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Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse
September 30, 2013 6:26 AM   Subscribe

The RAND Corporation's National Security Research Division has released a 297-page report on the likely consequences of a collapse of the North Korean regime, within the Korean Peninsula, as well as to China, Japan, the US and others (PDF).
posted by acb (62 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
This maybe shouldn't be the very first comment, but:

As comprehensive as the RAND corporation can be, I was surprised, momentarily, by not seeing any "What if they don't collapse?" scenario listed. But, Chapter 10 seems to have something on North Korean Government Collapse Appears to Be More a Matter of Time, and Other Possible Futures.

Ok, on to actually reading the document...
posted by wormwood23 at 6:41 AM on September 30, 2013


This looks great! But it also looks like 346 pages (including front matter), so if someone has an executive summary...
posted by Going To Maine at 6:41 AM on September 30, 2013


Not that I think this isn't a good topic (it is!), but this seems like a post that would be better if it were revisited with a little more detail and where the only link isn't an enormous PDF.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:52 AM on September 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


I wonder if the Rand Corporation considers the possibility of a South Korean collapse. We've been waiting for the imminent collapse of North Korea for what 20 years now? The Long History of (Wrongly) Predicting North Korea's Collapse:

"North Korea has not imploded, and it has not reformed. There has been no "soft landing," no quick collapse, no confederation with the South. There has been no successful food-for-peace program with the U.S., as Seligson implied there could be, and no rapid, Iraq-like disintegration of the Korean peninsula, a possibility that The Atlantic's own Robert Kaplan discussed in a 2006 print article."

North Vietnam did not collapse. Cuba hasn't collapsed. China's doing rather well. I think it's a bit early to count the communists out.
posted by three blind mice at 6:55 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I want to read this but I feel like I need a short sleeved dress shirt, a tie, a huge glass ashtray and a windowless concrete room first.
posted by The Whelk at 7:06 AM on September 30, 2013 [51 favorites]


Does North Korea count as a functioning communist state? It looks more like a feudal theocracy in a sort of cargo-cult commie drag. The cult of the God-Emperor is more extreme than even the personality cult of Stalin at its height, and has endured for decades.
posted by acb at 7:08 AM on September 30, 2013 [31 favorites]


I want to read this but I feel like I need a short sleeved dress shirt, a tie, a huge glass ashtray and a windowless concrete room first.

You of all people should be able to come up with that by COB.
posted by valkyryn at 7:09 AM on September 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


feudal theocracy in a sort of cargo-cult commie drag

I think it might be worth $5 to rebrand myself
"Feudal Theocrat In A Sort Of Cargo-Cult Commie Drag"
posted by vorpal bunny at 7:11 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


if someone has an executive summary...

Starts on page xv, which is page 18 of the pdf.
posted by valkyryn at 7:12 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


The premise seems to be that if there's some sort of major upheaval in North Korea that South Korea and the US would invade and force unification. Seems much more likely to me that if North Korea ever really got into trouble, China would probably move in and stabilize before the US could even start debating about an invasion.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:19 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does North Korea count as a functioning communist state?

Have there ever been any "functioning" communist states? It's all a house of cards, and NORK survives only because China needs it to survive.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:19 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good point; though the Soviet Union more or less functioned for 70 years (and its state presided over the modernisation of what had been a backward feudal empire). Which is not to say it wasn't a dysfunctional system, or doomed to fall over eventually (as it did), just that there are degrees of dysfunction.

Also, in terms of social organisation, the USSR, though rigidly centralised and prone to the failure modes of totalitarianism (from the bout of Stalinist purges, to the general malaise of a sluggish economy), was a lot more modern and flexible than North Korea. North Korea's system of government looks decidedly premodern, closer to Pharaonic Egypt or ancient Assyria than to a technologically advanced 20th-century state.
posted by acb at 7:25 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


All but the most reliable of North Koreans are restricted from crossing the border because they could bring back information that the regime has not sanitized. And the North Korean closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2013 may have been heavily motivated by the gradual infiltration of outside information through Kaesong and into the North, a concern apparently significant enough to outweigh the financial benefits to the North of keeping the complex open. (page 15 of the doc, page 48 of the PDF).

Interesting stuff, this.

The scenarios are all pretty forbidding, though: factionalizing of the DPRK government, China's willingness (or lack therof) to tolerate big ROK/US operations on their doorstep, the "race to Pyonyang," the establishment of a buffer state of some kind along the Chinese/NK border, establishing things like property rights in the North, and so on.

How do you move aid around in the aftermath of a collapse? The report says it would have to be air - hundreds of sorties a day to move the estimated amount of food to the interior of the country, or you've got half the population on the move towards the coast, where the the other half is already scrambling for help.

