Who is prepared for a North Korean collapse?

Robert E. McCoy
Written by Robert E. McCoy

There has been a great deal of speculation lately about whether North Korea is on the verge of collapse. Some analysts share varying degrees of confidence that such an event is inevitable while others are less sanguine about any chance of regime change in the foreseeable future.

Incidents that fuel such opining include the harshness of Kim Jŏng-ŭn as he wields power, with some observers claiming that the many purges and executions indicate his general insecurity – which actually signals his vulnerability.

In addition, there have been some recent reports about citizens daring to push back against draconian governmental measures, in one instance even getting into physical skirmishes with government officials over grey market issues.

While such incidents may indicate a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs by some citizens, whether this will lead to a large scale uprising of the general population is questionable. Despite a perceived low – but nevertheless a greater than zero – probability, it still is within the universe of possibilities for a collapse of the North Korean regime to occur.

For that reason, risk management tells us that regarding events with severe and far-reaching consequences, it is wise to prepare even though such an event might not ever transpire. The rationale is that it is better to be prepared for a catastrophe that does not occur than to have that disaster strike and not be ready for it.

Some academics even advocate an interventionist approach, saying that being proactive is better than being completely reactive in the case of a collapse in North Korea.

Indeed, there has been considerable discussion regarding who ought to intervene, at what point an intervention is required, and what form such an intervention should take. Regardless, a collapse of North Korea – whether occurring from organic or external causes – is a grave situation requiring preparation.

One of the best sources of enlightenment on this critical subject is the 2013 book Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse by Bruce W. Bennett. Even so, the problem is that none of the dialogue regarding how to prepare for the collapse of North Korea has come from official government sources. We do not know what career diplomats, politicians, and senior military advisors of any government are actually contemplating.

Those with access to the official thinking of concerned governments are aware of certain options being considered or particular actions having been taken to prepare for the eventuality of a North Korean collapse. Undoubtedly there are decisions that have been made behind the scenes and measures are underway that must, for the moment, remain undisclosed for them to be effective.

However, because of that need to stay out of the public eye, it is difficult for outside observers to determine whether the governments of Northeast Asian nations and the United States, a key security partner of the region, are truly prepared for the challenges such an occurrence will present.

We can, however, develop some informed deductions by looking at the recent history and current-day postures of the regional states likely to be involved in any collapse of North Korea. As philosopher George Santayana observed, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So what countries are most likely to be involved? The answer is “the usual suspects,” the other five members of the ill-fated Six Party Talks of some years ago: China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, plus the United States as a key regional security guarantor. Let’s look at each in turn.


China has a number of concerns that will almost certainly draw it into reacting to any North Korean collapse. To begin, there is the irredentist issue of China seeing much of North Korea as ancient Chinese territory. From its perspective, it would seem that once a part of China, always a part of China. Then, too, China is ill equipped to handle what could amount to tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of North Korean refugees fleeing to China for more stable conditions during a North Korean government collapse.

China already has a large ethnic Korean population of roughly two million its northeastern provinces just across its border with North Korea. Koreans have been in the area since ancient times, and their number increased dramatically as Japan mounted its campaign for the Korean peninsula in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of these now ostensibly Chinese Koreans have not fully assimilated into Chinese society, and China is likely concerned about anything that could ignite a sense of Korean nationalism in their own country.

These and other factors are likely enough to justify, at least in China’s mind, incursions into North Korea so as to contain refugees and to maintain a buffer between it and pro-West South Korea. Clearly concerned about that, China has recently bolstered its military ground forces in its northeastern provinces.

In regards to that new four-lane highway that runs from the interior of China to the North Korean city of Sinŭiju near the mouth of the Yalu River, it wasn’t built only to facilitate speedier transport of goods. Like the multilane US interstate highway system, it was designed with the rapid movement of military troops and war material in mind.

Memories run long and deep in Asia, and China vividly recalls the vicious assault on Nanking by Japan in 1937 as hostilities in the Asian war began. Recent efforts by the current Japanese government to soften the apologies of previous administrations are seen as an attempt to deny Imperial Japan’s invasions of China.

Adding to that lately, China and Japan have been embroiled in a test of wills regarding some islets in the East China Sea: the Diaoyus as they are known to China and the Senkakus as they are called in Japan. Complicating matters even further, the United States has alienated a potential ally in the response to a collapse in North Korea by siding with Japan against China in this issue.

As for South Korea, while trade between China and that nation is ever increasing, China does not want a pro-West country on its borders. Helping South Korea unify the Korean peninsula would run counter to China’s interests. And despite denials of challenging the US for Pacific hegemony, China fears being hemmed in by a ring of countries such as South Korea and Japan that are aligned with the United States.

With one possible exception, China has little, if any, motivation to assist other states in dealing with a North Korean collapse. The exception is that China would likely assist in locating and securing North Korean weapons of mass destruction so as to prevent accidental – or deliberate – spread of them to other states or entities, thereby cooperating only out of enlightened self-interest.

