Authoritarian dictators can repress their populations for decades, but now the regime of Kim Jong-il “is embarking on the most difficult challenge that such regimes face: succession,” according to a scenario by Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind, published in the fall issue of the journal International Security.
Yet “the transition from apparent stability to collapse can be swift.” A government collapse in North Korea “could unleash a series of catastrophes on the peninsula with potentially far-reaching regional and global effects.”
This could trigger a massive outflow of the nation’s 24 million people, many of whom are severely malnourished, across the border into South Korea. With the food shortages could come civil war.
Equally troubling, “North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction could find their way out of the country and onto the global black market.” As a result, the consequences of a “poorly planned response to a government collapse in North Korea are potentially calamitous.”
North Korea has 1.2 million active duty military troops. What’s more, China will likely send its forces to aid in humanitarian efforts, as well. “The specter of Chinese forces racing south while US and South Korean troops race north is terrifying given the experience of the Korean War, a climate of suspicion among the three countries, and the risk of escalation to the nuclear level.”
Based on the most optimistic assumptions, according to the scenario, as many as 400,000 ground forces would be required to stabilize North Korea – more than the US commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
This would strain US forces, but the Pentagon noted in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that the “instability or collapse of a WMD-armed state is among our most troubling concerns. Such an occurrence could lead to a rapid proliferation of WMD material, weapons, and technology, and could quickly become a global crisis posing a direct physical threat,” the scenario warns, “to the United States and all other nations.”