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North Korea Regime Collapse?
October 29, 2008 8:07 AM   Subscribe

North Korea's Kim suffers 'serious' setback from stroke. When Will North Korea Collapse? Should it happen, US, South Korean, and Chinese troops could charge into North Korea to secure its nuclear facilities-and confront each other, says RAND corp and others. However it is "far from certain that the regime would collapse like a puffball", and even John Bolton thinks The World Shouldn't Fear The Collapse of North Korea . But it's all probably a mugs game, In ’97, U.S. Panel Said North Korea Could Collapse in 5 Years, and in 2004 Talk was Swirling of a North Korean Regime Collapse.
posted by stbalbach (23 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm going to post a simple comment here that I made a while back. All of these things are still true. If there's one thing that DPRK officers are it's trained to fire when the evil capitalists come over the border. Nobody will be willing to risk Seoul. Nobody is militarily charging in. China will just organise the succession and people will be happy as slow reforms happen. I don't think that even the South Koreans really want reunification. It would be the German post-reunification slump squared...in a time of global recession. No. No charging.

"- Reasons Why Neither Side Will Start A Serious Shooting War In Korea -

The North Koreans: I will not attempt to analyse the possible motives of the DPRK, other then to avoid the internal collapse of the regime, and therefore of the Juche system.

First among these is the massive amount of landmines around the DMZ, meaning that no units can even have the possibility of crossing on to each foreign territory via land on their own initative. This route to war is therefore closed off. To do an invasion/incursion, you have to carpet bomb the border to clear a path. This is known by both sides, and so the only situation in which this is likely to be done is all out war. So not the first step then. Assuming they did start doing this, and that any conflict for the DPRK is magically guaranteed conventional, let's see how this turns out for the DPRK forces.

They have:
20 MiG, and about 8-900 other 70s-80s mainly Soviet planes. It should be noted that the country has a massive oil crisis, and many are likely unmaintained, or have been canibalised for parts.
1.08 million troops. This is a formidable number, but it should be noted that these men do not possess modern equipment in the main, or more crucially, modern C&C networks. There are shades of the Iraqi Army in Gulf War I here, and they got pasted.
55,000 special ops. These are well trained, well equipped (for task) troops, who do not face massive problems with C&C as they are designed to operate behind enemy lines in a semi-partisan role. These are likely to be a very effective constant irritation, but people doing asymmetrical warfare without support from the local population can only be an irritation, as they cannot shrink into that population to hide.

They would immediately face around half a million ROK troops armed with modern US supplied kit, the 17 thousand US troops that are already in the ROK, the ROK navy, and probable nuclear subs in the area. They would very soon face US troops from the Japanese bases also, and nigh-limitless air cover. While the DPRK has such a massively fortified country (photos on request) that it would be very easy for them to make an invasion costly beyond any reasonable cost for ROK/US, it is by no means certain that they would have the ability to hold the South Korean ground. One of the most crucial things here is the comparative industrial ability to provide ammunition that even *all* of a war-ruined Korea could provide compared to US forces. So, conventional war results in a massive loss, and probably a complete collapse of an already-on-the-deathbed internal economy.

A nuclear conflict also has no gain for them in power terms. Bear in mind that their nukes are the only thing in their locker: the conventional stuff is all somewhat outdated, representing the materiel that the USSR and PRC felt comfortable giving them, and was much the same carefully obsolete stuff the US give to second string allies. We can take it as read that a limited DPRK first nuclear strike of any kind would result in a massive retaliation on all sites where nukes were still suspected (suspected? Maybe just idly considered possible) to be stored, leaving the DPRK with no real assets to prevent further military response. This means they are faced again with a rather binary option of launching all they have, or having most of their nukes blown up within the DPRK. This is much the same dilemma that resulted in Soviet nuclear planning revolving around a full scale nuclear attack or nothing.

The major reason that this is so unpalatable to the DPRK when compared to Soviet military planners is that the Soviets had a chance of knocking out a significant percentage of the US nuclear arsenal. The DPRK has (unbelievably generously) 15 nuclear warheads. With this it can reliably level the ROK, and *might* be able to get a nuke on Japan. At this point it is faced with the US as main adversary, nuclear subs that each carry more warheads then the DPRK's entire arsenal, and no possibility of strike on that adversary. This means that a real nuclear war results in them being obliterated.