There doesn't seem to be any way for the DPRK to collapse or even slowly fade without large numbers of people getting killed: from out-and-out combat in an attack of desperation against the ROK or an internal struggle after, say, a successful assassination of Kim Jong-Un.
posted by jquinby at 7:28 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hooboy, given the difficulties Germany experienced (is experiencing?) with reunification, can you imagine trying to unite North and South Korea?
posted by entropicamericana at 7:28 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The premise seems to be that if there's some sort of major upheaval in North Korea that South Korea and the US would invade and force unification. Seems much more likely to me that if North Korea ever really got into trouble, China would probably move in and stabilize before the US could even start debating about an invasion.

The report does mention the possibility of China denoting one of the factions as the legitimate government of North Korea and warning the US/South Korea to stay out, and eventually absorbing NK into a Tibet-style province of the PRC. (Apparently the Chinese government commissioned archaeological studies concluding that the ancestors of the population of Manchuria were Chinese, not Korean, which might set the stage for justifying such a move.) The report also says that South Korea would not be happy with a Chinese annexation of what is part of Korea.
posted by acb at 7:29 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


entropicamericana: "Hooboy, given the difficulties Germany experienced (is experiencing?) with reunification, can you imagine trying to unite North and South Korea?"

German reunification comes up pretty frequently - check out page 122 of the PDF:

At the time of German reunification, most East Germans appeared to feel that reunification would personally be good for them. They viewed West Germany as more economically advanced and rich and thus anticipated that unification would give them an economically better life. Many also preferred to work with their brother Germans than to continue to be subjugated to the Soviet Union.

A whole lot of propaganda would have to be undone (or redone as you like) to get folks in the DPRK to assent to this, though maybe you'd only have to win over the elites. A roadmap for the messaging starts around page 147 of the PDF, "Overcoming North Korean Indoctrination and Fear"
posted by jquinby at 7:35 AM on September 30, 2013


Does North Korea count as a functioning communist state? It looks more like a feudal theocracy in a sort of cargo-cult commie drag.

The same could have been said of Mao-ist China, but even revolutionary China was not immune to political and economic reforms. The same might be said of Vietnam. After the collapse of South Vietnam, the re-unified Vietnam launched political and economic reforms and Vietnam - still a Marxist-Leninist state - is a stable and relatively prosperous place.

North Korea is not immune to political and economic reform and I can imagine (and would hope) that a peaceful path towards this is more likely than a horrific collapse.

The report also says that South Korea would not be happy with a Chinese annexation of what is part of Korea.

The last time I was in Seoul I was watching a baseball game in a local restaurant and got pulled into a conversation about a missed balk. There was something on the news about China sending some ships around the Senkaku islands. The Koreans, no friends of the Japanese, reacted loudly denouncing China. China makes claims on Korean territory - which is rejected by both North and South Korea. So there is no happy, easy relationship on the peninsula which is one of the reasons the dictatorship survives. It is "anti-fragile": the more tension in its potential collapse, the stronger it seems to get.
posted by three blind mice at 7:42 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: a feudal theocracy in a sort of cargo-cult commie drag
posted by furtive at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Whelk: "I want to read this but I feel like I need a short sleeved dress shirt, a tie, a huge glass ashtray and a windowless concrete room first."

You'll also need one of these cups filled with 4 hour old decaf with Sweet'N Low and globs of semi-dissolved powdered non-dairy creamer floating on top.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


The Whelk: "I want to read this but I feel like I need a short sleeved dress shirt, a tie, a huge glass ashtray and a windowless concrete room first."

double block and bleed: "You'll also need one of these cups filled with 4 hour old decaf with Sweet'N Low and globs of semi-dissolved powdered non-dairy creamer floating on top."


Don't forget the browline eyeglasses.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Whelk: "I want to read this but I feel like I need a short sleeved dress shirt, a tie, a huge glass ashtray and a windowless concrete room first."

Can we use the bunker from Spies Like Us? Pretty please??!
posted by joecacti at 8:09 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


In related news, China has banned for export to NK a long list of items related to nuclear weapons & industry development; more with some comment here.
I get the feeling that as China continues to fulfill its ambition of being the primary shot-caller in the East, they view NK's ongoing nuclear three card monte game with increasing disdain and irritability. It's like a gangster movie where the ambitious smart guy eventually has to 'do something' about his crazy friend who he came up with but who continues to get drunk and shoot up bars after everyone else has gone legit. Everyone knows what eventually happens to the guy who's bad for business.
posted by $0up at 8:35 AM on September 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


