commentary

(United Press International)

November 28, 2006

N Korea Policy Options

by Bruce W. Bennett

WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 (UPI) — In Iraq, regime change — even when it involved the fall of a dictator whom President George W. Bush called a member of the "axis of evil" — created many unexpected and costly problems. The same thing could happen if regime change comes to North Korea.

The time to begin preparing for these problems is now.

No tears would be shed around the world if nuclear-armed axis of evil dictator Kim Jung-Il lost power in North Korea. But those longing to see Kim deposed should remember the old saying: "Be careful what you wish for, it may come true."

The fall of the self-styled "dear leader" of North Korea would have big minuses as well as plusses not just for America but for neighboring China, South Korea, Japan and other nations. Like a collapsing skyscraper, a collapsing North Korean regime could cause a lot of damage to everything around it.

In his confrontation with the United States, United Nations and other countries over his development and testing of nuclear weapons, Kim is well aware of the damage his fall could cause — and the fear this generates. In fact, this fear factor is a source of his strength. When nations worry that a post-Kim North Korea would be even more dangerous than North Korea today, their desire to topple Kim cools considerably.

Discussing the fall of Kim and his Stalinist dictatorship is no academic exercise. North Korea is an economic basket case, mired in poverty and kept going only because of foreign aid — primarily from China and South Korea. The United Nations arms sanctions on the North and economic sanctions by other nations could put enough pressure on North Korea to cause a worsening of conditions for its people beyond the breaking point, leading to a North Korean effort to overthrow Kim in a coup.

Cornered and desperate to stay in power, Kim could use nuclear blackmail to demand billions in aid and massive concessions from other nations to keep him in office. Failing to get that, and knowing he was doomed, it is not inconceivable that Kim could make good on his threat to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" with a conventional or even nuclear attack as a final act of revenge, killing hundreds of thousands of people or more.

Then what happens if Kim finally is ousted?

A successor North Korean regime could come into place, but there is little likelihood such a government would have more favorable policies or even be as stable as the Kim Jong-Il government. Continued instability could lead to a series of North Korean regime collapses and revolving door governments. With a small nuclear arsenal and a huge army at their disposal, each of these governments would pose a threat of war to its neighbors.

If a successor North Korean regime fails to restore order and prevent economic collapse in the communist nation, North Korea could follow the path of East Germany and unify with its capitalist, prosperous sister state — in this case, South Korea. But while unification seems like a happy ending where freedom triumphs, a unified Korea could be just the beginning of a new nightmare.

Millions of refugees would almost certainly flee the poverty and misery of what had been North Korea for the prosperous South and for China. South Korean experience with North Korean refugees suggests that these indoctrinated refugees would not be easily absorbed into the South Korean economy.

The North Korean Army with about 1 million active-duty troops is roughly three times the size of the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein. A unified Korea would not need such a large armed force on top of the existing 550,000-person South Korean Army.

But if the North Korean Army were reduced in size or even disbanded, a large number of trained fighters would suddenly find themselves out of work and desperate to make a living at a time of economic turmoil with few available jobs.

Following in the footsteps of the unemployed soldiers of the disbanded army of Saddam Hussein, many former North Korean soldiers would turn to insurgency and could go on fighting for years, seeking to strike out against the capitalist South Koreans who had taken control of their country. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction might be one of the insurgents' few options to obtain income.

There have been many efforts to compare a North Korean collapse and absorption by South Korea to the unification of East and West Germany in 1990. Unification is reported to have cost Germans about $1 trillion, and the former East Germany is still behind western standards.

Yet as bad as conditions were in East Germany, conditions in North Korea are far worse. Some economists have estimated the cost of Korean unification would be several trillion dollars — an amount that South Korea could not afford alone. Huge amounts of aid from the United States and other nations would be needed to rebuild the North Korean economy.

German unification was also easier than Korean unification would be for other reasons. There was far more contact and much more open communication across the inter-German border before German unification. East Germans were not starving in the manner of the North Koreans. And no other country intervened in German unification the way that China may feel compelled to intervene in North Korea because of refugees, nuclear weapons and other factors.

The world may not have much time before a North Korean regime collapse could occur. America should begin talks with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia on what happens after Kim slips into history so that the nations can work in partnership and coordination to deal with the chaos of a North Korean collapse.

These five nations need to develop ways to put the North Korean military to work after unification. For example, they could set aside funds to hire the former soldiers to fix North Korea's crumbling infrastructure, much as workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps operated in the United States during the Great Depression. They could create incentives for their own domestic industries to open new factories and other facilities in what is now North Korea to create jobs and spur economic development. And the five nations could prepare initiatives to increase their imports from Korea after unification.

U.S. financial commitments would clarify America's willingness to help bear the burden of Korean reunification and reconstruction. In addition, the United States needs to make longer-term commitments to not move its military forces to areas in a unified Korea where China would find them threatening.

Because China, South Korea and Japan are particularly concerned about their own security, the United States should offer to provide security assistance to deny the effectiveness of attacks from a desperate North Korean regime. Such assistance could involve offering to deploy U.S. Patriot missile units in Seoul, Beijing and perhaps other cities to provide protection against North Korean nuclear attacks with ballistic missiles.

On the civilian side, America should position food and perhaps transportation means in South Korea and China that could help prepare the two nations for the humanitarian disaster and huge number of refugees that could accompany North Korean regime failure.

The challenge America and the world face today in deciding how to deal with North Korea is to choose between bad alternatives and worse ones. In making decisions, it's important for leaders to see the world as it is rather than as they would like it to be. If the problems in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected and be prepared.

© 2006 United Press International


Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on November 28, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.