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End States and Divided States: After the Kims

North Korea Topic Week

By Matt McLaughlin


A useful exercise in considering courses of action that could be taken in response to a North Korean collapse is to skip ahead to the aftermath. However and whenever the Kim regime falls, it will be ugly – but some kind of end state will follow. Identifying the most desirable (or least undesirable) one will be critical to planning for North Korean contingencies. After all, how can one plan without an objective? Considering outcomes enables us to write policies that increase the likelihood of our preferred end state, while also helping guide contingency planning should something else actually occur.

We may postulate three basic outcomes:

  • Everybody is wrong, and the Energizer Bunny of family autocracies doesn’t collapse at all. It just keeps going and going…
  • The Kims fall, and the peninsula is reunited.
  • The Kims fall, and the peninsula remains divided.

Before getting into those, a couple preliminaries must be stated first. The North Korean government has continually stood since 1948 because its neighbors have been able to live with it. This is not to pass a moral judgment, but simply to note that since the 1953 armistice was signed, no interested party has found dislodging the Kims to be worth the price. North Korean nuclear capability certainly changes the calculus, but the fundamental result appears to be the same so far. The existence of North Korea provides certain conveniences in other matters. For China, it provides a buffer zone between it and a U.S. ally on the East Asian mainland, as well as a client state with which it may deniably perturb the West. For Japan, to whom geography gives a vested interest in peninsular affairs, the standoff prevents Chinese influence from dominating all of Korea – and also prevents a unified Korea rivaling Japan’s eminent position in Northeast Asia. And for both Japan and the United States, the North Korean threat justifies the presence of defensive forces – to include missile defenses – that are intended for defense against Korea but could also be used to keep the Chinese in check.

With all this mind, how could the three basic scenarios play out? 


This is actually more reasonable than it might seem. A long tradition of existence is as good an indicator as any that the Kim regime knows how to stick around for the long haul. Nuclear brinksmanship will occur and deterrence will be tested, but fundamentally things will remain stable, if uneasy, in this scenario. For reasons described above, the situation has proven sustainable on the international stage.

Unfortunately, this does nothing to change the thousands of artillery tubes pointed at Seoul, but the status quo has still been decent enough for the South to amass one of the world’s largest gross domestic products. The Republic of Korea has made the best of the hand it’s been dealt, and will likely continue to do so. Not so much for the people north of the armistice line – but that appears to be the price of stability.

Reunification by the ROK

Should the Kim regime fall, another authority will have to fill the vacuum. The Republic of Korea would be the natural choice, and is sure to be the United States’ preferred option. However, this scenario places the Republic on the border of the People’s Republic of China. For the PRC to go along with this, U.S. forces will probably need to vacate the peninsula as soon as initial stability operations are completed. Continued U.S. relations with a unified Korea will become less a matter of our bilateral relationship and more a matter of how it plays vis a vis China.

However, diminished U.S. influence in Korea may not be to Japan’s liking. Undoubtedly a newly reunified Korea would be inward-focused for several years as it integrates the north into the peninsular and world economies – but the ROK would emerge stronger for it. Without the everyday American presence it has now, the unified Korea may attempt to assert itself on the world stage in ways counter to Japanese interests, not to mention those of China. We may again see Korea as a platform for competing international influences, as the 1890s saw between Japan, China, and the so far unmentioned but very-present northern neighbor, Russia.

Reunification by ???

War is a contest of probabilities, and no result is preordained. It is entirely possible that the Kim regime may fall, but could take Seoul with it, leaving the Republic of Korea just as dead as the People’s Democratic Republic. With no obvious authority, a new power would fill the vacuum. It may be a Maoist movement to succeed the Kims, a Korean nationalist one, or something else harder to predict. Whatever the case may be, any authority other than the ROK is likely to be less amenable to Western interests. The Republic essentially owes its existence to the UN effort of the 1950s and continued American presence thereafter. A post-ROK state would not feel the same obligations toward its predecessors’ enablers.

Continued Partition, Courtesy China

Reunification is not a foregone conclusion, even in the event of the Kim regime’s fall. It may be that the two Korean societies have simply diverged so much since the 1940s that a merger is no longer possible. Or it may be simply that power politics interferes.

