The World Shouldn't Fear The Collapse Of North Korea

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
October 2, 2008
Pg. 19

By John R. Bolton and Nicholas Eberstadt
As panicky U.S. negotiators raced this week to save the endangered Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, they faced a major new issue: Who would be calling the shots in Pyongyang when the breathless American diplomats arrived? Kim Jong Il's absence from the North's recent 60th-birthday celebration unleashed a world-wide torrent of speculation and rumors about his failing health.
In both Washington and Pyongyang, voices have been raised essentially arguing that a regime crisis is the last thing we should want. But is the stability of an internationally criminal, cruelly dictatorial, nuclear-weapons-equipped North Korea really something we should value above all conceivable alternatives?
Nightmare predictions of loose nukes, an out-of-control North Korean military, a tsunami of refugees and the prospect that the South might have to absorb over 20 million impoverished new citizens are keeping some awake at night. Unquestionably, a Pyongyang regime crisis carries huge risks and challenges. But let's keep our eyes on the prize. There may be a precious opportunity in the midst of potential disaster to reunite the Korean Peninsula under democratic rule, or at least bring this objective closer.
A regime crisis in Pyongyang poses two main challenges: (1) the military and nuclear threat on the Peninsula and more broadly; and (2) the humanitarian and economic consequences of the North's collapse, both the immediate risk of massive refugee flows and the long-term economic impact of reunification. These two challenges actually pose very similar choices for U.S. and South Korean leaders today.
First, there is no doubt that North Korea's nuclear arsenal must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands, outside or inside the country, nor should the North's chemical and biological weapons be made operational. The U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command (CFC) has contingency plans for these circumstances, drawn with the full realization that rapid implementation in a period of high uncertainty may mean the difference between securing the North's weapons of mass destruction and seeing them used in chaotic and deadly ways.
Despite contrary speculation, there is no motivation for North Korea's generals to attack South Korea. They are far more likely to engage in an internal power struggle, which is where the most destructive weapons would be used, and why we must act rapidly to secure them. If things really come unglued, the generals' main preoccupation may well be simply getting out of Dodge -- an objective we should be happy to facilitate.
Critical here is that Beijing be told clearly that any military action across the DMZ is intended only to deal with the regime crisis, and is in no way aimed at China. Indeed, to the extent Beijing has information about, say, the location of the North's nuclear weapons, it would clearly be in China's interest to share that information.
Not only would a decisive CFC operation minimize the chances for loose nukes or warlord-minded generals, it could also dramatically help reassure the North Korean population that they could stay in their homes, and prevent massive refugee flows into China. That, in turn, could eliminate any thoughts Beijing might have about its own intervention to keep North Koreans from flowing across the Yalu River.
Second, whatever the CFC is able to do, there is little doubt we must plan for urgent humanitarian needs in the North. The scale and expense of the response required to forestall tragedy in these circumstances could be staggering -- but today such an international response is not only feasible, but potentially quite manageable. Key to this assessment is the critical geographical fact that North Korea is adjacent to South Korea, an affluent democracy.
For any successful response to humanitarian travails in North Korea, of course, establishing order as rapidly as possible will be imperative. In all too many contemporary humanitarian crises, refugees have nowhere to return to. Not so here: the South Korean Constitution already established their right to citizenship in the Republic of Korea. Like Germany during the Cold War, and Israel today, South Korea guarantees a "right of return" for those in the North. Instead of facing an uncertain future in "displaced persons" camps in China, Russia or elsewhere, North Korean escapees could count on protection and legal rights in the Republic of Korea.
The economic implications of absorbing the North Korean population have seemed terrifying to South Korean policy makers ever since the Berlin Wall came down. But the plain fact is that the economic chasm between North and South will continue to widen as long as the North Korean regime survives. The longer unification is postponed, the greater the immediate challenges of reunification are likely to be.
There are potential economic opportunities in an economic reintegration of North and South -- not just expenses. A flexible and market-oriented Korean economy, under rule of law and open to international trade and finance, will be best placed to capitalize upon these opportunities. In the short run, the expenses of dealing with humanitarian needs from the North may be high. But in the long run, if a reunified Korea can recreate the sort of "business climate" in which the South thrived, the "costs" of reunification will take care of themselves.
Kim Jong Il's demise could thus hasten North Korea's demise as well, an outcome we should welcome. A reunited, fully democratic Korea would likely be a strong U.S. ally, a geopolitical benefit too often ignored by our State Department. Let us not lose sight of that prospect as we deal with the perils and prospects of regime crisis in Pyongyang. Preparing for the worst should not keep us from trying to plan for the best as well.
Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Mr. Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of "The North Korean Economy Between Crisis and Catastrophe," (Transaction Publishers, 2007).