[The Acton Forum] Preparing for the possibility of regime collapse in the DPRK

Siwon Kwak
Bachelor of International Security Studies, Australian National University
22 May 2015


This report is designed to provide a solution for the possible regime collapse in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), from the perspective of the Republic of Korea (ROK). It argues that the nuclear weapons issue would be the most serious security challenges if the regime does collapse. In order to alleviate the dreadful consequence, this report suggests that the ROK and the United States (U.S) should conduct confidential discussions with China regarding preparation of the military strategy for intervening to take control of the DRPK’s nuclear weapons. The report will offer two possible benefits and costs of the proposed solution.


At the end of 2011, shocking news was reported from the DPRK that Kim Jong-il had died of a heart attack. His youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced the new leader of the DPRK subsequently.[1] There was expectation that Kim Jong-un’s inexperience in politics would lead to the gradual collapse of the DPRK regime. Unlike his father Kim Jong-il who had spent more than a decade strengthening his power inside the party with the support from Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un was recently announced as the heir so he did not have much time to consolidate his power.[2] Therefore, it has been argued that Kim Jong-un’s lack of political skill might trigger a power struggle, ultimately resulting in regime collapse.

It has been four years since Kim Jong-un was in office and no signs of collapse were evident so far. Nonetheless, a series of political struggles in the DPRK have been identified in the last few years and the most prominent event was the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Sung-taek, a person who possessed power second only to Kim in the country.[3] The execution of Jang indicates that the DPRK is still suffering from political instability and therefore, the possibility of the regime collapse remains open.

If the regime collapse becomes reality, nuclear weapons would be the most urgent issues that require extraordinary measures to be managed. It is widely known that the DPRK has illegally conducted nuclear related activities since the beginning of 21st century. This involves the test of nuclear weapons and proliferation of nuclear materials which became much more frequent in the past few decades.[4] In 2006, the Korean Central News Agency (KNCA) announced the DPRK’s successful underground nuclear test.[5] In addition, the DPRK had decided to cease all cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2009 by asking all IAEA inspectors to leave the country.[6] The information regarding the DPRK’s nuclear weapons has become inaccessible since then and therefore, an effective measure must be taken to control the nuclear weapons before they fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists.

Explanation of solution

Our government and the U.S have already begun planning a military strategy for intervening in order to take control of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons. This paper suggests that besides carrying out a joint cooperation, both governments should conduct confidential discussions with China regarding preparation for the military strategy. The ROK and the U.S. will first convince China that the purpose of this military operation is to maintain stability in the Korean peninsula by taking control of the DPRK’s illegally produced nuclear weapons. Both states will then seek for China’s assistance to achieve this goal. Finally, both states will promise that the ROK-US Combined Forces would not reach China-DPRK border to prevent further conflicts with China.

The contents of this discussion will be remained confidential to the general public as such military campaign requires meticulous planning in order to successfully take control of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons. In fact, the population of South Korea would not be pleased with the Chinese intervention in the DPRK because they regard this as a threat to Korean autonomy.[7] If the content is disclosed to the public, it might cause chaos in domestic politics. Consequently, the content of the discussion must be remained confidential to the population and would be only opened to the Presidents, senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense of ROK, U.S and China.

China’s economic investments in the DPRK are the reason why our government and the U.S government should conduct confidential discussions with China. China has made major economic and humanitarian assistances to the DPRK since the post-Korean War. Apart from providing food and health assistance, a large number of Chinese construction firm has conducted large-scale construction projects throughout the DPRK. As a result, the modest improvements in the DPRK economy have been evident since 2000.[8] Although China has been diplomatically estranged from the DPRK recently, it would be distressed to lose investments that they have been put for the last few decades. Thus, a confidential discussion should be held to allow China to secure their economic investments before the ROK-US Combined Forces accidently destroy the Chinese owned enterprise while performing the military campaign.

Analysis of solution


This subsection discusses potential benefits of the suggested solution and benefits have been identified. The first one would be preventing conflicts between the U.S and China, and the second one is successfully eliminating the DPRK’s nuclear weapons.

The confidential discussion would alleviate the hostile Sino-U. S relation at least for the period of the military campaign in the DPRK. Although China has close economic ties with the U.S, they still consider the U.S as an adversary due to historical problem. Before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, China has suffered a century-long humiliation by western powers. Thus, it was natural for China to harbor resentment towards affluent, imperialistic Western countries and aimed to deter Western’s sphere of influence in the region.[9] This was evident during the Korean War in 1950s. In the beginning, China considered the Korean Peninsula was now in a state of civil war where China had no reason to bother. However, the intervention of the U.S quickly changed the situation. When the ROK and the U.S forces were about to reach the Yalu River-the border between China and the DPRK, China decided to engage in warfare and deployed more than 2 million troops, which had created years of stalemate.[10] Thus, if the ROK-US Combined Forces crosses the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) again without prior notification, China might misunderstand this as a threat to their national security which can lead to huge conflicts.

Such consequences could be avoided by having discussions beforehand with China. The ROK and the U.S explain the goals to China with sincerity. As states in the previous section, both countries will justify the reason for the intervention and will also assure China that there no troops would be marching towards China-DPRK border during the military campaign.