As noted above, China values a buffer between it and the U.S. forces in South Korea. It could maintain this by invading the moment the regime collapses and establishing control of the North’s territory before the ROK (with U.S. support) can do so. It could then set up a puppet state and demand global recognition of its fait accompli.

North Korean military officers. (Reuters)

At greater length, a similar outcome could also be achieved via a hybrid war effort in a destabilized North Korea. No doubt the Chinese have studied Russian operations in Ukraine. Even if the ROK controlled all of Korea on paper, a push by Chinese “little green men” could establish a frozen conflict keeping the ROK and its Western allies off balance. An ephemeral Korean version of the Donetsk People’s Republic might be good enough for China’s purposes.

Continued Partition, Berlin 1945-Style

It is conceivable that a wartime stalemate or diplomatic impasse leads to further partition of North Korean territory, reminiscent of Germany after World War II. Different players could have sectors, including China, the Republic of Korea, the U.S., and, just possibly, Russia. If such an occupation scheme was to go into place, it would almost certainly be an arrangement exclusively by the states involved. The presence of multiple veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council implies the UN will probably not have much utility.

Moving Forward

What we think will happen is not necessarily what will happen. If one believes history arcs toward justice or that despots always fail, it is easy to blithely assume Korean unification is just a matter of time. This analysis reminds us it is not. Many potential outcomes exist and each will have unique second- and third-order effects. Some of the likelier effects can be identified, and today’s diplomatic efforts and operational planning may be able to mitigate them, and even nudge events in a preferred direction. Perhaps more importantly, the relationships built and knowledge gained in hedging against the North Korean challenge will enable quick, effective decision-making when something completely different occurs.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander, strategic communications consultant, and Naval War College student whose opinions on matters large and small do not represent the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or his employer.

Featured Image: Monuments of North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Definition of Insanity: Carrots and Sticks with North Korea

North Korea Topic Week

By Richard Kuzma


On May 5th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Korean Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act, to “modify and increase the President’s authority to impose sanctions on persons in violation of certain U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea.”1 This law, along with the White House’s aggressive language and not ruling out “military options” on the peninsula, is merely political posturing and not constructive to curbing development of North Korea’s ballistic missile or nuclear weapons programs. To do this, the United States must find the balance between carrots and sticks; making the existing sanctions regime effective while offering incentives for Kim Jong Un to negotiate a freeze of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program.

A military solution in North Korea is unfeasible. A preemptive U.S. strike would not destroy North Korea’s entire nuclear arsenal. One has only to look at the mobile off-road platforms on display at the military Day of the Sun parade commemorating the birthday of Kim Il Sung.2 Following a U.S. strike, Kim Jong Un would likely bombard Seoul, South Korea’s capital located only 35 miles from the demilitarized zone. The artillery strikes would kill many of the 25 million citizens of the city.

Forceful elimination of North Korea’s entire nuclear program would require troops on the ground. The RAND Corporation estimates that 273,000 U.S. troops would be needed to secure all nuclear sites in a high-threat environment. This number does not include any forces conducting combat operations or humanitarian assistance.3 There is little political backing for a ground war in North Korea, and let us not forget what happened the last time U.S. forces crossed the 38th parallel. U.S. intervention—even in the event of regime collapse—would be viewed as threatening by China.

There are two main tools left in the U.S. arsenal: economic sanctions and diplomacy. The first has been attempted, and leaves much to be desired. The second has received little play because it is politically unpopular to look “weak” against North Korea.

Economic Sanctions

In response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and violation of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted UNSCR 2270 in March 2016.4 This resolution was the most comprehensive sanctions regime against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in twenty years and mandated the following: (1) all flagged North Korean planes and ships carrying cargo be inspected; (2) banned North Korea from exporting most of its natural resources; (3) asked UN member states to prohibit the opening of North Korean banks within their borders, and shut down banks associated with DPRK nuclear and missile programs; (4) directed member states to expel DPRK diplomats and foreign nationals engaged in illicit activities; (5) prohibited members states from training DPRK nationals in fields that might benefit their nuclear or missile programs (ex. Physics, aerospace engineering); (6) banned member states from allowing DPRK to charter foreign aircraft or ships; and (7) prohibited the sale of rocket fuel and small arms to DPRK.5

The sanctions never reached full force. In February 2017, a UN Panel of Experts report showed that despite being the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, DPRK and its ruling elites were not being squeezed by U.S. and UN efforts.6 Some UN member states failed to implement sanctions on the books, China has not leveraged its full potential to influence North Korea, and the government of North Korea has found ways to evade sanctions using sophisticated corporate networks.7

