What Would North Korea’s Collapse Mean for U.S. Security?

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The end of Kim Jong Un's rule could have major consequences for U.S. foreign policy—and pandemics don't necessarily promote peace.

Foreign Policy

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! How’s it going? It’s been another utterly insane couple of weeks here in the U.S.: The president suggesting we all inject Lysol to cure the coronavirus, sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden, and growing protests to reopen the economy. It seems like every day could be a new verse of “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. I’m glad we are asked to cover the foreign-policy dimension of the campaign, as I never aspired to be a tabloid writer. These salacious headlines have been drowning out some interesting developments that we should discuss.

EA: Not quite! Actually, the tabloids are surprisingly relevant to foreign policy this week. TMZ—yes, that TMZ—reported sources in Pyongyang as saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was dead. What do you make of this? Should we be sending Dennis Rodman to check on him?

MK: At first I was skeptical, because it was TMZ. But it is puzzling that Kim didn’t attend his grandfather’s birthday celebration, and each day that passes without an appearance just adds to my suspicion that something is wrong. This could have big implications for North Korea and U.S. interests in Asia.

EA: Hasn’t Kim done this before, though? The whole country is so secretive. Perhaps he’s just engaged in social distancing and waiting for the coronavirus crisis to blow over.

MK: It’s possible. But if I were him, I would want to make an appearance to put the speculation to rest. And some have said that we should stop the guessing games and wait for more facts, but, given that the possible scenarios include North Korean regime implosion, U.S. government officials need to be thinking about the possible implications and appropriate responses. You are less worried?

EA: Perhaps it’s that my first academic love was Soviet politics. North Korea watchers are much like Kremlinologists, drawing a lot of inference from almost no data. It leads to a lot of false positives.

But I do think you’re right that we need to consider the possibility. The rumors are that he’s dead or in a vegetative state after heart surgery, and it’s certainly plausible. Despite being roughly the same age as us, Kim is not a healthy man. You can see it in photos and videos.

So let’s assume for the sake of argument that he’s dead. I think it’s probable that someone else—perhaps his sister, perhaps a senior general—takes over. Regime implosion seems unlikely. The sister in particular seems interesting: She has the Kim name, and she’s been taking a bigger role in diplomacy lately, even meeting Mike Pence at the Winter Olympics.

MK: Maybe he is just at a spa trying to get his health under control. If he’s dead, I think you are right, a transition to someone in his inner circle is most likely. But we cannot rule out regime collapse. This is the Achilles’ heel of autocratic regimes. There is no institutionalized process for succession, and there is nothing preventing a clique supporting the senior general from taking up arms against a faction supporting the sister. A North Korean civil conflict or regime collapse could mean loose nukes, a major war on the Korean Peninsula, and more.

EA: I find it personally pretty depressing that the sister isn’t viewed as an obvious successor. Women can be ruthless dictators too, you know!

More seriously, I’m less worried about nuclear weapons than I am about U.S.-China tensions in the event of regime collapse. We have experience with collecting nuclear material, as we did with Project Sapphire at the end of the Cold War, which removed poorly secured enriched uranium from Kazakhstan.

But a North Korean collapse could put U.S. troops and Chinese troops within shooting distance of each other. U.S. troops have been on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War entered its cease-fire phase in 1953, and there are currently approximately 28,000 of them—but any collapse or potential reunification of Korea raises for Beijing the worrying possibility of U.S. forces closer to the Chinese border. It raises tensions and is a good reason a future administration should consider removing these troops.

MK: I’m sure America’s enemies in Pyongyang and Beijing would like to see fewer U.S. forces in Asia, but I don’t see how it advances U.S. interests. And, while a collapse creates risks, there are opportunities as well. The end of the Kim regime is the most viable path to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and it is possible that the United States and China could agree to a new arrangement that satisfies both of their interests short of armed conflict.

EA: The last time the United States tried to use regime collapse as an opportunity it ended up with a 15-year Iraqi insurgency and a destabilized Middle East.

The ship has sailed on North Korea’s nuclear program. And while it’s not great to have another nuclear power in the world, I’d still much rather have a bomb than a failed state in North Korea.

MK: If the North collapses and the country is unified under Seoul’s leadership, the new government would almost certainly dismantle the nuclear program, so the ship has not yet sailed.

The list of rogue states pursuing nuclear weapons in the 1990s and 2000s included Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, and arguably others. Regime collapse or instability has helped eliminate nuclear programs in all of those but Iran and North Korea. Failed states are problematic, but not as problematic as nuclear-armed rogues.

EA: It’s telling that the list of states you mention, except North Korea, all stopped working on nuclear weapons voluntarily prior to civil wars or U.S. intervention. That doesn’t suggest that the instability was helpful. To paraphrase the Nobel laureate Tom Schelling, the biggest driver of nuclear proliferation has been U.S. policies like the invasion of Iraq.

But I know we’re never going to agree on this, especially if you think the huge U.S. troop presence in South Korea is a good idea. It’s not 1953 anymore; South Korea is rich, developed, and capable of defending itself against North Korea. All U.S. troops at the DMZ achieve is to ratchet up tensions with China.