I wonder what would happen if the enemies of the DPRK tried to surrender? Suppose that South Korea made a convincing show of conceding the war and renouncing the west. Could NK even carry out the assimilation? I bet seeing them try would hasten their downfall and it would make for one of the most interesting ways of dismantling a regime possible.
posted by dgran at 8:48 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't get how it's either feudal or theocratic, unless those are just words you're using to mean "dictatorial", but yes it looks pretty communist to me since the government owns and runs the economy.
posted by Segundus at 8:52 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Whelk:
I have a windowless office with textured wallpaper, two cans of Ekstra Sterk Snus, rimless glasses, and a fluorescent light that keeps flickering, and I've made it through most of it. I spotted at this part, as I'm now thoroughly confused [This is in response to a hypothetical scenario in which the DPRK has fallen into civil conflict]:
Draw a separation line that parties are not allowed to cross. The ROK and the United States could draw a separation line between factions in North Korea to separate them, likely as part of a cease fire.

As the document doesn't outline a very good explanation as to how we would coordinate with China (just some vague "options") I guess I would like RAND to explain to me how a population that has been brainwashed into thinking the US is evil incarnate would suddenly say "hey before we continue killing each other, this foreign collaboration that we've hated for decades has some decrees on how we should go about not continuing this conflict."

Even under the assumption that one of the warring parties is alligned with South Korea, what's to get the opposition to say "Yeah, sure. We're on board." Would someone who has also read this be able to show me what I missed?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 8:55 AM on September 30, 2013


I want to read this but I feel like I need a short sleeved dress shirt, a tie, a huge glass ashtray and a windowless concrete room first.


Also a crew cut and a pair of these glasses.


You're one of our top men.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:09 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would like RAND to explain to me how a population that has been brainwashed into thinking the US is evil incarnate would suddenly say "hey before we continue killing each other, this foreign collaboration that we've hated for decades has some decrees on how we should go about not continuing this conflict."

I'm not an American, but I can tell you that people around the world pretty much love the concept of "America." It would be an easy sell.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:15 AM on September 30, 2013


Why does this report keep referring to "WMD". As if WMD is a thing. Is it a nuclear arsenal, or a chemical arsenal, or both? It seems to me the applicable strategies for the two types of weapons might be rather different.

As well, the report seems to imagine that China's response will be slow and relatively weak. This seems somewhat out of sorts with the fact that China is huge, has powerful reach in the U.S. economic system, a virtually inexhaustible military, and is right next door. I could see them wanting NK territory very much, and if China wants something very much, it's best to stay out of their way.
posted by sixohsix at 9:19 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


As well, the report seems to imagine that China's response will be slow and relatively weak.


Well, it totally was the last time.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:20 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


if someone has an executive summary...

Starts on page xv, which is page 18 of the pdf.


Give me an executive summary of the executive summary. I'm a busy man.
posted by zippy at 9:26 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm a busy man.

People are walking around very briskly with their clipboards today.
posted by mrbill at 9:31 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, um, I'm gonna need you to go ahead and give me that executive summary, and with the proper cover sheet. Oh, and if you could go ahead and swing by Super Target and pick up a huge glass ashtray, that'd be great.
posted by crapmatic at 9:33 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


German reunification comes up pretty frequently - check out page 122 of the PDF:

Yeah, there aren't a lot of parallels - the DDR was saturated by West German media, to the point where East German state TV actively programmed against West German broadcasts. Everyone knew what life on the other side of the wall was like.

Not the case in the DPRK.
posted by downing street memo at 9:34 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


A while ago I read a very long book by Gwynne Dyer called War and the moral of the story was that big wars often happen when one power becomes larger than the other, but the receding power has a temper tantrum and doesn't want to become small.

Another takeaway was that economic "war" has replaced real war in many cases because the ownership of territory is very often not that interesting compared to the ownership of another country's economy.

However, if economic war is not good enough and a real war between superpowers develops it will probably be so devastating as to pretty much end life on Earth, because nukes are pretty much the last straw in all-out war.

China and the US seem to be playing a nice game of economic war, which is somehow okay for both of them. However, if real war begins it will probably be the US that starts it, and I bet US intervention in NK will be the place where the world begins to end. The theory that the US can wander in on a mission of friendly aid without China getting really angry seems massively idiotic to me. This report scares me.

I could be wrong... I am open to criticism.
posted by sixohsix at 9:35 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


executive summary
posted by LogicalDash at 9:37 AM on September 30, 2013


I bet US intervention in NK will be the place where the world begins to end

Nah, Taiwan or something to do with Israel, no doubt.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:39 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also a crew cut and a pair of these glasses.

Ah yes. The Department of D-Fens.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:47 AM on September 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


entropicamericana: Nah, Taiwan or something to do with Israel, no doubt.

