North Korea’s regime has long defied naysayers by persevering through famines, floods and global opprobrium. But what would happen if the upcoming power transition marks the beginning of the end?
In the view of one US military strategist, a collapse of North Korea could result in the greatest world crisis in modern times.
Colonel David Maxwell, who heads the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Army’s Special Operations Command, said that the US needed to invest more time planning for the most dire scenario, even if it does not transpire.
US troops have been stationed in South Korea since the Korean War to guard against attack. A North Korean advance could easily hit densely populated Seoul, just an hour’s drive from the frontier, and would send shockwaves through economic powers Japan, China and South Korea.
“I believe a conventional attack by the North would be the worst crisis that the international community has faced since the end of World War II,” Maxwell said in a presentation at the Marines Corps University in Quantico, Virginia.
“But I think the real worst case would be regime collapse,” said Maxwell, who stressed he was speaking in a private capacity.
Questions have been rising about North Korea’s stability since Kim Jong-il apparently suffered a stroke in 2008. Last year, the government faced unusual public resistance after a currency revaluation sent prices skyrocketing.
If the regime collapsed, foreign forces would likely face a major threat from insurgents whose belief in the Kim family’s philosophy of juche — or self-reliance — resembles religious fanaticism, Maxwell said.
“The North Korean people will not welcome the South Korean military, international forces or anybody outside of North Korea,” Maxwell said.
“We made that assumption recently that we would be welcomed as liberators and we know how that turned out,” he said, referring to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
An insurgency in North Korea would be “far more sophisticated than what exists in Iraq or Afghanistan now,” Maxwell said.
He said an insurgency could tap into Pyonyang’s military might. North Korea has more than one million standing troops along with nuclear weapons.
Maxwell recommended that the US develop a plan to quickly engage and reassure North Koreans in the event of a regime collapse.
He also urged a close eye on overseas businesses by North Korean officers, who have developed networks trafficking everything from weapons to knock-off Viagra that could eventually go to fund an insurgency.
Not all Korea experts are convinced by Maxwell’s views.
L. Gordon Flake, who heads the Mansfield Foundation think tank, questioned whether average North Koreans had a “guerrilla ethos” that would survive the fall of the top leadership.
“North Korea is a society that is specifically designed to avoid initiative at the local level,” Flake said.
Pointing to the resistance to the currency revaluation, Flake said: “To assume that guerrilla ethos continues, you almost have to assume that there’s been no impact over the last two decades from famine, economic collapse, government graft and a tremendous increase in information flows.”
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