As I’ve said before, the relevant leaders in the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the USA deserve some credit and recognition for the fact that over the past 4-5 years the very dicey situation with North Korea and a not-so-cooperative China has been managed without anything disastrous happening. But even as Bill Richardson, New Mexico governor and sporadic DPRK envoy, arrived in Pyongyang to try to calm things down, there are new spouts of conflict. And the really sobering thing about the North Korea situation is that even relatively optimistic scenarios that have the conflict successfully managed without war until the Kim Regime implodes aren’t all that optimistic.
And if you want to darken your thoughts on this matter even more, I’d highly recommend reading Colonel David Maxwell’s brief paper (PDF) on “Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula” for the Small Wars Journal. I would reconstruct Maxwell’s argument by saying that people normally think of the possibility of DPRK collapse primarily through a Central European frame. You’re implicitly assuming something like the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and its reintegration into the Federal Republic of Germany. And then from that starting point you’re observing that it’ll be much more problematic than even that problematic undertaking was.
Maxwell looks instead through more of an Iraq/Afghanistan lens. Why assume, he asks, that incoming foreign soldiers will be greeted as liberators? Because the Kim regime was nasty? Well, the Taliban’s nasty too. Saddam was nasty. What if a significant proportion of the population is hostile to incoming outsiders, and what if remnants of the DPRK security apparatus actively resist the new order? He notes that this is especially plausible since the official DPRK ideology is heavily oriented around (often mythical) feats of irregular resistance to Japanese occupation in World War II.
Beyond being alarming, Maxwell argues that we need better and broader planning for these collapse scenarios. That seems wise and all (planning is good), but part of the difficulty is that the political management of the situation would get much, much worse if there were high profile planning sessions about DPRK collapse. What’s more, the government of China seems unlikely to be interested in participating in any such planning, and yet some kind of political coordination with Beijing is crucial.