Whoa: Israel nukes Taiwan -> America goes to war against itself! DUDE!

We're through the looking-glass here, people.
posted by wormwood23 at 9:49 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have no idea what point you're trying to make, but congratulations on your edginess.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:58 AM on September 30, 2013


I bet US intervention in NK will be the place where the world begins to end

The US is no longer the prime mover (if it ever was) with the ability to shape events in East Asia geopolitics. It's a strong supporting player, but it is a multifaceted, almost prismatic situation where Japan collaborates and competes with the US at the same time. It's fascinating, actually.

Over the past five years Japan has worked hard to expand its influence across SE Asia, notably selling the Philippines and Vietnam naval assets; they all are encountering a similar challenge from China.

China doesn't recognize international conventions that dictate territorial boundaries in maritime environments, and is instead trying to impose its own version of the Law of the Sea, for example. On top of that, the military in China (PLA) has effectively decoupled itself from civilian oversight and acts independently, often counter to civilian interests and aims.

The sad thing is there will likely be a regional war in the near future. My guess is China versus Vietnam (again), since China vs Philippines or China vs Japan would be too dangerous (US involvement certain) for even China to contemplate.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:09 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


> it looks pretty communist to me since the government owns and runs the economy.

Communism requires common ownership of the means of production. A system where a tiny number of ultra-rich oligarchs control absolutely everything and everyone else lives in abject poverty is about as far from communism as I can imagine.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:30 AM on September 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Give me an executive summary of the executive summary. I'm a busy man.

1. THE PROBLEM: There is a substantial chance that the government of North Korea (the DPRK) could collapse without warning at some point in the upcoming years and be replaced with a set of weak factional leaders, none of whom have substantial control over any one part of the country. This would mean a dozen kinds of shit hitting the proverbial fan all at once; political struggles, starving refugees, guerrilla warfare and banditry, loose nukes and many more. South Korea (the ROK) will immediately be involved, since they share a border, and they will want to unify Korea. China will immediately be involved, since they share a border, and they fear a unified Korea. The US will immediately be involved, because the ROK is involved. So there should be plans on what might be needed.

2. THE ACTORS: The Chinese and the South will both want to occupy as much of the country as possible; China will want a buffer and potentially a puppet state, given that there will be millions of refugees trying to get into China and that the portion of China they will be trying to get into is already home to a large ethnically Korean population, they don't want millions more in there (and it's not like anyone is thrilled by the prospect of hosting millions of refugees anyways). The South wants to unify the country all the way to the Chinese border. The US wants what the South wants, with an added emphasis on securing nuclear weapons and the materials and people needed to make more. So both sides are going to be rushing to the middle, and it's not probably going to be high fives and back slaps when they meet up.

3. A CHALLENGE: By the way, the food situation in the DPRK is tenuous already (remember the famine 15 years ago that killed millions of people) and in a crisis people hoard food, so it will almost immediately break and there will be a massive need for humanitarian aid. Also by the way, these people have been raised from birth to believe that the US is the source of all problems in their life and that the US has brainwashed the ROK and also there is no way to communicate with them before a collapse given the DPRK government restriction on communications. So, um, good luck with that.

4. ANOTHER CHALLENGE: Did I mention the DPRK army, which is a massive percentage of the population, is likely to fight against reunification (especially fighting the South) and is probably trained and equipped for guerrilla warfare? Probably should have.

5. MORE CHALLENGES: Once the dust clears, there are a number of little issues, such as the fact that much of the DPRK is owned by the government, occupied by DPRK citizens we are anxious to keep on our side so we are likely to give them the title, and also owned by someone's family in the ROK who fled during the Korean war. Or the fact that the entire ROK penal system houses 40K prisoners, but there are 50K people in the DPRK secret police alone, many of whom are guilty of appalling human rights abuses. Or the fact that there's no way that the ROK can actually afford the reunification project on their own without at least doubling taxes. Or the fact that the ROK is planning on almost halving their army in the next decade, making gaining control of the country more difficult.

6. BOY, THIS SOUNDS COMPLICATED AND PERILOUS: Yes.

SUMMARY OF THE SUMMARY: In summary, if German unification was having your loser uncle sleep on your couch for a couple of months while he scrapes together a damage deposit for a new place, Korean unification is having a family of five show up on your doorstep, with just the clothes on their backs and no income nor prospect of income and you have to support them for the indefinite future, and by the way they all hate you and everything you stand for and their 16 year old son is probably going to try and kill you in your sleep. And that's the bright outlook; the gloomy outlook is a shooting war between China and the US.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:37 AM on September 30, 2013 [62 favorites]


Oh, and by the way, it's a great report and worth reading at least the executive summary. Thanks a lot for posting.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:40 AM on September 30, 2013


I don't get how it's either feudal or theocratic, unless those are just words you're using to mean "dictatorial", but yes it looks pretty communist to me since the government owns and runs the economy.