Earlier this year, China suspended coal imports from North Korea, which is a strong step.8 Banning fuel and crude oil exports to North Korea would truly put a squeeze on the DPRK economy. This could cause instability, threatening the Kim government with collapse.9 China has a strategic interest in keeping a stable North Korea, rather than allowing loose nukes on its borders that may invite a large American military presence beyond the 38th Parallel and lead to a possible reunification of the peninsula under a government friendly to the United States. China has enough economic weight to not be swayed by U.S. pressure to cut oil exports, especially at the cost of China’s national interest.

DPRK Adaptations

Counterintuitively, sanctions have made it easier for North Korea’s to procure components for its nuclear and missile programs through state-sponsored front companies and Chinese intermediaries.10 Imagine a bacterium that gains antibiotic resistance. UN sanctions target and eliminate the least skilled sources of procurement, and raise the cost of doing business. The most sophisticated actors survive, and the Kim regime is forced to pay higher fees to Chinese intermediate companies. This attracts even more sophisticated actors to the game.11 These actors are more discrete and have wider procurement networks, which provides more opportunities for North Korea to do business in the outside world without being detected.12

An worker walks between front-end loaders used to move imported North Korean coal at Dandong port in the Chinese border city of Dandong, Liaoning province, December 7, 2010. (Reuters/Stringer)

In addition to these Chinese networks, North Korea state-owned enterprises have established footholds in financial hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur via “Hwa-gyos,” ethnically Han Chinese North Korean citizens or their descendants, usually wealthy businessmen.13 Finally, North Korea hides its businessmen in embassies, declaring them as diplomats. These middlemen are allowed free passage in and out of North Korea and surrounding nations and build connections that becomes commercial nodes for the larger illicit networks.14


American politicians routinely take a hardline stance against North Korea, with little results. Each threat only forces the Kim regime into a more defensive and mistrustful posture. The United States should stop its goal of regime change, peninsula reunification, and its refusal to come to the negotiating table unless nuclear disarmament is guaranteed. Kim Jung Un sees the maintenance of his nuclear program as paramount to his regime’s survival. This is entirely rational, given America’s interventions in non-nuclear states Iraq and Libya, and subsequent regime change. Though the North Korean government is abhorrent, ensuring its security is key to any freezing and elimination of the grave threat that comes from its nuclear and missile programs.

Real progress on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs can only come through diplomatic processes. The United States and North Korea distrust one another, so tit-for-tat negotiations seem unlikely.  Social psychologist Charles Osgood offers a model of graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction (GRIT) where the stronger party offers a small concession that does not show weakness, while expressing interest that the adversarial party offers something commensurate.15

A North Korean soldier takes a photo of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Panmunjom, the truce village near the inter-Korean border, on Friday. (Yonhap/EPA)

The power asymmetry between the United States and North Korea dictates that the U.S. be the first to make a move. An example of this might be removing overflights of the Korean Peninsula by American B-1B bombers or perhaps suspending the annual Foal Eagle exercise between the U.S. and South Korea. If North Korea reciprocates with a similar concession, the two countries can enter what U.S. Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein calls a “cooperation spiral,” the opposite of an escalation spiral.16 The end hope of this spiral is increased relations with North Korea, more fruitful multilateral negotiations, and a security guarantee for North Korea that preserves the regime while preventing further development of North Korean ICBMs that could hold America and her allies at risk.

Moving Forward

The United States can be both tough and productive by helping the UN better enforce its sanctions regime while also pursuing diplomatic relations and trust-building measures with North Korea. Immediate measures are needed to support the UN Panel of Experts recommendations to improve the economic sanctions, while a longer-term change in dialog—both in domestic political discourse and internationally—is needed to make the relationship with North Korea more productive.

The U.S. and UN should empower nations in Southeast Asia to enforce the sanctions regimes. The UN Panel of Experts report “named names” of actors and state-owned companies involved in some capacity with North Korea’s illicit trade. Most of these revelations were not new. The same players are involved in key positions and act as hubs within the network. Empowering countries like Malaysia and Singapore through intelligence sharing will help them expel North Korean intermediaries and diplomats, concentrating the illicit network to mainland China.

