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Research Questions

  1. What might be the immediate consequences of the collapse of the current North Korean government?
  2. How might the Republic of Korea and its U.S. ally need to respond to control and mitigate the consequences?
  3. How should a demobilization of the North Korean military and security services be handled?
  4. How must the allies prepare in advance to ensure that they can respond appropriately?

Abstract

A North Korean government collapse would have serious consequences in North Korea and beyond. At the very least, a collapse would reduce the already scarce food and essential goods available to the population, in part due to hoarding and increasing costs. This could lead to a humanitarian disaster. Factions emerging after a collapse could plunge the country into civil war that spills over into neighboring countries. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could be used and even proliferated. This report examines ways of controlling and mitigating the consequences, recognizing that the Republic of Korea (ROK) and its U.S. ally will almost certainly need to intervene militarily in the North, likely seeking Korean unification as the ultimate outcome. But such an intervention requires serious preparation. North Koreans must be convinced that they will be treated well and could actually have better lives after unification. The allies need to prepare to deliver humanitarian aid in the North, stop conflict, demilitarize the North Korean military and security services over time, and secure and eventually eliminate North Korean WMD. Potential Chinese intervention must be addressed, ideally leading to cooperation with ROK and U.S. forces. Plans are needed for liberating North Korean political prisons before the guards execute the prisoners. Property rights need to be addressed. The ROK must sustain its military capabilities despite major reductions in force size due to very low birthrates. And ROK reluctance to broadly address North Korean collapse must be overcome so that plans in these areas can move forward.

Key Findings

There Is a Reasonable Probability That North Korean Totalitarianism Will End in the Foreseeable Future

  • The division of the North into factions would likely precipitate civil war. Such conflict could spread to surrounding countries.
  • Weapons of mass destruction could be used and/or sold to third parties.
  • Compared to today, an even more serious lack of food, medicine, and other supplies in North Korea would lead to a humanitarian disaster likely worse than the famine of the mid-1990s.
  • Large numbers of refugees flowing into China and the Republic of Korea (ROK) would be destabilizing to both countries.
  • These possibilities might encourage China to intervene, which could lead to accidental conflicts with intervening ROK and U.S. forces.

The ROK and Its U.S. Ally Will Likely Intervene, with a View to Ultimate Reunification

  • The immediate objectives of intervention would be to deliver humanitarian aid, stop conflict, demilitarize the military and security services, secure and eliminate WMD, and liberate political prisons before guards execute the prisoners.
  • Alternative employment for those formerly in the military and security services could include public works projects.
  • Property rights will need to be addressed.

Such Intervention Requires Planning and Preparation

  • Manpower is a potential issue; the size of the ROK military is decreasing and alternatives need to be addressed.
  • Large amounts of humanitarian aid will need to be delivered promptly throughout the country. This will require advance stockpiling and organization.
  • Coordination with other nations, especially China, will be necessary.

Recommendations

  • The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States need to overcome ingrained North Korean propaganda painting them as the enemy and blaming them for all ills in North Korea. The ROK and the United States must change how North Koreans think about unification and their individual prospects after unification.
  • Policies are needed for such issues as provision of humanitarian aid and jobs, selective amnesty, and property rights, and these need to be communicated to North Koreans.
  • The ROK and the United States need to prepare to deliver humanitarian aid throughout North Korea promptly and in significant quantities. Any intervention should lead with aid.
  • After a North Korean government collapse, all conflict that occurs in North Korea risks spilling over into the ROK and China and worsening the humanitarian disaster in the North. The ROK and U.S. forces should therefore seek prompt ceasefires for these conflicts and to avoid having to fight the North Korean forces.
  • The ROK and the United States also need to be prepared to deal with North Korean security services, including prisons. It will be necessary to liberate political prisons as soon as possible to prevent another kind of humanitarian disaster.
  • Criminal action against North Koreans should be limited to the capacity of the ROK judicial and prison systems. Amnesty may need to be applied to those guilty of accepting bribes and other forms of corruption, while focusing criminal prosecution on those guilty of serious human rights abuses, such as torture and murder.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Possibilities for Collapse

  • Chapter Three

    The Potential Consequences of Collapse

  • Chapter Four

    Addressing North Korean Thinking About Unification

  • Chapter Five

    Challenges of and Responses to Humanitarian Disaster

  • Chapter Six

    Challenges of and Responses to Conflict and Military Forces in North Korea

  • Chapter Seven

    Challenges of and Responses to Security Services and Human Rights Disasters

  • Chapter Eight

    Challenges of and Responses to Ownership Issues

  • Chapter Nine

    Challenges of and Responses to Potential Chinese Intervention

  • Chapter Ten

    Addressing the Prerequisites of Collapse Preparation

The research described in this report was prepared for the Smith Richardson Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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