We’re not suggesting the North Korean regime is going anywhere. Certainly, Kim Jong-un doesn’t intend to let it collapse, which is what he’s trying to say with all those missile tests, the most recent of which gave many Japanese a nasty morning surprise when it overflew Hokkaido on Tuesday. But let’s suppose the government in Pyongyang did go poof—due to, say, a coup, rebellion, or breakdown in the face of crisis. However much some in Washington might wish that would happen, Foggy Bottom wouldn’t want to pop the champagne corks right away. When dictatorships go, they go messily, and this would be the first nuclear-armed regime to collapse since the end of the Cold War, when it took a massive international effort to secure, move, or destroy the nukes scattered across the former Soviet Union.
The United States Institute of Peace, a federally-funded but nonpartisan and independent organization, has just come out with a new report looking at all that could go wrong if the government in Pyongyang collapses, and how to prevent the worst.
While the report doesn’t lay odds on exactly how the regime—now a third-generation dynasty founded by the current leader’s grandfather Kim Il-sung—might topple, it presents some possibilities: A coup in which the new leaders consolidate power quickly. A coup that devolves into “multiple factions vying for control, a protracted and bloody civil conflict, and eruptions of multiple humanitarian crises.” Various insurgencies at once. Or a surprise disaster like a nuclear reactor accident, which the regime proves incapable of handling.
However the worst for Kim the Third comes about, the results will be worrisome far beyond North Korea’s borders. As the report’s author Frank Aum points out, North Korea has advanced biological and chemical weapons programs as well as nukes. Amid collapse, it might use any of these WMD “to quell domestic rebellion or prevent foreign intervention.” Or it might decide, in a cash crunch, to sell these weapons to terrorist organizations or other rogue regimes.
If nuclear weapons don’t get used or exported in a crisis, that might seem like cause for relief—but the outside world will still face the daunting task of trying to find and secure them all. Meanwhile an enormous number of refugees with dire humanitarian needs will flow into South Korea and China.
The upshot? The United States, South Korea, and China must get together and talk, in a sustained three-way dialogue, about what the report calls “North Korea contingency planning.” Certainly all three countries have talked internally about what to do, even if they don’t like to acknowledge as much for fear of provoking North Korea. But if they don’t communicate and coordinate—if, say, China and the United States come up with clashing intervention plans—they could find themselves making a disastrous situation unnecessarily worse.