Why we won't start it: We are well aware that the DPRK know that their only real big card is the nuclear issue. This is what they see as their ticket to both continuing aid, and to avoiding invasion. For this reason, there is next to no chance of us attempting to strike at the only targets that we care about, the nuclear sites. The risk of a preventative missile strike being detected and causing the DPRK to launch the threatened missiles is far too high for the payoff. In addition, we would then face the scenario of having started a conflict where we were unaware that the DPRK had another warhead storage point we were unaware of. Also consider that this is highly likely given that DPRK political planners know that they face a massive disadvantage in an air war, and have no practical way to stop an air strike from a B2, for example. Given the massive concentration of troops on the border, we also would face the likely loss of ROK lives numbered in the hundreds of thousands in even a short conventional war. Any US or ROK president has to be aware that this is not likely to be massively loved by the people at home, and neither party wants to be involved in the massive, massive problem that would be administrating the DPRK as an entity even if all military forces on the Northern side were destroyed.

You note that you wish there was an easy bright line to watch, but neglect to note that in Korea, there is. Consider that the only open military conflict since the DMZ was created was the killing of Southern-based soldiers who had entered the DMZ to cut a tree down, with this being understood as part of the ritual, and with no meaningful response from either side. This is a highly formalised conflict, with both sides knowing that any major incursion over the DMZ would mean a full scale conflict, with neither side having anything to gain from that resumption. Terrifyingly well armed as it may be, there is a reason that the DMZ is the most stable active conflict military line in history."

Even if the current leader dies, you'd have to say why you think the leadership would collapse from that outside of major external intervention. And the DPRK state *definitely* has the monopoly on force. I'm cynical on it.
posted by jaduncan at 8:24 AM on October 29, 2008 [20 favorites]


More worrying is that, with a leadership vacuum, elements within the military elite start (?) to peddle nuclear components and materials for hard cash.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:30 AM on October 29, 2008


“The 50-minute montage set to patriotic music showed a sprightly Kim in his trademark jumpsuit and sunglasses — and wearing a winter parka, his hair blowing in the wind...”

Y’know, I would rather do clown porn than be portrayed in this manner.


“First among these is the massive amount of landmines around the DMZ, meaning that no units can even have the possibility of crossing on to each foreign territory via land on their own initative.”

Astute analysis, jaduncan. But *BOOM!* I don’t *POW!* think that *BAM!* there’s as ma*POOM!*ny land *BANG!* mines as *BOOM!* you might *zzziing POP!* think ...maybe I’m wrong.
Man, those old suckers love going off in the change of season.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:45 AM on October 29, 2008


Meatbomb's dictatorship collapse profiteering tip: when it falls, go there and buy real estate. It's a winner every time, you could have seen ROI of 300% or more getting into East Europe / Soviet Union just when everyone was still desperate and naive.

Also, for any North Koreans in the house: looting tips (self link).
posted by Meatbomb at 8:53 AM on October 29, 2008


The boss has a son, much as Bush one has a son...the mantle will be passed. alas.
posted by Postroad at 8:57 AM on October 29, 2008


The regime is more than just Kim Jong Il. You've got your army officers, Party bureaucrats, secret police, etc, all of whom have a vested stake in that sick, dysfunctional system.

They're not gonna go down easily.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:13 AM on October 29, 2008


One of my favorite links from college about a possible DPRK-USA conflict.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:32 AM on October 29, 2008


The boss has a son, much as Bush one has a son...the mantle will be passed. alas.

After Kim Jong-il.
(SLAJ)
posted by gman at 9:45 AM on October 29, 2008


I don't see a firefight over North Korea in the near future either. No profit in it.

For the same reason, I don't see China swarming in with tanks either, not unless the DPRK already is in a state of civil war. I think China is currently more into economic hitmen rather than open conflict.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:51 AM on October 29, 2008


The North Koreans also have tons of conventional shells pointing at south Korea, this has always been their main deterrent.
posted by delmoi at 10:01 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't be surprised if this particular situation favors moneyed interests pushing for an invasion of NK. Once the country is stabilized, it's a zoo of cheap labor already accustomed to a strong work ethic, with a location that's well-connected to the infrastructure of China, Russia, and South Korea. I don't know if colonialism is still in vogue anymore, but if I was a corrupt corporate tycoon wanting to open a sweatshop, I'd be having wet dreams about opening one in a free market NK.
posted by crapmatic at 10:25 AM on October 29, 2008


Delmoi sums up what I'd always heard was the real issue: their conventional artillery.