MK: Agree to disagree. As the Duelfer report found, Saddam Hussein never gave up his weapons ambitions and planned to reconstitute the program in Iraq. Meanwhile, an Israeli military strike crippled Syria’s nuclear program so that the country was unable to develop such a weapon before it fell into chaos in 2011.

Schelling was brilliant, but the United States has been the world’s greatest force for nonproliferation, especially its policy of extended nuclear deterrence to allies, supported by our troops in South Korea.

EA: Shall we move on to another hot spot of the week? China has started to crack down on Hong Kong again. It’s almost like the coronavirus changed nothing, with some small protests starting to pop up and the Chinese government arresting activists.

MK: I see this as a broader pattern of the autocrats trying to get away with things while the rest of the world is distracted. China mostly stood by during big protests last year and now suddenly they are trying to do away with the long-standing “one country, two systems” arrangement for Hong Kong.

EA: They’ve been trying for a while. But it seems that the people of Hong Kong don’t want to let them. We’ve only seen small-scale protests so far, but none of the underlying issues has been resolved. There isn’t much Washington can do about it, but it would be nice to see the Trump administration criticize it, at least. I’m not sure I’d expect that from a president who openly praised the Tiananmen crackdown.

MK: Mike Pompeo has been the administration’s most powerful voice on these issues, and the secretary of state had some tough words for Beijing. But, unfortunately, you are right. The United States doesn’t have many good policy options for Hong Kong. It does demonstrate the importance of not making similar mistakes and ceding Beijing greater influence over Taiwan or other parts of Asia.

EA: The Hong Kong situation is fairly unique. It may have been a mistake for Britain to return Hong Kong to China in 1997, but it’s just not comparable with Taiwan, which is independent, self-governing, and extremely capable of defending itself against China.

MK: Taiwan is extremely capable, but it will only be able to defend itself with help from an improved U.S. defense strategy in the region. And it’s not just China that is running amok. Did you see the story about the Russian plot in the Czech Republic against Prague’s mayor?

EA: I did. Seems like another good fit for the tabloids. The mayor says he’s under protection from the police after Russian agents tried to assassinate him with the chemical ricin.

I don’t doubt the Russians are more than capable of doing this and probably willing to do so, but I just don’t see what they get out of assassinating a minor political figure in a midsize Eastern European country.

MK: Kill the chickens to scare the monkeys, as the Chinese say. Zdenek Hrib, Prague’s mayor, had been thwarting Russian preferences on a variety of issues, so by killing him, the Russians could show others that it does not pay to cross Moscow. A stronger U.S. and international response to Russia’s other recent assassination attempts on European soil, such as its poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. in 2018, might have helped to discourage them from attempting this one.

EA: Right, but the best explanation that the BBC could come up with was that Hrib had pushed to rename the square outside the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov. That’s hardly “thwarting Moscow.” By that standard, they’ll be coming for the D.C. Council, which did the same thing last year.

You’re right about one thing, though: The lackluster response by British and American governments after the attempted Skripal assassination in England in 2018 is part of the problem. The Russians used a chemical weapon on British soil—and Donald Trump’s response was to question the evidence! The British government’s response wasn’t much better, with confused statements from Boris Johnson about whether Russia was responsible or not.

MK: Speaking of conflict between the United States and its great-power rivals, do you think we are going to war? Many (including me) think the risks are growing in the coronavirus era, but Barry Posen published a widely read piece this week in Foreign Affairs that was more skeptical. Basically, he argues that pandemics promote peace.

EA: You know, I was talking with a bunch of students yesterday, and the discussion revolved around whether we’re living in a rerun of the 1910s (globalization, arms races, and eventual war), the 1930s (depression, nationalism, and another war), or the Cold War (bipolar ideological conflict and proxy wars). It’s depressing, because the assumption in each case was that we’re headed for a war or Cold War.

Posen is making the opposite argument: that the coronavirus could tamp down conflict because it affects everyone equally. I’m not 100 percent sure I buy it, to be honest.

MK: We might actually end up agreeing on something. Posen is a realist who should know that relative gains matter. He is right that every country is suffering, but if some are suffering less—or think they are suffering less—they might see an opportunity. After all, China is overplaying its hand in its diplomatic response to COVID-19 (engaging in a war of words with Australia, for example), so why would it show better judgment in the military domain?

EA: I think we disagree with Posen, but for different reasons. My objection is to the economic argument. He claims that reduced trade and poor economic outlooks after the pandemic will reduce the desire for conflict. That flies directly in the face of a whole bunch of theories about interdependence and war. It’s not just liberal internationalists who think trade or trade expectations are important for avoiding conflict—many realists do, too.

But I guess the big question he raises is this: Is it true that no country will come out of the coronavirus with an advantage?

MK: No. Of course some countries will do better than others. On trade and peace, I’ve always wondered about the chicken and the egg. With the U.S.-China trade war, it’s not so much declining trade that is causing poor relations, but poor relations that are reducing trade. I am sure this will be a major issue heading into this election. And on the subjects of chicken and avoiding bad relations, I am on the hook to help my wife with dinner. Can we resume in two weeks?

EA: Of course! But if you’re right—and poor relations cause a decline in trade—then the current situation may be more analogous to the 1910s than anything else. Then we’re talking about a declining relationship with China and the potential for conflict. I hope you’re wrong—and that your cooking skills are good enough to avoid a descent into war.

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