Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Preparing for the End?

It's something that has been studied, war-gamed and analyzed in Washington and Seoul for decades: how to handle the inevitable implosion of North Korea. 

To be fair, the tyrants in Pyongyang have (so far) defied expectations.  While serving as a military intelligence officer in South Korea more than 20 years ago, I reviewed a White Paper prepared by the ROK Ministry of Defense, outlining projected threats in the year 2010.  Atop that list were China and Japan.  North Korea didn't even make the cut, because the best minds in Seoul (along with their American counterparts) believed the DPRK would go kaput before the first decade of the 21st Century. 

Yet, North Korea still shambles along.  Not even the deaths of the Great Leader (Kim il-Sung), the "Dear" Leader (Kim Jong-il); mass famine, a failed economy and brutal purges have pushed Pyongyang beyond the brink.  Indeed, the third generation of North Korea's hereditary dictatorship has now consolidated power in the person of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il, who is proving to be just as brutal as his father and grandfather.  He recently executed his maternal uncle (who provided critical support during Kim Jong-un's ascent to power), along with dozens of other regime officials. 

Based on outward appearances, it looks like business-as-usual in Pyongyang, and the newest dictator may remain in power for decades to come.  But Kim's allies in Beijing aren't taking any chances--or hedging their bets.  According to the U.K. Telegraph, Chinese leaders have been reviewing their own plans for a DPRK collapse:

China has drawn up detailed contingency plans for the collapse of the North Korean government, suggesting that Beijing has little faith in the longevity of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Documents drawn up by planners from China’s People’s Liberation Army that were leaked to Japanese media include proposals for detaining key North Korean leaders and the creation of refugee camps on the Chinese side of the frontier in the event of an outbreak of civil unrest in the secretive state.
The report calls for stepping up monitoring of China’s 879-mile border with North Korea.
Any senior North Korean military or political leaders who could be the target of either rival factions or another “military power,” thought to be a reference to the United States, should be given protection, the documents state.

The fact that Beijing has such plans on the books is hardly surprising.  Living next door to a failed state, China is acutely aware of conditions inside the DPRK, and what might happen if the regime suddenly collapses.  Beijing has arrested (and returned) thousands of North Korean refugees who have fled the "workers paradise" over the decades, and understands that relative trickle would become a flood in the event of widespread civil unrest, or the complete failure of Kim Jong-un's regime. 

What's unusual is China's decision to leak the information to the Japanese press.  In a country where revealing classified information is routinely punished by death, a revelation of this type is clearly a planned event, aimed at sending a signal to all concerned parties. 

For North Korea, the message is clear.  Beijing has grown tired of the refugee problem and Pyongyang's intransigence on a variety of other issues, including nuclear weapons.  With the North reportedly gearing up for another nuclear test, China has already issued a statement condemning the move and reinforced its disapproval by with-holding oil shipments during the first three months of this year.  Beijing would also like to see the DPRK embark on some sort of reform program, but it also realizes the odds of that happening are approximately zero. 

Beijing may also be signaling Washington and Seoul that it wouldn't be unhappy if North Korea suddenly disappeared, even if military action is required.  The plans leaked to the Japanese media are completely defensive in nature, with no mention of intervening to save Pyongyang, as it did in 1950.  Of course, the plan that found its way into the press may be nothing more than a border security operation, crafted apart from military contingency preparations.  Naturally, China would be resentful of any interference in an area considered its own zone of influence.  But as Tom Wilson writes in Commentary magazine, the tone of the planning document envisions--even seems to invite--a region without Pyongyang.

Mr. Wilson is also correct on a second point: if Chinese leaders the U.S. and South Korea are contemplating military action that would collapse the North Korean regime, they are sadly mistaken.  Over the past decade, Pyongyang has joined the nuclear club and staged a number of highly provocative acts, including the sinking of a ROK Navy vessel and the shelling of a South Korean-held island in the Yellow Sea.  In return, the North has been punished with economic sanctions, which were later eased.  Clearly, the DPRK believes it has little to fear from its adversaries in Seoul and Washington.  Meanwhile, U.S. and South Korean leaders are content to let North Korea collapse on its own, hoping that the implosion can somehow be "managed." 

The leaked planning document contained one other interesting tidbit: as refugees from the DPRK pour over the border, Chinese authorities will take steps to identify former North Korean officials and place them in special camps.  That move would (apparently) serve two goals: first, it would keep them beyond the reach of South Korea and the United States, and prevent them from using Chinese territory to launch a civil war on the reunified peninsula.  Clearly, there are details of the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship that China wants to remain secret, and rounding up members of the ruling clique is a good way to accomplish that goal. 

Does that mean Kim Jong-un will ultimately be a guest of the Chinese government, in some sort of labor camp?  North Korea's long-term prospects are dire (at best), but a lot of intel analysts and diplomats have been consistently wrong, betting against the DPRK's near and mid-term survival.  If China knows something we don't (in regard to Pyongyang), that should be a matter of grave concern given the millions of South Korea civilians who could be threatened by North Korea's collapse, and the thousands of U.S. military personnel who would be called upon to defend our ally.  As we've noted before, Pyongyang might choose to go out with a bang instead of a whimper, and the consequences would be catastrophic for all concerned.

On the other hand, the Chinese plans appear based in an abundance of caution--prudent steps taken by an emerging super-power which knows that North Korea will not last, and is preparing for that eventuality.  The real issue is why Beijing decided to leak its plans now, and if their timetable for the DPRK's demise differs significantly from our own.
ADDENDUM:  As another indicator of worsening conditions in North Korea, ABC News reports that a large number of wildfires are currently burning across the country.  Some of the fires were deliberately set, to burn off debris from last year's crop and fertilize fields ahead of this year's planting. 

But recent imagery from a NASA satellite detected larger fires in forested areas; wood is a precious commodity in the DPRK, a country that cannot exploit its own coal reserves due to shortages of fuel, equipment and a power grid that is down most of the time.  Ironically, some experts believe the forest fires may have been triggered by aging power lines that snapped and fell to the ground, igniting dry brush.  Not only is North Korea unable generate enough electricity to meet its demands, the distribution system may be more of a hazard than an asset.            



BigFire said...

I've always joking said that Defense Department have contingency plan for every imaginable scenario, from Alien Contact to Divine Intervention. We paid people good sums of money to think up unlikely scenario and ways of dealing with them.

Having plans to deal with your unstable ally isn't just prudent, it's necessary. What's surprising is that it got leaked to of all places, Japanese news agency. This sends an clear messages to the current leadership in North Korea, get in line or get moved.

SwampWoman said...

I agree, BigFire. My first reading of that news release was that China was more than amenable to a regime change.