The U.N. Security Council’s resolution 2270, adopted in March with the support of China and Russia, is arguably the toughest sanctions regime enacted against Korea since the war was suspended with the 1953 armistice.
It appears that the international community could be executing a strategic strangulation campaign: The sanctions can affect the nuclear and missile programs, the flow of hard currency, and support to the regime elite and military leadership, as access to luxury goods and military resources are cut off.
Such a campaign is likely to cause a number of problems for North Korea, as well as the international community, unless the mafialike crime family cult known as the Kim Family Regime chooses to change its behavior and become a responsible member of the international community.
To do so would require not only the regime giving up its nuclear and missile programs, but also ceasing the crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Korean people living in the North. I am not optimistic that we will see this kind of change in the regime.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese scholars at the Communist Party School have recognized that one of the most severe challenges stemming from regime behavior could be North Korean collapse. This can be described as the loss of central governing effectiveness of the regime, combined with the loss of coherency and support of the military.
Robert Collins has written the seminal work on regime collapse and laid out the progression through seven phases. The regime is currently in the fourth phase (suppression of resistance), but should it begin to lose support of the elite and the military because of the strategic strangulation campaign, it can rapidly progress through the final three stages: fifth, active resistance against the regime; sixth, regime fracture; and seventh, formation or new national leadership. In lieu of the seventh phase, the situation could devolve into internal conflict or, in the worst case, Kim Jong-un could decide to execute his campaign plan to forcibly reunify the peninsula — since regime survival is the single vital national interest of North Korea.
If there is regime collapse, there can be only one outcome, and that must be the unification of the peninsula under a United Republic of Korea. Since 2009 and the signing of the ROK/U.S. Joint Vision Statement, the end state sought has been the peaceful unification of the peninsula. Unfortunately, the deciding factor on whether it is peaceful or not will be Kim Jong-un’s decision-making, as well as how strong the resistance to unification is among the Korean people living in the North.
Regime collapse can cause myriad challenges for the Republic of Korea, the ROK/US alliance and the international community, including internal civil war, spillover of conflict outside of the North, refugee flows and massive humanitarian assistance requirements, loss of control of weapons of mass destruction and the scientists who develop them and, most important, the complex and dangerous resistance by remnants of the military and a highly indoctrinated population.
Although the Korean people living in the North are suffering horrendously under the world’s most oppressive regime, it would be a fundamental mistake to assume (as the U.S. did in 2003 in Iraq), that the ROK/U.S. alliance military forces would be welcomed as liberators and saviors. Of course, some will welcome outside help, but there could be enough resistance to make the insurgency in Iraq pale in comparison.
While the ROK/U.S. alliance has conducted contingency planning for North Korean instability and regime collapse over the years, there are still numerous questions that require policy answers now — such as the disposition of the Korean People’s Army, what should happen to the regime’s scientific community, how to coerce and co-opt the second-tier leadership to prevent or mitigate conflict, and the future of landownership in the North, just to name a few.
However, resistance to unification will cause the greatest long-term problems for the ROK, the region and the international community.
There is only one way to prepare now to mitigate the effects of six decades of indoctrination and to help prepare the way for unification. The ROK must initiate a comprehensive information-and-influence activities campaign. This must be done on multiple levels against target audiences of the remnants of the regime, the second-tier leadership and the Korean people. Although the regime has worked hard to prevent information from the outside world from reaching the people, defector organizations have been having success penetrating the North’s information defenses. From cellphone contacts through China to the proliferation of DVD players and DVDs, CDs and USB drives, the Korean people in the North are gaining access to all kinds of information. Studies have shown that some of the most sought-after forms of entertainment are South Korean serial dramas that show how people live in the South.
One major effort that could help ensure the continuation of Ms. Park’s Dresden Initiative would be to develop a series of dramas that are based on the story of unification. The ROK government should explore working with the Korean entertainment industry to take ROK policies and plans and turn them into dramas that are designed as entertainment, yet serve to illustrate how the unification process would unfold.
Stories can show how the Korean People’s Army would be integrated — if it maintains the chain of command and does not attack the South. They can show what happens to scientists who cooperate to dismantle the nuclear program. The Korean people can learn about landownership, the democratic political process and, most important, freedom. Serial dramas can educate people through the entertainment they crave.
There is much to do to plan and prepare for regime collapse, and the proposal above is just one small element of a necessary comprehensive strategy and campaign plan. Because the regime’s actions have driven the international community to execute this strategic strangulation campaign, there must be a renewed sense of urgency to plan and prepare for the possibility of regime collapse.
Yes, the regime has muddled through extreme hardship and may very well continue to do so, but there is always the possibility of regime collapse and the attendant dire consequences. Every action taken now, especially information and influence activities, has the potential to mitigate or reduce conflict and pave the way toward a political arrangement that is the only way to achieve denuclearization and end the horrendous human rights atrocities. Unification must result in a stable, secure, peaceful, economically vibrant, non-nuclear peninsula, reunified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people. The future is a United Republic of Korea.
• Retired Col. David S. Maxwell is associate director of the Center for Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. As a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, he has nearly three decades of experience with Korean security issues.
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