Military Officer
July 2007
By Alan W. Dowd

While Washington focused most of its attention in 2006 on the military mission in Iraq and the diplomatic dance in Iran, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il threw a pair of temper tantrums with missiles and nukes, reminding Americans that the dangers posed by terror and tyranny are not confined to the Middle East.

The gravest danger on the Korean peninsula, of course, is a second Korean War—or if you prefer, a continuation of the first Korean War, which was technically only paused in 1953. Given Kim’s fusillade of missile tests in July 2006 and apparent nuclear test three months later, it’s a danger that seems to be edging from the possible to the probable.  

With or without war, however, one thing is certain: Neither Kim nor his regime will live forever. The end could come sooner rather later. In fact, the consensus among North Korean defectors recently interviewed by the Korean Institute for National Unification is that North Korea will collapse in five to ten years.[1] 

How will the Kim dynasty collapse, and what can America do to prepare for that eventuality? History offers some sobering, albeit imperfect, parallels. 

The Soft Landing
The ideal parallel—the bloodless, jubilant reunification of East and West Germany at the end of the Cold War—is also the least likely.  

First, it pays to recall that North and South Koreans, quite unlike East and West Germans, fought a brutal hot war to usher in the Cold War. They bear scars and wounds that pre-unification Germans did not.  

Plus, for East Germans, there was no “Dear Leader” to worship. There was neither cult nor personality to live and die for. By 1989, even the true believers understood that the communist state was an abject failure.  

This is not the case in North Korea, where the people are completely isolated from the outside world—and totally controlled by a propaganda machine that deifies the regime. There is a depth of regime-worship among North Korea’s 23 million subjects that is perhaps unmatched anywhere on earth, and eclipsed by just a handful of historical examples.

Consider some of the evidence unearthed by William C. Triplett, who wrote about the Kim dynasty in Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America. North Korean children are taught that the younger Kim was born “at the foot of a sacred mountain in North Korea and that double rainbows appeared at his birth.” One of the hagiographies of Kim calls him a “heaven-sent brilliant commander.”[2] Doubtless, Ulbricht and Honecker desired such homage, but most East Germans never offered it.  

In short, a gentle collapse of North Korean communism and absorption into South Korean democratic capitalism seems unlikely. Even so, the economic costs of German unification give us a sense of the staggering bill South Korea, Japan and the U.S. will be expected to pay after Kim.  

-Some 15 years after unification, as the German magazine Der Spiegel reported in 2005, the East is unable to survive without government subsidies amounting to about $100 billion a year.

-Germany still pours four percent of its GDP into its deformed eastern half.

-After investing around a trillion dollars into the communist carcass, the average unemployment rate in eastern Germany is still around 18 percent.[3]

Owing to their prison-like isolation, the North Koreans of today are more impoverished and less adaptive than the East Germans of 1989-90, which means the economic costs will be even higher. 

The China Syndrome
Not that long ago, China, too, was a hermit kingdom, ravaged by internal purges and paranoia, spiritually committed to a messianic regime and its revolution. However, it no longer suffers these maladies, which is not to say that China doesn’t present formidable challenges for the U.S. But that is a subject for another essay. 

Today, China is a nation eager to be part of the world’s interlocking system of trade. In fact, The International Herald Tribune recently reported that there are 100,000 foreign firms operating in China. Among that number are 62 WalMarts (and counting).  

With exports to the U.S. growing by some 1600 percent since the early 1990s, China is anything but a closed society. Along with the U.S., Japan and the European Union, China is already one of the main pistons of the global economy. Its GDP is $2.3 trillion. And its economy has grown by almost 10 percent annually for a quarter-century, enabling the People’s Republic to move 300 million of its subjects from poverty.[4]

The prospects for a comparable withering away of totalitarianism and flowering of capitalism in North Korea seem beyond remote. This is a closed society, an economy smaller than virtually every state in the U.S., a country whose most lucrative exports are retrofitted Soviet-era missiles and counterfeit $100 bills, a place where citizens are required to donate food rations to the armed forces, a nation with neither the will nor the means to join the world.

It’s no wonder that defectors are streaming out of Kim’s emaciated country at an unprecedented rate. Between 2000 and 2004, as the British newspaper The Guardian has reported, there was a fourfold increase in defections. From 2004-2006, as many as 10,000 defectors may have fled the North. To put this in perspective, before the 1990s, less than ten North Koreans defected to South Korea annually.[5]

In February 2007, CNN reported that 120 inmates had escaped from a concentration camp near the Chinese border. The same story included reports that North Korean border guards are fleeing into China.[6]

Could this foreshadow the same sort of controlled, almost orderly collapse that felled the communist regimes of Eastern Europe? Probably not. 

After all, there is no North Korean Havel or Walesa to channel the pent-up fury, no Korean pope to shout truth to power. North Koreans don’t have the will or the wherewithal—or quite simply the strength, given a 1300-calorie diet that relies on grass as a staple—to rise up and tear down Kim’s government the way Romania’s revolutionaries toppled Ceausescu.There is no nationalist virus floating around North Korea, like the one spawned by the Baltics or Yeltsin’s Russia, to infect this Stalinist state. And even if there is some germ of a freedom movementin North Korea, it’s hard to imagine the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) remaining garrisoned like the Red Army did in 1991, if Kim ever calls for help.  

Indeed, when the Kim dynasty finally falls—perhaps after the unexpected death of “Dear Leader”—the inbred paranoia and distrust of all things beyond the DMZ won’t help the situation. After all, the NKPA is perhaps the most paranoid, propagandized and privileged part of North Korea. Why wouldn’t it try to sustain the regime and the revolution? Why wouldn’t it turn against its own countrymen in the North? Why wouldn’t it lash out against the South? 