It may not be high-tech, but it's more than capable of doing a lot of damage to Seoul -- turning it into one of those World War I moonscapes, really -- and they could get a lot of rounds off before anyone made it through the minefields and stopped them. They barely need to aim, just touch off as many as they can in the right general direction. Given the population density of Seoul, even if you zapped each NK position with counterbattery fire immediately after the first shot, it would still create tremendously unacceptable losses.

Plus, I suspect they're pretty well dug in against anything except precision bunker-busters (which take time to deploy and use effectively) or nuclear weapons.

And that brings it back around to the nuclear issue again. Nuclear weapons would be the logical way to rapidly neutralize their conventional threat to Seoul, but that's not a card anybody wants to play.

So we just let them go, and hope that eventually the whole machine rusts and falls apart on its own. The maintenance of the status quo is in everybody's best interest, except perhaps the North Korean people, but they seem likely to get the short end of the stick in any scenario.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:48 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


1.08 million troops. This is a formidable number, but it should be noted that these men do not possess modern equipment in the main, or more crucially, modern C&C networks. There are shades of the Iraqi Army in Gulf War I here, and they got pasted.

There are also shades of Afghanistan and Gulf War II (better known as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq), where irregular guerrilla forces are holding down a technologically superior occupying force.

NORK is a mess. No one is prepared for regime change. I think the assumption that US, South Korean, and Chinese troops could charge into North Korea to secure its nuclear facilities is a little hard to believe.

The strategy will most likely be status quo, which is containment: DMZ manned by SK + US in the south, with China containing NORK in the north while providing basic subsidies to keep the lights on, plus backing for a junta who will replace Kim Jong Il.

It's pretty bad to be a North Korean, but the country is serving more and more as a outsource manufacturer for both China and South Korea. The incapacity of Kim Jong Il does not mean the incapacity of North Korea.

Anyway, invasion is out of the question. Seoul (all 20 million people of it) would be swiftly destroyed by artillery barrage.

It seems unlikely that Kim Jong Nam (Kim Jong Il's son) is being groomed as a successor.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2008


According to the AP, a North Korean solder recently defected to the south because "he was frustrated by life in North Korea and concerned about his future in the communist country."

The article goes on to say,
Also Tuesday, South Korea's spy chief told lawmakers that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — though "not physically perfect" — appears to be recovering and is running the country without difficulty. South Korean and U.S. officials say North Korea's autocratic 66-year-old leader suffered a stroke, reportedly in mid-August. North Korea denies he is ill.
cf. GlobalSecurity.org: "Leadership Succession Recent Developments"
posted by ob1quixote at 11:48 AM on October 29, 2008


crapmatic: I don't know if colonialism is still in vogue anymore, but if I was a corrupt corporate tycoon wanting to open a sweatshop, I'd be having wet dreams about opening one in a free market NK.

Colonialism via military expeditionary force has been increasingly unpopular since WWII. The British realized that a friendly trading partner offered fewer headaches than an unfriendly colony with an independence movement. The French lost two ugly and now historically unpopular wars in the process of disolving theirs. Afghanistan and Iraq have become problematic, expensive and unpopular occupations.

The modus operandi for contemporary colonialism is to get locals to do your dirty-work, while maintaining a pretense of neutrality, concern for human rights, and distance from the action on the ground. In fact, Kim Jong-il's father might be a classic example of early cold-war proxy colonialism. The people who shed tears and protest when your own soldiers die in combat, will shrug in apathy over a junta or coup d'etat on page four of the morning paper. You can even have your policy wonks say with a straight face that reports of massacres by your proxies are "not credible." Not having your army or your appointed governor directly involved gives you deniability when the shit hits the fan.

Ultimately, I see little in North Korea that can't be more cheaply developed elsewhere. There is no shortage of cheap labor and emerging markets. The natural resources as dsecribed by the CIA World Factbook include few critical resources for economic or military development.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:08 PM on October 29, 2008


Not much the US can do if Kim's regime collapses. All-out war is really unlikely, for all the reasons already mentioned. The nukes are like the dad's Ferrari in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, ie they aren't really meant to leave the garage -- they are much more valuable if they are kept intact and very very shiny.

There's bound to be several officers or party strongmen ready to step in and keep the DPRK ball bouncing, in which case we sit back and watch, maybe re-jigger our economic strategy. Or, in the event of total anarchy, all we could really do is to send a carrier group to hang out and wait for China to tip its hand. Beijing is likely to have laid substantial groundwork for any contingencies on the Korean peninsula.

