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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources on North Korea: Contingency Planning

by | January 3rd, 2011 | 07:00 am
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Following the death of Kim Jong Il, it seems that “collapsism” is in retreat. The tightly-scripted transition has not revealed any obvious hitches so far, and we are on the record with our doubts about collapse scenarios.  Nonetheless, it is still early and the possibility remains that the outside world might have to respond to unanticipated internal conflict. Following is a brief catalogue of some recent writing on the topic of contingency planning.

Bruce Bennett at Rand—who has been thinking about these issues for some time—and Jennifer Lind from Dartmouth have a high-profile entry into the discussion in the Fall 2011 issue of International Security. The authors also do an interview at 38North. The scenario they game out is deemed relatively benign, meaning it does not grow out of overt international hostilities. Rather they walk through “an implosion scenario [in which] succession fails as elites contest the successor, and the government sort of unravels. Elites are fleeing (instead of gathering up military units around them) and the military dissolves, as we saw in Iraq.”

The tone is a bit alarmist, but Bennett and Lind rightly underline the complexity caused not only by security worries, such as the fate of nuclear weapons, but by humanitarian concerns.  The headline of the piece is that even under such a benign scenario, stability operations could require from 250,000 to 400,000 troops. As with everyone else, they emphasize the imperative of coordination even while acknowledging that the Chinese are not likely to talk about the issue. This is particularly true given the way they have doubled-down on Kim Jong Un.

So what are the Chinese thinking? Reuters recently offered up a summary of the speculation. Although over two years old, the most comprehensive treatment we have seen is a study by Drew Thompson and Carla Freeman called “Flood Across the Border: China’s Disaster Relief Operations and Potential Response to a North Korean Refugee Crisis” for the SAIS Korea Program (pdf here). The purpose of the study is not to examine political crises, but to consider how the Chinese might respond to one particular externality: a flood of refugees. The report provides incredible detail on Chinese institutions by mining information on natural disaster planning. But one critical finding caught our eye and is worth quoting: “The political sensitivities that the Chinese place on their relationship with the DPRK and Chinese interests on the Korean Peninsula virtually assure that Chinese officials will seek to exclude the international community from any but the most superficial role in a crisis that unfolds in the border region.” Of course, this does not preclude coordination but underlines the challenges.

With support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Ilmin Institute for International Relations has released two working papers on the topic, one by Young-June Park on Japan. Park concludes—as does Lind in a piece for Asahi Shinbun earlier this year—that Japan has not made much progress in thinking about the issues.

It is well-known that the US and Korea have a joint contingency plan with respect to various scenarios, obviously highly-classified. Seong-ho Sheen’s paper for Ilmin follows a number of such efforts in walking through the probable elements of CONPLAN 5029; these include an Asia Foundation study from 2009, a short piece by Paul Stares in November 2010 for the Council on Foreign Relations, and the interesting project by our friends Victor Cha and David Kang that we outlined in an earlier post. An advantage of the Cha-Kang study is that it attempts to draw lessons from other such interventions.

A problem with all such efforts is how explicit to be at the official level. South Korea generated one of those many mini-firestorms in North-South relations in early 2011 with just such a leak. The LMB government revealed it had revised its contingency plan to effectively allow for MOU administrators to govern; Chosun Ilbo broke the story.   Needless to say, Pyongyang was not pleased and would be even more upset about such speculation during the transition.

Finally, we were perhaps most impressed by the report of the Mass Atrocities Response Operation (MARO) Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The purpose of MARO thinking is to alert militaries to the particular problems associated with a contingency operation to halt the widespread and systematic use of violence by state or non-state armed groups against non-combatants; think Syria if we wanted to do it correctly. But the advantage of the report is that it outlines in great operational detail what other large-scale humanitarian interventions might look like.  Circling back to Bennett and Lind, it is the humanitarian aspects of such interventions as much as the military ones that pose challenges.