I think "theocratic" is a pretty good way of thinking about it, if you see Juche as a religion, complete with origin myths, ancestor worship and a largely hereditary priest caste. Wikipedia even points out that Kim Jong-un has renamed Juche "Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism," further shifting it from ideology to theology.
posted by Etrigan at 10:41 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Homeboy Trouble: an excellent analysis. One quibble:

The Chinese and the South will both want to occupy as much of the country as possible; China will want a buffer and potentially a puppet state, given that there will be millions of refugees trying to get into China and that the portion of China they will be trying to get into is already home to a large ethnically Korean population, they don't want millions more in there

I (mostly) agree with your arguments but not your conclusion. My feeling is that China will see no profit in taking in millions of hungry people with essentially no usable skills, and they'll be perfectly happy to see South Korea hobbled for a generation or more trying to integrate NK.

I also feel that China will be wanting to be conciliatory on this issue because they will have likely snacked off Taiwan already, or be about to. China really cares about Taiwan, and they don't really care about Korea nearly as much...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:24 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I like the understated way the report points out that 1/3rd of the ROK's population lives under the artillery footprint of NK and hence is vulnerable to chemical weapon attacks.
For example, the ROK Army could create in its reserves many of the specialty forces it would need to support WMD-E, drawing in particular on training ROK personnel who have served in chemical defense units on active duty.
I get that their infrastructure is crumbling back to the stone age, but that doesn't necessarily presage a collapse, or at least a collapse that will be visible to the International community. It doesn't take much in the way of infrastructure to threaten the shooting of general's children. I'm assuming an exchange of hostages similar to medieval fostering is in place to solidify central control. In any case it would seem like China is going to have a lot more intel on how the situation would devolve and probably have several sets of plans in place to deal with newly emerging factions.

If it does get to the point of total collapse I only hope their isn't a bunch of false flag humanitarian operations planned that involve dropping cargoes of poisoned rice on a starving populace. See how perfidious the west is! followed by Oh look, China is trying to poison you! Sorry, I may have read too much Joseph Heller as a child.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:26 AM on September 30, 2013


sixohsix: "The theory that the US can wander in on a mission of friendly aid without China getting really angry seems massively idiotic to me. This report scares me.

I could be wrong... I am open to criticism.
"

It scares me too. After reading about 1/4 of this, I'm starting to wonder if the safest option might be to let the Chinese handle the whole thing and stay out of it altogether. We wouldn't get what we want, but it would prevent any unpleasant misunderstandings that involve nuclear weapons.
posted by double block and bleed at 11:29 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


'm starting to wonder if the safest option might be to let the Chinese handle the whole thing and stay out of it altogether.

The US is going to "let" China do things in their backyard? Got news for you, your empire is over.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:31 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


'm starting to wonder if the safest option might be to let the Chinese handle the whole thing and stay out of it altogether.

The US is going to "let" China do things in their backyard? Got news for you, your empire is over.


Lighten up, Francis. When you pair it with "stay out of it altogether," "let" doesn't need to mean "give permission."
posted by Etrigan at 11:34 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


BrotherCaine: If it does get to the point of total collapse I only hope their isn't a bunch of false flag humanitarian operations planned that involve dropping cargoes of poisoned rice on a starving populace. See how perfidious the west is! followed by Oh look, China is trying to poison you! Sorry, I may have read too much Joseph Heller as a child.

Well, if it does get to the point of open intervention, and if the NK remnants start committing atrocities, I think it's pretty likely a no-fly zone will be enforced. That is, if the US and China can agree on anything, and don't end up sitting across the country scowling at each other (see also: Syria).
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:48 PM on September 30, 2013


I don't see why these recent export controls matter one whit -- first, does anyone actually know if China will impose them, rather than just announce & then conveniently fail to enforce?

Second, China saying "Gosh NK, you're kinda nuts!" plays into the narrative of the NK -- if even China is worried about them, then boy howdy maybe you westerners ought to freak out a bit, yeah? Maybe give 'em a couple incentives, some talks they can walk away from, that sort of thing? Yeah, be a real shame if something bad happened to this peninsula...
posted by aramaic at 1:17 PM on September 30, 2013


Thanks to this post, I now know about the huge number of documents that the RAND corporation just gives away. They've got a section of classic Cold War stuff, and a lot of their modern briefs are free.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:27 PM on September 30, 2013


I wonder what other papers the RAND folks have, like scenarios for the US government becoming completely dysfunctional through partisan gridlock. Have they game-theoried out the de-federalization of American political power? That'd be a fun read while furloughed.
posted by jetsetsc at 2:42 PM on September 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


".we're tasked with modeling almost any kinds of situation, no matter how hypothetical or unlikely - from a Canadian invasion to weaponized rabies to-"

"Food gaining sentience and eating people?"