It would be a shock to discover that China does not have extensive plans on how to respond to any North Korean collapse. It is just that such plans are unlikely to be in harmony with the goals of other states.


Japan, too, presents a problem. It is without a doubt a pro-West country and it is certainly just as troubled about a collapse of North Korea as other regional players. However, its recent shared past with other countries is likely to be a factor in dealing with a failed North Korea, and that is a considerable barrier to Japan’s full participation in any multilateral response.

Korea and Japan have their own war of words regarding another small set of islets: Tokdo to the Koreans and Takeshima to the Japanese that are also known as the Liancourt Rocks. In addition, there is the unsettled issue of perhaps as many as 200,000 “comfort women” conscripted by Japan during World War II who were compelled to serve as sex slaves for Imperial troops. Other memories of the brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula by Japan – when the Korean language, family names, and cultural traditions were outlawed – remain undiminished for many Koreans.

All this still fresh history is complicated by the increasing nationalism evidenced by the current Japanese government, which in turn has fostered outbreaks of hate speech against Koreans in Japan. It doesn’t help that the current Japanese prime minister seeks to weaken the language of the formal apologies for its war atrocities offered by previous administrations.

Add to that the Japanese prime minister’s desire to modify its pacifist constitution to allow direct military action in certain situations, and one can understand why South Korea is alarmed when Japan states that it would offer troops to serve on the Korean peninsula in the event of a North Korean collapse. Bluntly speaking, no Japanese military presence would be welcome anywhere on the Korean peninsula for any reason at any time.

Relations between Japan and Korea are so poor that even critical intelligence on North Korea intended to be shared must first be passed through an intermediary, the United States. Consequently, any plans that Japan may have on how to deal with a North Korean collapse might have to be restricted to logistical support of United States activities, or limited to financial support and in-kind donations of food and medical supplies for relief efforts in North Korea. Multilateral efforts involving Japan are likely to be limited.


Russian is a tough nut to crack. Currently involved in a festering conflict over the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, its economy is faltering badly. Thus there is the question of how much involvement Russia can afford regarding a collapse in North Korea. To be sure, though, Russia does have its own interests in Far East Asia.

First, the nuclear ambitions and long-range missile activities of North Korea are not quite as unnerving to Russia as they are to other regional countries, though that is probably because Russia is likely not a primary – or even secondary – target. Even so, Russia still prefers a non-nuclear North Korea, for that is one less accident that could happen.

More importantly, there are tens of thousands of North Korean workers in Russia’s eastern maritime lands, the Primorsky Krai, where Russia needs the cheap labor for its sparsely populated area. With its finances already strained, Russia certainly does not want large numbers of North Korean refugees on its hands.

Equally vital if not more so, Russia has long coveted a warm water port in Far East Asia, one that is ice-free year round. The coastal city of Rajin in the northeastern corner of North Korea, only a few miles from the Russian border, would serve that purpose quite nicely. While Russia could indeed contribute troops to provide security in parts of North Korea after a collapse, would other regional states trust them? It would be tempting for Russia to just simply move in and annex the northeastern tip of North Korea in which Rajin is located, much like was done with Crimea.

Politically, such a takeover would be an unwise move by Russia, for it would not sit well with China, which has considerable investments of its own in that part of North Korea. Further, it would jeopardize the hungry market for Russian energy products in South Korea, and possibly in Japan as well. Moreover, recall that Russia and Japan are historical enemies, with Russia still smarting from its defeat in the 1904-1905 Japanese-Russo War.

Further, there are still hard feelings about how the disputes between Japan and Russia over the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin were settled at the end of World War II. For that matter, Russia is not particularly friendly with China, and its relations with the West – particularly with the US – are reminiscent of the old cold war era, a Cold War II.

Doubtless, Russia has contingencies in place should something untoward occur in North Korea. Those plans, however, like those expected to exist in China, are probably not designed with multilateral cooperation as a priority. Russian is apt to act in the best interests of only Russia.

United States

Even though it is not in Northeast Asia, the United Sates is likely to be a key player in any reaction to a North Korean collapse. It also has a considerable and tortuous history with regard to the Korean peninsula that requires review.

The United States turned a blind eye to Japan’s aggression on the Korean peninsula during the late 1800s and early 1900s, evidently thinking that the Korean peninsula was not worth consideration. That was in stark contrast to the recognition by the Chinese and the Japanese that Korea was – still is – either (a) a stepping off point to the Asian mainland, or (b) a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan, depending upon the direction of view.

Toward the end of World War II, when the United States was cavalierly granting concessions in Far East Asia to induce the Soviet Union into joining the fight against Japan, little attention was given to the Korean peninsula. It was not until well into July 1945 that much thought was given on how to accept the surrender of Japanese troops in Korea. As students of Asian history know, the Soviets accepted the surrender of Japanese soldiers above the 38th parallel and the Americans did so below that line.

What many do not know is that the determination of where to split the Korean peninsula was delegated to two military officers – quite junior in both rank and experience considering the importance of the task – without consulting any Northeast Asian experts. The two American used a 1942 National Geographic map that reflected the Japanese names for Korean features and places, and they considered only short-term military needs, not long-term political objectives.