The parallel here might be the civil war in Yugoslavia after the collapse of communism; the unraveling of Iraq after Saddam’s defeat; or the Korean War itself, which was both a civil war and a war of unification.  

That brings us to the nightmare scenario—an explosion of the North Korean state that sends shrapnel in every direction. North Korean defectors have warned that as the economic situation grows more desperate, war becomes the most likely option for the regime.[7]

Although it would be shorter than the Korean War of 1950-53, Korean War II would be just as bloody. The death toll from Korean War I should give us pause: 38,000 Americans, 103,000 South Koreans, 316,000 North Koreans and 422,000 Chinese killed during three years of conventional warfare. And that doesn’t include civilian dead. In 1951 alone, as Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty-Year Wound, “American dead and wounded numbered 100,000.” It was so bloody and brutal that one newspaper aptly called Korea “World War 2.5.” 

More than half-a-century later, we have the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over the sequel. The optimists remind us that Pyongyang promised in February to shut down its nuclear program. The realists remind us that Pyongyang made and broke similar promises in 1994 and 2005. 

Of course, with or without nukes, Kim has biological and chemical weapons to deploy. With 1.2 million men under arms, he has the fourth-largest army in the world, spending a third of North Korea’s GDP to prepare for a war he fully expects. Defectors report that Kim is committed to “complete liberation of the peninsula” and that war preparation is the priority for all government agencies.[8]  

To many observers, North Korea’s actions throughout 2006—its gamesmanship at regional talks aimed at defusing the ongoing crisis, spasm of missile tests in July, and nuclear tests in October—are evidence of war preparation. We can add to that list Pyongyang’s drive for long-range missiles, collaboration with Iran, and forward-leaning military posture. According to the State Department, Pyongyang has in recent years “moved more of its rear-echelon troops to hardened bunkers closer to the DMZ.”  

Of course, sometimes words speak just as loudly as actions. In the past four years, perhaps prepping its subjects for war, Pyongyang has blustered that “a war in Korea is almost unavoidable,” warned that the peninsula was “at the brink of a nuclear war,” and claimed that the U.S. had “openly declare[ed] a war against the DPRK.”[9]

If North Korea finally explodes, Seoul will bear the brunt of the blow. With its 10 million citizens, Seoul sits just 25 miles from the DMZ, the northern edge of which is bristling with North Korean weaponry. As former Defense Secretary William Perry explained in 2002, “North Korea deploys more than one million soldiers near the DMZ, and its 11,000 long-range artillery pieces hidden nearby could rain destruction on the South Korean capital.” Gen. Leon LaPorte, the former commander of U.S. forces in Korea, added a chilling footnote in 2005: Every third round fired by North Korean artillery would be a chemical weapon. 

In short, no matter how antiquated North Korea’s equipment, no matter how sophisticated the U.S.-ROK arsenal, Kim has the capacity to flatten Seoul and kill millions of South Koreans, thousands of American troops and perhaps thousands of American and Japanese civilians: With his modified missilery and an army of special forces trained in terror, Kim would not limit his wrath to the peninsula; he would also try to strike U.S. soil and would certainly hit Japan. 

In their book The Next War, the late Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweizer sketched a sobering scenario in which Kim lashes out across the DMZ, uses nuclear weapons and claims almost 19,000 American casualties—all in less than 90 days of war.  

The fact that Korean War II would mark the end of Kim’s beastly regime is of little comfort. Were the Kim dynasty to end this way, the costs of unification would be compounded by the costs of replenishing or even reconstituting elements of the American military, repairing Tokyo, rebuilding the South and occupying the North. 

Imagine such an undertaking: all the economic costs of the occupation of Japan, Germany or Iraq, all the human costs of the 2004 tsunami, all the military costs of combat and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps all the psychological and infrastructure costs of another 9/11, this time on America’s west coast. It would give new meaning to the term “pyrrhic victory.”  

So perhaps it makes sense to relocate U.S. forces away from the DMZ, a process that should be complete in 2008; to squeeze Pyongyang by engaging Beijing; and to deploy a layered missile defense. 

We can hope for the best—for a miraculous replay of 1989 in Berlin or 1991 in Moscow, for Kim or one of his sons to become a born-again capitalist, for North Korea to fall like a rotten tree rather than explode like a time bomb. But Korea’s history and Kim’s behavior remind us that hope is not enough. We should prepare for the worst.

[1]UPI, “Defectors forecast N.Korea collapse,” December 27, 2006.

[2] William Triplett, as excerpted by National Review Online, March 15, 2004.

[3] Stefan Berg, et al., “The price of a failed reunification,” September 5, 2005.

[4] See Fareed Zakaria, “Does the future belong to China?” Newsweek, May 9, 2005.

[5] Jonathan Watts, “Flight from North Korea gains pace,” The Guardian, July 28, 2004.

[6]CNN, “Report: 120 North Korean political prisoners escape,” February 7, 2007.

[7] See “Hwang Jang Yop Speaks: Testimonies of North Korean Defectors,” Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/.

[8] See “Hwang Jang Yop Speaks: Testimonies of North Korean Defectors,” Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/.

[9]See “‘War is almost unavoidable,’ North Korea tells UN,” July 28, 2004; CNN, “N. Korea warns of nuclear conflict,” February 26, 2003; MSNBC, “N. Korea threatens war if South joins sanctions,” October 25, 2006; Newshour, “NORTH KOREA WARNS OF POSSIBLE WAR,” December 16, 2002.