" All kinds of situations, sir."
posted by The Whelk at 3:00 PM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Comment on RAND Building Program — 1950

After a few years in rented quarters, RAND began to plan for its own building to house its staff, including about 250 researchers. John Williams, head of the Mathematics Division, surfaced the idea for creating a building that would increase the probability of chance personal meetings. Such meetings, he argued, would promote the interdisciplinary aspect of RAND — the use of mixed teams of analysts in addressing a problem. Williams’ December 26, 1950 memo to RAND staff built the case for a system of closed courts or patios — which led him to the theory of regular lattices, with average distances between points shown in a two-element matrix. The resulting set of patios, he felt, would ensure the maximum number of chance meetings and at the same time enhance, for the RAND staff, the qualities of privacy, quiet, natural light and air, and spaciousness.

Oh that is too awesome. It looks like it actually happened, too! (Towards the bottom of the page.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 3:28 PM on September 30, 2013


"Food gaining sentience and eating people?"
"All kinds of situations, sir."


They stopped making Twinkies for months. They weighed 42.5 grams. Now they weigh 38.5 grams.
Uh huh.
Just watch your ass around the cream filling. All I'm sayin'

The theory that the US can wander in on a mission of friendly aid without China getting really angry seems massively idiotic to me.

Best of all possible worlds.

Wandering off in a feigned nonchalant stroll, hands in pockets, whistling tunelessly can't happen. Full bore invasion can't happen.
From there it's a matter of narrowing the bounds. Can we go in alone? No. Even our erstwhile allies the ROK won't sit still for it.
Do we have the muscle for an invasion? Certainly. PACOM is big, mean and salty. The ROK has been training for precisely this scenario for decades. China has been modernizing since the '90s, but they don't have much actual full scale war experience. For good or ill (mostly ill, but) the U.S. military has plenty. Taking on their navy would be problematic. And for as much as we've been chummy with Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc., they're right there and we're not. And there's no upside to fighting them. Nothing to be gained. And China's not exactly spoiling to fight us either. They're not going to land in California any time soon.
They don't want full scale war either. And the modern order has outmoded nearly all the economic gains of grabbing real estate violently anyway.
So what's China want?
Economic influence mostly. In their end of the tub.

S'funny. You hear speeches from Kennedy about a united hemisphere and it's quaint how arbitrary such a concept is now. Still around. But the idea of these non-porous national boundaries defended by big, industrial backed gigantic waves of men and materiel was on it's way out even then (Kennedy created the SEALs) and small wars, light, fast operations and informal (even short term) alliances with a tight focus on a specific problem is - despite some dinosaur political thought - the new order. Coupled with intelligence, electronic warfare, etc. etc. Ethnicity and nationalism are really outmoded methods.

And that begs the question, so why is China getting all up in our grill with nationalism, resistance to western ideas, etc.
Well, obviously they feel control slipping and they're dealing with it with old-style force.

What's so tricky about western ideas? Well, they're inevitable. Censorship and orthodoxy means, ultimately, less money. China even decriminalized homosexuality (back in '97), there have been gay weddings (symbolic), etc. So they move, but very slowly. And they know this. So why the force?

In some regard it's the Sun Tzu/Proverbs/Clausewitz deception/war by other means sort of thing more than straight aggression.
The landscape (in the world, mostly, but in the Pacific Rim certainly) is such that you want the other side to act aggressively first so you can gain political advantage.
Kicking your own ass (in China's case, cracking down on your people's expression) is a safe sort of move that can also invite aggression.

Which brings us to North Korea (inflicting Dennis Rodman on the country aside, that was more an act of masochism).
The danger there was that South Korea would take them up on their invitation to kick their ass. And let's be clear - whatever was going to happen or not going to happen last year (it's wonderful to be an armchair quarterback) - N. Korea was antagonizing the shit out of everyone in order to provoke a response they could meet with military force.

The happy ending was that China slapped them down and looked like a big hero for settling things down in the region.

And that's pretty much the idea here.

It's in China's character to want to look magnanimous if overbearing as much as it's the U.S's role to be the otherwise nice guy with severe anger issues.
The Tōhoku response and the Indian ocean tsunami (back in '04) as examples. China made a point of involvement, that is, greater involvement than the U.S. Which then of course ('04-'05 ) worked perfectly as rhetoric. And if properly used in the future will work perfectly for the U.S. - given our objective (presumed here) is to avoid needless bloodshed and chaos and spreading political instability after the collapse of North Korea.


