Looking ahead to North Korea's demise
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - If there's one sure way to infuriate the North Koreans, it's to
talk of "regime collapse" and "contingency planning". As far as Pyongyang is
concerned, such speculation is proof positive of United States-led plotting of
a "pre-emptive strike".
Against this background, one should not be surprised if the North Koreans see a
study conducted by Rand Corporation analyst Bruce Bennett and Dartmouth College
scholar Jennifer Lind as the most conclusive evidence to date that the planning
is in an advanced stage. Considering Rand's contracts with the US defense
establishment, one has to perceive the study as a
scenario for an invasion of the North that would plunge the Korean Peninsula
into a second Korean War.
Lind offers specific estimates of what it would take to seize North Korea's
nuclear facilities and disarm the entire North Korean defense establishment as
if the collapse of the North Korean regime were almost certain and the US had
to lead the charge to fill the vacuum. The study offers a raft of figures on
the exact number of troops needed to subdue North Korea - 400,000 seems to be
the operative figure with six brigades of troops dispatched right away to
address the "paramount problem upon the North Korean collapse" - "the
prevention of loose nukes".
It hardly appears coincidental that Lind and Bennett are coming up with their
study just as South Korea is doing its own contingency planning - and North
Korea is resisting with predictable fury any insinuation that the regime is
anywhere near falling apart. North Korean indignation was enough to undo signs
of renewed efforts at reconciliation - and revival of six-party talks on the
North's nuclear program.
At times North and South Korea seemed to be vying with one another to see which
side could issue the most menacing statement. No sooner had North Korea got
wind of South Korea's "contingency planning" for North Korea's collapse than
the North's Korean Central News Agency warned of a "sacred nationwide
retaliatory battle to blow up the stronghold of the South Korean authorities".
South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-young went one better, saying that South
Korea would indeed have to stage a preemptive strike "if we detected that it
has a clear intention to attack with nuclear weapons".
If that remark appeared alarmist, it reflected yet another concern - that is,
worries about South Korea's ability to command all forces in the South in the
event of war. The plan for South Korea to assume war-time command instead of
the US takes effect in 2012, and South Korean military leaders are frankly
worried about whether or not they're capable of coordinating a massive war
effort in which US air, naval and ground forces play a secondary role.
Concern about OPCON - Operational Control - increases as North Korea raises the
bar on returning to six-party talks, much less giving up its nukes.
North Korea in recent days has said six-party talks cannot resume until the
United Nations Security Council does away with sanctions imposed after its test
of a long-range Taepodong 2 missile on April 5 and strengthened after its
explosion of a second nuclear device on May 25.
That demand alone appears to rule out serious dialogue on the North's nuclear
program, but the North's demands do not stop there. North Korea also is
demanding a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice - and setting
withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops from the South as a condition.
Clearly, however, many analysts view North Korea's demands as so much bluster,
a cover for the weakness of a regime that is in the midst of a leadership
crisis exacerbated by economic failure.
In that context, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's visits to military units appear as
rhetorical gestures that may or may not impress members of the National Defense
Commission, the center of the power structure that he rules as the commission's
chairman. While suffering from diabetes and recovering from a stroke, according
to this reasoning, he knows that time is running out for him and he has to put
his youngest son, still in his 20s, in a position to take over.
Lind acknowledges that any of a number of scenarios may come to pass but talks
as if Kim's demise were inevitable - and the US and South Korea had better work
closely together to figure out what to do when that happens. She and Bennett
seem to have thought of everything from the exact number of troops needed to
take control of North Korean nuclear facilities to how many troops would be
responsible for disarming the North Korean armed forces, estimated at 1.4
million, to what to do about a flood of refugees rushing north to China and
south to South Korea.
"We don't envision large-scale organized resistance by the North Korean
military," she told a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington. Nor, said Lind, in what presumably was an
understatement, should anyone "assume everyone in North Korea would welcome US
forces". For that matter, she added, compounding the sense of understatement,
"How to make these people citizens of a democratic unified Korea would require
substantial troop requirement."
Pressed to describe the legality of the deployment that she was suggesting,
Lind acknowledged, "There's no getting around it, this is an invasion of North
Korea" in which "we're sending military forces into a country that doesn't want
you to come." Thus it was "important for the US and South Korea", she said, "to
work out an agreement on how this can be done."
Just how seriously US planners take the analysis offered by Bennett and Lind is
far from clear, but no one doubts that it represents a significant strand of
thinking. It's not hard to imagine US strategists turning to such a study in
the event of a sudden shift of power in North Korea.
Amid speculation about what's really happening there, however, South and North
Korean negotiators talked about increasing productivity at the Kaesong economic
complex just above the North-South line about 64 kilometers north of Seoul.
North Korea also has asked South Korea for talks about resuming tours to the
Mount Kumkang region on the eastern side of the peninsula for the first time
since they were canceled after North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South
Korean woman who had strayed outside the tourist area in July 2008.
Yet another issue was the likely response of China, North Korea's ally ever
since Chinese troops defended the North from advancing US and South Korean
forces in the Korean War. The Chinese, as Bruce Klinger, a former Central
Intelligence Agency analyst now with the conservative Heritage Foundation,
noted, "Do not want to talk about any contingency planning."
Lind seemed to think that somehow it would be possible to "reassure China" that
US and South Korean forces were not there to challenge China.
It was as though the lessons of the Chinese role in the Korean War - and
China's focus on insuring the stability of the North Korean regime against
collapse - were no longer relevant. As for South Korea's enthusiasm for sending
troops into North Korea, said Lind, "We need to ask what is the future of the
US alliance with this country."