of planning for instability could create tension with the North. Even between the United States and Korea, the planning process for instability scenarios has been fraught with mutual mistrust. Initially, the U.S. side wanted planning in order to ensure that President Kim Young-sam did not unilaterally try to exploit instability in a post-Kim Il Sung North Korea. Then Kim Dae-jung slowed down bilateral planning because it contradicted his Sunshine Policy toward the North. In the 2000s, Washington and Seoul diverged over the question of whether instability in the North should be avoided, contained or possibly exploited - this time with Seoul being the more cautious partner. More recently it seems that perspectives in Washington and Seoul have converged on how to think about instability, but the sustainability of that consensus could depend on who comes to power in both countries in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, within the Korean government there are gaps between the Unification Ministry and other agencies on unification planning, while in the United States thinking about instability scenarios is mostly the job of the Pentagon, when it should involve all of government.

The most important thing that Seoul and Washington can do is refresh their thinking about our respective national interests and our common objectives in the event of instability within the North. It seems to me that the United States and Korea could agree on five objectives: (1) limit the immediate risk of physical harm (spill over) to the Republic of Korea, the United States and neighboring powers; (2) ensure that developments in the North increase rather than decrease the likelihood of eventual unification, but do not necessarily expect to be able to contain or exploit events immediately; (3) secure and control weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially nuclear materials; (4) work for geostrategic convergence among the major powers and try to avoid divergence (particularly with China and Japan); (5) protect and provide humanitarian aid for the North Korean people to the maximum extent possible without undermining the objectives above. One of the first principles of any plan would be that Seoul leads, and American policy makers seem more confident with that premise than at any point in the history of the alliance.

Specific requirements would flow from these objectives, though many will be difficult to lock in under the present political and geostrategic environment. Changes in the U.S. defense budget announced by Secretary Hagel indicate that the U.S. Army will be reduced to pre-World War II levels. There will be enough troops to maintain effective deterrence on the peninsula, but it may be necessary to rethink roles and missions with respect to stabilization operations and securing WMDs in the North in the event of the collapse of the regime. Controlling nuclear material would be a paramount concern for the U.S. side, but it is hard to imagine that ROK troops would not encounter WMDs and even nuclear facilities that would have to be secured and eventually removed.

China’s role will be critical, but Beijing is extremely cautious about discussing any scenarios involving the collapse of its erstwhile ally in the North. At a minimum, Korea and the United States need better channels of crisis communication with Beijing and may be able to advance a broad understanding of our respective goals. Beijing would likely exert its influence to keep the DPRK system in place in the event of instability, which somewhat counters the ultimate Korean (and U.S.) goal of unification. But China shares goals in terms of containing any damage, securing WMDs and working for geostrategic convergence to the extent it fits Beijing’s definition of its own national interest. China would also have to assume major responsibility for humanitarian relief, particularly since refugees would be more likely to go across the Yalu than the Demilitarized Zone.

Japan will also have an indispensable role. Just as the United States would be unable to defend Korea from an attack without U.S. bases in Japan, U.S. forces would rely heavily on Japan to respond to any instability scenarios within the North. Close coordination with Tokyo is not optional - particularly since the Japanese government will have its own interests in evacuating civilians. Any such would have to be carefully considered and discussed with Seoul and Washington in advance. This is yet another reason why U.S.-ROK-Japan cooperation is too important to be interrupted by political controversies - and why leaders in Tokyo should be extremely careful about what they say about the past.

Unification would indeed be a jackpot for the entire world. But it is more likely to occur in the wake of precipitous and unforeseen events. Planning for that scenario is difficult now - but will be even harder in the middle of a crisis.

*The author is the senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green

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