The aid element of this piece focuses on that sort of bait and switch. The U.S. isn't 'there' but can send aid (poor, stupid, but useful Americans), South Korea can handle corruption - that is, the fractious elements causing trouble - instead of taking on the military upfront and China can cement the cracks and contain it to the peninsula (because they're so big and magnanimous).
The North Korean officer corps should be (as with any military) patriotic, but less inclined to be political fanatics than they are interested in preventing the implosion of their country. Redirecting their efforts to cooperate with humanitarian aid would not be impossible - given that it's genuinely humanitarian aid.
That's the bait and switch. Change the enemy from political adversary moving in with military forces to the chaos, corruption and opportunism that comes with any major upheaval. Keep the North Korean military leadership (as apolitical people as you can find) in charge with their Chinese allies directing the idiot Americans who don't know anything and keeping tabs on the South Koreans who are keeping a lid on the violence - which is in no one's interest - and taking the brunt of the casualties.

That should create a great deal of goodwill if it goes down that way. The enemy - no matter who the actual enemy is - are the nationalist insurgents (or anyone who wants to keep missile technology/wmds/etc. a secret).
Money quote there:
"In each of these cases, a failure to achieve meaningful de-escalation or a cease-fire would likely force the ROK and the United States to escalate to destroying or securing at least the WMD the parties involved hold, if not pursuing military defeat of the parties. Such decisions would make a mutually agreed on outcome difficult to achieve and would leave serious bases for disaffection among the targeted groups."

The one thing we - that is the U.S., China, South Korea, but pretty much the world - can't afford is a group with enough juice to hold and defend dangerous weapons technology but not enough to control the country.
That means a real invasion. Which means a very dirty, very unpredictable war that could easily expand into a 'get what we can' situation for any of the parties involved which, yeah, could mean WWIII. I've seized stuff in nonpermissive environments. As detailed as this is, it's wildly optimistic in those regards. (Bennett also wrote "Deterring North Korea from Using WMD in Future Conflicts and Crises" (available at SSQ, winter 2012, if not there) which goes into what WMDs North Korea may have, and other details.et.al
And his work is generally aggressive as well. No slight to him. It's solid. But I disagree with the emphasis on the big stick from the U.S. (e.g. there's no real point in nuking North Korea even if they do nuke something, as Bennett has posited. Much as I hate nukes generally, that's not softhearded thinking. We'd score far more points going in and killing their leadership conventionally. And it would be more certain. So much of that damn country is already underground)

There's no real need to deter their provocations. Part of North Korea's posture comes from our emphasis on WMDs. It's not the provocations we need to worry about (as much as that's cold comfort to the families of the people on the Cheonan), but the attention paid to them.
Y'know, if you have a kid and they want to play with a toy car or something and you want them to wash up for dinner or something, you don't grab at the car. The point of contention then becomes the car and then it's contest of wills for no reason other than you can't come up with a creative solution that allows them to take the toy car into the bathroom while they wash their hands.

So - the big sloppy kiss route, as idiotic as it seems, fulfills a number of major objectives. It leans toward reunification which South Korea wants. It makes China look like their in charge and good to their allies. And, importantly, it limits the exposure of American troops to attack by WMD.
About all North Korea could manage to do to hit the U.S. is if we were, best case scenario, in their neighborhood. An attack on the U.S. navy at sea might be bad, but they're pretty survivable. The best case for North Korea using WMDs against the U.S. is if our troops are on their end of the sandbox.
So strategically, Bennett can be prescient or goofy, but details are irrelevant.

To quote McNamara: "Today there is no longer any such thing as military strategy, there is only crisis management."
Punitive retaliation isn't strategy and any crisis escalation from conventional warfare (if we go there) to WMD use, particularly nucklr combat toe to toe with the koryns *puts on cowboy hat*, is going to be a failure for our entire future participation in the region.

Even if it's justified. Hell, we're still the bad guys because we nuked two cities in Japan.

I prefer Thomas Schelling. Particularly on thresholds. We've been pretending that because North Korea seems not to recognize them that it's ok for us to ignore them too.
It's the "get tough" or "don't negotiate" with terrorists mentality.

We can't recognize that on the one hand North Korea may collapse and its command and control systems may fail, and so they may not be in communication with other elements or know what's going on in the world - and say the problem is they're ignoring their operational environment and so we should too.
We should base our conclusions on observations as to whether North Korea has crossed certain thresholds, not on desire for retaliation or expectations.