The U.S. should then improve cooperation with China. Reframing the elimination of Chinese intermediaries as an anti-corruption issue will make the cause more amenable to the Chinese government.17 The United States should challenge the Chinese government to enforce its domestic laws and international agreements, setting the example as a responsible rising power. American leaders must show that that enforcing sanctions will squeeze, but not destabilize, North Korea, and demonstrate the United States is willing to engage diplomatically rather than militarily to curb North Korean weapons programs. To truly generate Chinese cooperation, the United States may have to consider concessions on South China Sea issues, which are unpalatable, but perhaps necessary in combating the larger threat of a North Korean nuclear strike.


More effective sanctions are not the answer to the world’s problems with North Korea. However, by first understanding the nature of our failures in implementing these sanctions we can pursue more effective methods that will open the door to a potential freezing of the intercontinental ballistic missile program. Political bluster is counterproductive. Diplomatic concessions are needed to change the status quo. If the Trump administration wants to move away from “strategic patience,” the way forward is not with force, but diplomacy.

Richard Kuzma is an Ensign and Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on North Korea’s business networks and their adaptations to UN sanctions.


1. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1644

2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/world/asia/north-korea-parade-missiles.html

3. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_briefs/RB9800/RB9805/RAND_RB9805.pdf

4. “Security Council Imposes Fresh Sanctions on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2270 (2016),” March 2, 2016, https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12267.doc.htm

5. Richard Roth, “U.N. Security Council Approves Tough Sanctions on North Korea,” March 3, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/02/world/un-north-korea-sanctions-vote/

6. UN Panel of Experts Report, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2017/150 

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/10/opinion/to-stop-the-missiles-stop-north-korea-inc.html

8. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-oil-idUSKBN17U1I1

9. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-oil-idUSKBN17U1I1

10. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/10/opinion/to-stop-the-missiles-stop-north-korea-inc.html

11. John Park and Jim Walsh, “Stopping North Korea, Inc.: Sanctions Effectiveness and Unintended Consequences,” MIT Security Studies Program, August 2016, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_ph0c6i87C_eGhCOGRhUVFaU28/view, 22.

12. Park and Walsh, 23

13. Park and Walsh, 26

14. Park and Walsh, 26

15. Charles E. Osgood, An Alternative to War or Surrender (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1962).

16. http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/meeting-china-halfway

17. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/10/opinion/to-stop-the-missiles-stop-north-korea-inc.html

Featured Image: People take part in an oath-taking meeting before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang April 10, 2013 in this photo distributed by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).  Sign reads: “Let’s become faithful youth vanguard of our party!” 

North Korea Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have prompted concerns over North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, how to deter conflict, and find a peaceful solution to the dilemma. This week CIMSEC will be publishing articles submitted in response to our call for articles on North Korea.

Below is a list of articles featuring during the topic week that will be updated as the topic week rolls out and as prospective authors finalize additional publications.

The Definition of Insanity: Carrots and Sticks with North Korea by Richard Kuzma
North Korea’s Sea-Based Nuclear Capabilities: An Evolving Threat by Matthew Gamble
End States and Divided States: After the Kims by Matt McLaughlin
Putting Trump’s Reputation to Work in North Korea by Travis Lindsay
North Korea – Shaping the U.S. Response by Commodore Anil Jai Singh (ret.)
Rethinking the Korean Peninsula Crisis by Ching Chang

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes during a visit to the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces on the occasion of the new year, in this undated file photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 10, 2016. (Reuters/KCNA)

Call for Articles: North Korea

By Dmitry Filipoff

Week Dates: May 29-June 2, 2017
Articles Due: May 24, 2017
Article Length: 1000-3000 words 
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

North Korea’s ongoing ballistic missile development program and nuclear testing has continued unabated despite international sanctions and pressure. A highly-secretive state with thousands of tons of chemical weapons, a populace cut off from the world, and over a million men under arms, North Korea poses a grave challenge for any attempting to shape its behavior or contain its potential collapse.

How could a military contingency unfold and what are its considerations? How does the U.S.-China relationship affect North Korea? How could North Korea resolve its strategic predicament? Submissions can answer these questions and more to help understand and mitigate the threat North Korea poses.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org

Featured Image: A flag with a portrait of North Korea’s late leader Kim Il Sung is displayed as soldiers march during a massive military parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)