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The Challenge of Preparing for Instability in North Korea

In North Korea's totalitarian system, political stability depends on the health of the leader more than on any other factor. For this reason, Kim Jong Il's rumored health problems have drawn careful scrutiny since he failed to appear almost exactly one year ago at public events marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The possible policy implications of three scenarios related to North Korea's succession process--a managed succession, a contested succession, and a failed succession--were analyzed in a Council on Foreign Relations Special Report released in January entitled Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea by Paul Stares and Joel Wit.

See-Won Byun's North Korea Contingency Planning and U.S.-ROK Cooperation, the latest report of The Asia Foundation's Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, explores the policy coordination challenges the United States and South Korea are likely to face in the context of potential instability in North Korea. Contingency planning efforts were marginalized or neglected as a focal point for coordination under progressive South Korean administrations that prized engagement with North Korea over planning for possible North Korean instability.

The combination of South Korea's unconditional economic assistance to North Korea and a continuous rise in China-North Korea trade volume facilitated North Korean economic recovery and stability, especially between 2002-2007. But South Korean planning in response to potential North Korean instability has resumed under the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has also constrained the flow of economic benefits to North Korea in the absence of reciprocity in inter-Korean relations.

The task of responding to potential instability in North Korea will likely require international coordination to address diplomatic, political, security, economic, humanitarian, and legal issues, and the nature and type of coordination that is needed will evolve as events unfold. For this reason, Byun's paper considers "preventive planning," "internal stabilization," and "securing development" as different phases in the development of the situation that will require differing types of responses by North Korea's neighbors.

One issue requiring attention in advance of any contingency in North Korea is the need for a comprehensive planning approach that establishes strong U.S.-ROK political coordination and guidance to support existing military plans for responding to instability in North Korea. The need for such coordination requires a "whole-of-government" approach in both South Korea and the United States, possibly involving enhanced inter-governmental as well as inter-agency coordination mechanisms, to promote an effective response to North Korean contingencies as they arise.

A second critical issue is the establishment of effective channels of dialogue on these issues with the People's Republic of China, both to provide "strategic reassurance" and to minimize the possibility of responses to instability in North Korea that lead to accidental military conflict, particularly in relation to the mission of securing "loose nukes" in North Korea in the event of protracted North Korean political instability. This is the single task that seems most likely to result in accidental contact between Chinese and American military forces, but any understanding in advance of the breakout of North Korean instability would go a long way toward reducing the prospect of accidental conflict between U.S. and Chinese military forces.

A third challenge is how to pursue the U.S.-ROK combined objective as stated in the June 2009 U.S.-ROK Joint Vision Statement of "peaceful reunification on the principles of free democracy and a market economy" while also securing effective advance coordination with China on a response to North Korean instability. Effective U.S.-China cooperation will be essential in managing these issues in a manner conducive to ensuring longer-term regional stability, but South Koreans also fret about the possibility that collusion on North Korea-related issues among larger powers such as the United States and China might ultimately block Korean reunification.

A fourth challenge is the need to establish clearly the scope and international auspices under which any possible intervention for humanitarian or political stabilization purposes might occur. In the moment, these questions are likely to be overwhelmed by the need to launch emergency relief and humanitarian assistance programs to meet urgent human needs. An effective humanitarian response would require full international coordination, especially with China, but China's focus on its own border and internal security concerns may continue to preclude effective cooperation with other countries or international agencies on these issues.

A fifth challenge is the longer-term need to secure North Korea's longer-term development, especially in the aftermath of a breakdown in North Korea's internal security situation. Such a possibility suggests that lessons from other post-conflict stabilization operations might be applied to North Korea to stabilize the security situation as a prerequisite for reconstructing North Korea and effectively promoting its political and economic integration, both on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

Precisely because the list of challenges posed by possible North Korean instability is so daunting, it is unlikely that any single state in Northeast Asia would be willing or able to bear the burdens accompanying North Korea's political collapse on its own. Ironically, North Korea's last act of instability may once again promote unprecedented cooperation among North Korea's neighbors.

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