Certainly the fog of war is pervasive. But the objective here shouldn't be to knock North Korea down further, but to instill a structure (and if there's one thing those people are conditioned to, it's structure) and to enable internal communication - even if it's to our detriment.
Because long term, it will lay the groundwork for WMDs being a real threat from rogue actors. Making them irrelevant as forces for political change will do more for world peace and security than any threat of retaliation.

If we don't find diplomatic/military options that leave our opponents a way out of crises that are at least amicable if not compatible with their interests, we're going to push our way into constant warfare that can only be ended with a nuclear ultimatum.

One of Schelling's ideas is that if one side can't respond in kind to the actions of another, the more capable side can set a higher threshold and facilitate deterrence and limit the chance of escalation.
That idea is decades old and applied more to a cold war world. But it's still basically true.

The difference in this case is that we force the threshold framework on to the less capable side (North Korea) while also constraining ourselves.
Recognizing that while we can play the dominance game (to which North Korea acts "crazy" in response), our objective is not dominance but deescalation itself.
That limiting escalation is credibility.

We have the opportunity to communicate that now, to China, to most of the region. Creating credibility at the beginning of a crisis is critical to deterrence - typically in one's capability to follow through on a threat, as Bennett illustrates here - but early enough on you can create the entire rule set of the game.

Here, it could be - who's doing what's best for the region? Who's not destroying the Korean peninsula?
And, as a result, who's going to have the best economic future as the result of all that goodwill, stability and newfound security?

The Chinese word for crisis can also be (under the right conditions) the word for opportunity.
(Although I prefer Herbert: "A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.")
posted by Smedleyman at 4:19 PM on September 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


Communism requires common ownership of the means of production. A system where a tiny number of ultra-rich oligarchs control absolutely everything and everyone else lives in abject poverty is about as far from communism as I can imagine.

However both system ultimately end up with centralized control of the economy and the potential for similar intellectual hubris disasters if one is to believe Hayek.
posted by srboisvert at 6:09 PM on September 30, 2013


Two brilliant fucking replies from both Homeboy Trouble and Smedleyman. I really hope that I live to see the fall of leadership of the north, followed by the closing of the gulags, gradual reunification and the beginning of the end of the Korean sense of han. The cruelty of the northern regime tears at every heart in the south, constantly.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 11:00 PM on September 30, 2013


the beginning of the end of the Korean sense of han

That will never happen, if only because it's the special sauce that keeps the engines of the Crying Women Evening Dramas turning over.

More seriously, it's a concept that is arguably intrinsic to Koreanness, and predates partition by a very long time indeed. And I'd suggest that no matter what happens in terms of reunification, peaceful or otherwise, things are going to get a lot worse before they start to get better.

The cruelty of the northern regime tears at every heart in the south, constantly.

Based on 17 years of living here and talking to South Koreans about it at least once in a while, I'd say that's not actually the case. It horrifies me, a little, that it isn't, but.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:01 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


About indoctrination: while the North Korean people are heavily indoctrinated, they are not stupid. They understand that they are forced to be patriotic. They know they live in a totalitarian state where loose talk costs lives.

The information they get about the outside world may often be little better than fragments and whispers, but they do get some information that there is a something out there where things are more plentiful, shinier, bigger, better, different etc. Radio jamming is prevalent in North Korea but not always effective. There is a black market for western media. North Koreans have interacted with Chinese traders. They have several diplomatic missions. Even though tourists are shepherded closely those people that do see them cannot fail to notice they are taller, fatter, with newer clothes etc.

The state narrative within North Korea relies on North Korea prevailing against its enemies. It requires that an unseen enemy is always the aggressor. The distance between fact and fiction is sufficiently wide that in the even the state fails those without a vested interest in the status quo will challenge at some level what they see before them vs what they know.

The danger, as always, is those people who have a vested interest in believing or sustaining the status quo - the military and ruling class. For me, the real risk is that were North Korea to collapse, it might be in China's interests to turn a cross-border situation into internal civil unrest. China could have withdrawn support for North Korea at any point over the past few decades. The last thing it wants is a US-aligned country on its border, controlling a large chunk of the coastline onto the Sea of Japan.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:04 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


RAND invented windsurfing
Windsurfing was first described in a RAND document written and illustrated by aeronautical engineer James Drake. He was the first to hold the patent and is heralded by many within the windsurfing world as "the father of windsurfing."


Thanks for that link WidgetAlley. Who here knew this, and when did they know it? And why wasn't I told?
posted by amorphatist at 2:29 AM on October 1, 2013


China Arrests Journalist Who Posted Claims of Corruption Online
posted by jeffburdges at 3:57 PM on October 12, 2013


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