I suppose we might try to infiltrate with the aim of securing the warheads, but I think the Chinese would, again, be way ahead of us in that regard.
posted by kurtroehl at 2:50 PM on October 29, 2008


Here in Seoul, nobody is really talking about it yet. You might expect jubilation, but really, the regime surrounding KJI is a great big question mark. Rationally, they'd be stupid to attack the ROK. But we're not really dealing with rational actors, are we? I mean, I hope so, but who the fuck really knows?

On the other hand, one popular conspiracy holds that KJI died five years ago and the regime has been run with stand-ins ever since.
posted by bardic at 9:02 PM on October 29, 2008


I don't think that even the South Koreans really want reunification.

They do. Their government, I have argued in the past, doesn't. Not really.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:14 PM on October 29, 2008


Especially with the week economy right now in the ROK (arguably worse than back in the States). My sense is that South Koreans say they want unification, but once you explain to them that they'd have to pay higher taxes and make economic sacrifices to feed, clothe, and house North Koreans, they'd change their tune.

Kind of like West and East Germany ca. 1989, but for as ass-backwards as East Germany was, North Korea is ten times more destitute and in need of help (i.e., $).
posted by bardic at 9:47 PM on October 29, 2008


It's a lot more complicated, to be honest. For example, there's a vast generational gap in attitudes towards the North, both in terms of political hardening and the fact that a significant percentage of people 50 years or older have family members they actually knew who were trapped in the North during the war. And for those close to that age, it is unwise to underestimate the sentimentality involved. For the young, to a great extent, it's an issue they're just not all that interested in, although, of course, they'll often parrot the pronouncements of their elders.

There are still old, old men in prison (although some have been released in the decades since democracy started to creep in during the Noh Tae Woo administration in the late '80s), who have been there for decades as prisoners of conscience merely for making statements in support of North Korea in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's also unwise to underestimate the lingering effects of the hardline taken against comm-symp types or even those who held 'dangerous' ideas in past decades. There is a still a very strong chilling-effect undercurrent in play. This hardline attitude -- a relatively mild version of which is held by the pro-business, rightish-wing new president Lee Myung Bak -- keeps real debate of the issues involved from happening in any effective way, although the last few years have seen things loosen up somewhat, as with many things.

But hell, just a couple of months ago the Defense Ministry banned 23 'disturbing books', accusing them of 'disseminating pro-DPRK, anti-US and anitcapitalist ideas, thus harming soldiers' mentality', including a couple of Noam Chomsky's latest efforts. I know, it seems like a throwback of the worst sort, but things don't always work the way one would expect over here.

once you explain to them that they'd have to pay higher taxes and make economic sacrifices to feed, clothe, and house North Koreans, they'd change their tune.

That's kind of unpleasantly paternalistic. Most adult Koreans are not fools, any more than any other adult population is, and most realize that reunification would come at a heavy economic price. They don't need you or I to explain it to them. Many, at least when times are good, which, of course, they aren't right now, are happy to varying degrees, at least theoretically, to pay that price. I have been teaching adults from the ages of 30 to about 60 for the last 5 years, and have talked with many of them about this. In addition, leaving alone the sentimental and family-separation aspects, both individuals and companies in the South see great financial opportunities should the DMZ open up completely.

The government, though, much as they pay lip service to the idea, do indeed view the economic gap between North and South for what it is -- a gulf much wider than the one between the Germanys 30 years ago, as you say, bardic -- and are in no hurry to take the leap.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:05 PM on October 29, 2008


You're right. "Explain" wasn't a good choice of words. "Remind," perhaps. As an idea, reunification definitely appeals to a lot of younger (20-something) Koreans. As a practical reality, things would get messy in a hurry.

But it's interesting to think ROK companies might actually see profit in joining with the North some day. I'd never really thought of it that way. It would be a hell of a time to be in real estate speculation, no?
posted by bardic at 1:13 AM on October 30, 2008


It would be a hell of a time to be in real estate speculation, no?

Hells, yeah. I've been telling people for years that when it happens, I'm buying some beach property up in the NE of North Korea.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:16 AM on October 30, 2008


ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il suffered a serious setback



I'm really not into the word " ailing " - can't journalists say something else like " totally knackered " " fucked " etc etc - " ailing " makes him sound like an leaking oil tanker or something - and dont get me started on "the stricken vessel".
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:43 AM on October 30, 2008


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