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Considering a North Korean Collapse

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By William Tucker

North Korea severed the military hot-line with the South today in a continuing response to the recent UN sanctions that were levied against the hermit country. The escalation in rhetoric is nothing new, and there are other developments regarding the Korean peninsula that are far more important. Indeed, Pentagon spokesman George Little said that North Korea’s threats “followed a pattern designed to raise tensions” and that they would “achieve nothing by these threats.” Rather than focusing on the verbose, it seems that the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises currently underway in the region are more newsworthy. South Korea and the U.S. conduct these exercises annually, but the inclusion of B-52 bombers in the mix this year is certainly notable. Military exercises always make Pyongyang nervous, and the addition of strategic U.S. weaponry may be upping the ante to the North’s continuing threats. So much so that North Korea, via its KCNA news agency, stated “Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep up North-South military communications.” This message was televised just before the North severed the inter-peninsular line.

Though every threat recently issued by North Korea is not without precedent, there are some subtle differences. Kim Jong-un is still consolidating power in an ever weakening nation and the pressure brought to bear on him is significant. Media observers have noted the same, but there seems to be a consensus, seemingly ill conceived, that the bluster will die down, though many recognize that the risk of miscalculation can escalate because of the recent tensions. It’s hard to argue with the idea of miscalculation, but even escalation of hostilities due a miscalculation can be managed and eventually tempered. In essence, the media articles of the past few weeks seems to believe that the tensions, though escalating will die down, but war, though possible, is not inevitable. Again, its hard to argue with such a generalized position, however a vital point seems to be over looked – the possibility of a North Korean collapse and how the U.S. will respond. It is important to consider a scenario where an armed conflict occurs and contemplating a situation where it is started by the North is not improbable. That said, a very important and likely scenario that doesn’t get much press revolves around the collapse of the North Korean state and the ensuing situation.

The North Korean regime long ruled by the Kim’s could very well collapse and be replaced by a military regime, or fully descend into chaos. This possibility is gaining traction and has forced policy makers and military planners to begin crafting a response. Recently, the U.S. Army conducted a tabletop war game at the Army War College in which a fictional nation – North Brownland in this case – collapsed and the U.S. had to go in and secure a nuclear arsenal. The small pool of reporters present noted that the maps used bore a strong resemblance to North Korea. Though the full details of the Unified Quest war game are classified, some of the participants did provide some information on the game’s findings. It apparently took 56 days to move two divisions worth of soldiers into the country for the purpose of securing the nuclear stockpile. Complicating matters was a profound humanitarian crisis coupled with a large, still functioning indigenous military. According to participants, North Brownland’s military, as described by the game, prevented the deployment of U.S. personnel far forward of the front lines because of resupply issues. The humanitarian issues were an arrester on the weapons search, but Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, director of the Army’s Concept Development and Learning Directorate, stated that the Army could “use humanitarian assistance as a form of maneuver.” This was accomplished by dropping humanitarian supplies a short distance away from a suspected weapons site, thus drawing the population away from the target.

Perhaps the most troubling outcome of the game was the gap in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR. Though the U.S. has great technical capabilities in this area, the lack of human intelligence (HUMINT) was problematic. This is hardly a surprise as North Brownland – much like its nonfictional counterpart North Korea – presents a hard intelligence target. It’s widely known that North Korea is shut off from most of the world and restrictions modern communication devices making outgoing electronic transmissions easier to monitor. These draconian restrictions help stymie dissent and the recruitment of local human sources. Consideration of these challenges likely played a heavy role in Unified Quest.

All told, the problems identified in the War College game are not insurmountable, but the very process of the game helps in future training of military forces, intelligence collection, and planning. It still isn’t clear that North Korea will face collapse in the near future, though the state is weak and there is little chance of the regime addressing governance shortfalls. Of course there is still a chance, however remote, that war could come to the Korean Peninsula, but any conflict of sufficient duration will likely result in a similar outcome of regime collapse in Pyongyang. Essentially, most scenarios point to North Korea failing in some form or another. Planning for that eventuality is just too vital to ignore.

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