Preparing for a North Korean collapse

A major crisis scenario that destabilizes the North Korean government and its mechanisms of control, no matter how unlikely, should prompt the international community to consider a multilateral framework for intervention.

The first step toward planning a credible response is to consider the absence of a totalitarian regime previously possessing rigid control over territory, weapons of mass destruction, and the civilian population. Working under the assumption that Chinese and South Korean border issues could be mitigated by their respective militaries, and WMD tracked and secured by American military forces working alongside integrated allies, the pre-eminent question becomes one of human security.

Specifically, how to deal with twenty million physically and psychologically scarred individuals as an operational challenge. Regardless of the ongoing struggle for power and stability, these individuals represent a major hurdle for any external force crossing the 38th parallel and constitute the bulk of human terrain. For many, their day-to-day lives reflect a permanent wartime experience, an existence on the edge that has defined families for more than three generations. Devout loyalty to the North Korean system is arguably so ingrained within many citizens, it is difficult to project how the majority of individuals would behave after the cataclysmic event of totalitarian collapse.

There would likely be a profound absence of the overarching stability that has come to define the norm within Pyongyang’s invasive culture of oppression. Beyond fundamental necessities of food, water, shelter and physical security, what unforeseen conditions might an external group encounter among the civilian population?

The disintegration, or even transformation, of this familiar norm would potentially compound dangerous social, economic and political inadequacies while pushing individuals past an already desperate state of existence. To paraphrase experts, exposure to an event involving potential death or serious injury to the self or others leads to intense states of fear, helplessness or horror. Under this scenario, an outside group would likely encounter upwards of twenty million individuals suffering from the effects of severe grief and incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder.

These reactions might appear as abnormal reactions to normal stress, but inside the reality of North Korea, it would reflect a normal reaction to abnormal stress. Whether an intervening humanitarian force, or an individual state dealing with refugees fleeing across its border, responsible powers should not overlook such a traumatic moment for geopolitics.

[Read full opinion piece: The Nation

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