The 38th parallel was hastily chosen to divide the Korean peninsula roughly in half, a generous gesture considering that the Soviets had participated in Asian combat operations for a mere week before the Japanese surrendered.

To make matters worse, the United States delayed more than three weeks after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 before getting American boots on the ground in Korea. Even then, the number of troops was woefully low for the task of managing operations there, due to Douglas MacArthur demanding that nearly all soldiers be assigned to him for the ‘more important’ task of administering the occupation of Japan.

John Hodge was selected by MacArthur to oversee operations in Korea. However, shortly before Hodge arrived in country at Inch’ŏn, he matter-of-factly informed his staff that Koreans were enemies of the United States. Then, despite there having been a Korean provisional government in exile since April 1919, Hodge rejected that group as even a temporary civilian authority on the grounds that it was inexperienced, fractious, and not of one opinion – somewhat like the start of any true government by the people.

By the time South Koreans finally won their own government in August 1948, the United States had drawn down its military presence on the peninsula to the point that the South Korean forces and the remaining American soldiers were no match for the North Korean military when the North invaded the South in June 1950. Three bloody years later, in July 1953, the war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, and the Korean peninsula has technically remained in a state of war ever since.

Not quite a decade and a half later in January 1968, despite several strong indications that North Korea was increasingly sensitive to any foreign presence just off its east coast, the US Navy sent the feebly armed and unprotected Pueblo cruising roughly 13 nautical miles off Wŏnsan Harbor, barely in international waters and ignoring the fact that North Korea claimed a 50 nautical mile limit.

When the North Korean navy predictably seized the intelligence-gathering vessel, all US forces in the Pacific Theater were caught off guard, being prepared only for a nuclear confrontation. Long before the US could respond with any conventionally armed air or sea power, the North had the Pueblo tied up securely at Wŏnsan port.

Often lost in discussions of this period but equally noteworthy, the United States had not responded at all to the large assassination team sent by the North two days earlier with orders to kill the South Korean president. Fifteen months later in April 1969, the US was again taken by surprise when the North Korean air force shot down a US Navy EC-121 flying well off the east coast of North Korea.

More recently, there is the undeniable failure of decades long but unsuccessful US-led negotiations to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs. North Korea has had no incentive to relinquish their nukes or missiles, for the regime sees these weapons as the only guarantee of its continued existence.

Yet, senior US officials continue to state that nuclear disarmament remains their top priority regarding North Korea. This diplomatic disaster stands as the final proof of how little the US understands Asia in general and North Korea in particular.

In light of its history regarding Korea, there is the question of whether US thinking is sufficiently broad and deep to meet the challenges presented by a North Korean collapse.

South Korea

South Korea is the only regional player with strong ethnic and cultural ties to North Korea. It is also the country with the most at risk and the most to gain from a collapse of North Korea. The artificial division of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II left the South with by far the most arable land while the North had the most natural resources: coal, iron, and various other valuable minerals. Combining the two areas would indeed be a jackpot.

In the past, South Korea embraced a “Sunshine Policy” of near-unconditional engagement with the North that soon corroborated the old adage of, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” These days, South Korea has a “Trustpolitik” policy, something like “trust – but demand a proper return on political capital expended.” It is too soon to judge whether this new approach will yield any better outcome.

Although the strength of the common bonds between the two are weakening in the South as memories of a united country fade, South Korea is still very much interested in unifying the peninsula. A shared heritage and history stretching from over 4,000 years ago right up to the end of World War II is not something to be ignored. Thus, in 1969 South Korea established a National Reunification Board, which was elevated in status to the Ministry of Unification in 1998.

According to its official website (eng.unikorea.go.kr), Ministry of Unification responsibilities include (1) establishing policy towards North Korea, (2) coordinating dialog with North Korea, (3) facilitating cooperation with North Korea, and (4) educating the South Korean public on unification with North Korea. In addition, a vision for peace, prosperity, and happiness is outlined along with general guiding principles.

What is has not been revealed, of course, is a Comprehensive Strategy or Operations Plan on how to respond to the challenges of a North Korean collapse. That is to be expected, for in order for such a plan to be effective, its particulars must remain unknown to the public for the time being.

The challenges of a North Korea collapse will severely tax all of the region’s players, but most of the burden will fall on South Korea. Given the limitations of the others likely to be involved in responding, and in view of the poor performance of the United States with regard to the Korean peninsula, let us all fervently hope that South Korea has adequately prepared for the challenges that a North Korean collapse will present.

About the author

Robert E. McCoy

Robert E. McCoy

Robert E. McCoy is a retired US Air Force North Korea specialist who was stationed in Asia for 14 years, including more than four years in South Korea. He continues to monitor developments in Northeast Asia closely. Mr. McCoy is soon to publish his book, Tales You Wouldn't Tell Your Mother, which addresses a unique side of American involvement in Korea.

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