[April 17, 2016] One day in the future, I hope to travel to North Korea and tour the countryside to see inside a nation that has been at the heart of impoverishing millions of its citizens and threatening the world. The hermit kingdom of North Korea has revealed signs of collapse (or implosion) for decades and despite predictions of its failure, the country’s leadership shows surprising resilience to keep the country together and viable.
Kim Jong-un, the third Kim to rule the nation with an iron fist, has pricked international attention due to signs that indicate a collapse. Open source reporting shows a number of indicators; increasing number of defectors, Kim’s purge of senior military ranks, and warnings to the people of an “arduous march” (a metaphor for famine).1 Combined with a long period of poor weather conditions for growing crops, increased United Nations’ sanctions, and pressure from its ally China, the North Korean leadership is under unusual pressure.
Is North Korea on the verge of collapse? I use the term “collapse” in a broad sense to mean economic and political. Of course, South Korea, the United States, China, and Russia are those most concerned if it were to occur. The fallout from a North Korea collapse is unpredictable and would likely be dangerous. During my time in the U.S. military, we made an effort to both predict a sudden collapse and discussed what might happen and our response. Much of this is classified of course, but the real question is what would happen and what would the world do?
No one knows for sure whether North Korea is on the verge of collapse or not. Regardless of what experts can tell us, no one has correctly predicted it collapse before. Could it happen soon? Certainly, the answer is yes. Wise leaders therefore should be ready for it to occur and should have detailed plans and resources ready. They should be ready for circumstances involving the greatest risk to the people of South Korea (a major U.S. ally) and to the citizens of North Korea (a major China ally).
China has already begun preparations by planning for the collapse. For example, we know that they have started to plan large refugee centers (food, medical, sanitation, living areas, etc.) and ways to handle the leadership of North Korea. South Korea has also made plans for it and considers three broad scenarios that result in: warfare on the Korean peninsula, a major humanitarian crisis, and a transition to another form of government; perhaps a combination of all three.
These scenarios are generalizations, of course, and the first two could come together simultaneously and would have the greatest impact. An appropriate response would be necessary but there is no agreement to what that response might be. Any delay in addressing a high risk situation means more deaths and possibly a much larger impact worldwide. Thus, senior leaders across nations that have an interest would be right to come to an agreement on some framework before such a collapse occurs.
Very few take predictions of a North Korean collapse are taken seriously and thus little is done among those nations with an interest in the outcome. Senior leadership at the highest levels of government means that differences should be set aside among responsible nations so they can at the very least come to an agreement on some of the responses to a collapse. We all recognize that there are major disagreements among those nations interested but it should not block realistic preparations.
One day I will travel to North Korea. However, I will do so after the hereditary dictatorship of the Kim family is gone and the country has decided to join the world’s community of responsible nations.
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