By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently visited South Korea for discussions on wartime control of the alliances forces. Though the shift in control of South Korea’s military has been scheduled for some time the plan has been often delayed over capabilities found to be lacking such as intelligence gathering and counter-artillery. Each of these are reconcilable; however North Korea is unlikely to change its behavior and will continue to develop new capabilities regardless of the state’s poverty and isolation. My last two articles discussing North Korea have covered political stability in the face of continued defections and the criminal economy that sustains Pyongyang. This time we’ll look at a threat posed by the North that is often glossed over compared to the nuclear, cyber, or covert efforts employed by Pyongyang to harass its neighbor to the South – a collapse of the regime.
Available information suggests that North Korea is preparing a new missile test, and though some disagree with the interpretation of this information it is something that the North must continue to do if it is to ensure that its nuclear threat remains credible. North Korea likely has a small quantity of nuclear warheads, but they have had difficulty with the delivery systems. Though North Korea continues to develop its nuclear capabilities, it is the continued actions such as the sinking of the South Korean destroyer Cheonan that are just as pressing.
It’s these actions that typically fall just short of provoking a renewed war with the South and that the North uses to extract concessions of international aid. And North Korea does need aid. Though its methods for acquiring assistance are deplorable a population of 21 million is largely living in abject poverty, but the control over this population by the regime is so complete that a popular uprising simply isn’t doable. But there is a continued strain on the system stemming from the need by Kim Jong-un to balance the requirements of maintaining his rule by showering some with unique privileges while others are kept under an iron fist.
This is a similar system employed by dictatorial regimes globally, yet North Korea’s isolation makes a system that has worked well enough for over half a century less reliable each passing year. This isn’t to say that the regime is going to fall apart tomorrow or ever in the next year, but the possibility of a collapse cannot be far from the minds of military planners and diplomats alike. All of the military weapons, nuclear weapon program assets and even the criminal enterprise of the Kim regime are all currently centered on Pyongyang, but if the regime were to dissolve there is a very real possibility that these would be scattered.
The regime elements that are invested in these areas are likely to be wanted fugitives for crimes against humanity and would be forced to maintain a lifestyle based on organized crime by selling skills or military hardware to the highest bidder. For these people prosecution or living in exile is the only real option. With connections spanning the globe by the current regime for criminal purposes the groundwork has already been laid to continue business should the government fall.
There is also the state of the population to consider. North Korea’s population has shrunk rather dramatically in the last twenty years from an estimated 28 million in the 1990’s to an estimated 21 million today. Life has been rough for these people and they are wholly reliant on the regime for food and medical care. Without a government in Pyongyang it would fall to the South and the larger international community to provide direct assistance. A costly, yet necessary endeavor to prevent a substantial humanitarian disaster.
The criminal nature of the regime taken together with the humanitarian challenge that would certainly ensue with the loss of governance is certainly a threat that must be planned for. Most defense planning and diplomatic efforts are predicated on the status quo, that is the belief that the North Korean government will continue to exist in face of rising challenges. Though it’s certainly important to prepare for the more visible threat posed from nuclear weapons development and military provocations, the uncertainty of future events must be likewise gamed. The threat posed from a government collapse in Pyongyang is simply too problematic to ignore.