If China is convinced by both countries and agrees to provide military assistance, this will result in another benefit, which is elimination the DPRK’s nuclear weapons by successfully locating the WMD sites. The experts in our government and the U.S. government have maneuvered to collect information regarding the DPRK’s nuclear weapons since the late twentieth century. However, the information has become limited as the DPRK withdrew from the NPT and expelling IAEA inspectors. As a result, while experts have reported that there are 200 or so WMD sites in the DPRK, they have been unable to provide exact locations of these WMD sites due to limited intelligence.[11] For example, the DPRK’s secret uranium enrichment program has been detected by the U.S intelligence agents since 1996, and they were also able to track down the records of the DPRK’s overseas purchase of materials for the uranium enrichment program. Nonetheless, they were still unable to find the exact locations where the program was carried out.[12]

China, on the other hand, is believed to possess better intelligence on the DPRK’s WMD sites.[13] When the DPRK officially admitted the existence of the uranium enrichment program in 2002, China expressed its willingness to host dialogues to alleviate the nuclear issue. A year later, China went step further by sending senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to persuade Kim Jong-il to enter multilateral dialogues with interested parties.[14] Such visits have occurred numerous times between 2003 and 2004 and it can be suggested that China might have obtained the information regarding WMD sites at some point. China also has a geographical advantage over the ROK-US Combined Forces. Shenyang Military Region (MR) is located at the Northeast China and has around 250,000 active military personnel.[15] The Yongbyon facility, a place where most of the DPRK’s plutonium-based nuclear installations are located, is only 130 km away from Shenyang while the ROK-US Combined Forces from the DMZ need to march more than 300 km to reach it.[16] If China decided to provide assistance, its ground forces would reach the WMD facilities quicker than the ROK-US Combined Forces which would decelerate the proliferation of nuclear materials.


Unlike the previous subsection where two benefits were identified from the same consequence (China’s willingness to cooperate), the following subsection will discuss limitations in two different scenarios. The first limitation derives from China’s cooperation while the second one derives from China’s refusal to cooperate with the ROK and the U.S.

Chinese intervention can also create a conflict with our government which will turn out as a limitation of the solution. The international system is operating in an anarchic order where states can never be certain of other states’ intention.[17] This indicates both the ROK and the U.S have no ways to detect China’s actual purpose of intervening in this military campaign. However, one thing is for sure, China has viewed the DPRK as a buffer state since the foundation the PRC in 1949 and it has endeavoured to maintain the status-quo in the Korean Peninsula.[18] The regime collapse of the DPRK will certainly cause instability in the region and China might intervene further during or after the military campaign without prior notification to the ROK-US Combined Forces. In the most benign circumstances, the troops from Shenyang MR might march into Pyongyang to seize a strong position for postcollapse negotiation, instead of dropping back to their country.[19]

Such action will definitely escalate conflicts with our government because the Article 3 of the ROK Constitution states that “[t]he territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands”.[20] According to the constitutional interpretation, our government sees the DPRK as an anti-government organization who is illegally occupying the other half of the peninsula. The other half of the peninsula should be reclaimed at some time for reunification, and the current DPRK regime is considered as an obstacle to reunification. Therefore, Chinese troops residing in the DPRK after the regime collapse would be regarded as an invasion of our sovereignty, and military confrontation is possible if ROK and China could not reach unanimous agreement.

The next limitation can be originated from China’s refusal to provide assistance due to its relations with the U.S. As China harbors resentment towards the U.S for being imperialistic in the past, it might lodge a strong protest against the U.S involvement in this military campaign. It is expected that China would express its opinion to our government than using diplomatic rhetoric. In practice, Chinese foreign policy has been more assertive in recent years which can be seen from the issues on Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) placement few months ago. When China had noticed the placement of THAAD in the Korean Peninsula would become a threat to its national security, Chinese President Xi addressed the complaints directly to our President Park that South Korea should not introduce this system.[21]

This could place our government in a dilemma. If the joint military operation with the U.S is insisted, China might concentrate their troops from Shenyang and Beijing MR in China-DPRK border to deter any aggression from the ROK-US Combined Forces when the regime collapses. The estimated personnel of China’s two MRs would be 800,000 which clearly outnumbers combined forces.[22] Carrying out the solution without the U.S will also trigger a problem. It is estimated that around 260,000-400,000 ground force personnel would be required to stabilize the DPRK.[23] However, the number of active duty soldiers in our military is projected to fall and by 2022, there will be only 522,000 active duty soldiers, approximately 387,000 in Army.[24] This means maximum of 80% of military personnel would be required to stabilize the DPRK in 2022, and deployment of these soldiers would leave our country in a vulnerable situation.


The success or failure of this solution is highly dependent on China’s actions. If China refuses to provide assistance at the first stage, the ROK-US Combined Forces would confront difficulties in reaching WMD sites in the DPRK. The combined forces will still confront a difficult situation even if China agrees to provide assistance because China might abandon its original commitment to the combined forces. In order to avoid the aforementioned situation, this report strongly urges both the ROK and the U.S to conduct confidential discussions with China in advance. There is clearly a historical animosity between the ROK-US and China and this is unlikely to be resolved in a short period of time. Hence, a long-term trilateral dialouge is essential to resolve misunderstandings and hostility. The solution must be implemented now.


[1]Mark McDonald, “Son of North Korean Leader Is Said to Be Given No. 2 Post.” The New York Times, February 16, 2011. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/asia/17korea.html .

[2]Bruce W. Bennett and Jennifer Lind. “The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements.” International Security 36, no. 2 (2011): 84-119.

[3]Sang-hun Choe. “North Korea Says Leader’s Uncle Was Executed as a Traitor.” The New York Times, December 12, 2013. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/world/asia/north-korea-says-uncle-of-executed.html?_r=0.

[4]Larry A. Niksch, North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program (CRS Issue Brief No. IB91141) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2005)

[5]KCNA. “DPRK Successfully Conducts Underground Nuclear Test.” October 10 2006. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2006/200610/news10/10.htm .

[6]IAEA. Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Accesssed April 12, 2015. http://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC53/GC53Documents/English/gc53-13_en.pdf

[7]Bruce W. Bennett, Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND), 2013. 86.

[8]Dick K. Nanto and Mark E. Manyin. China-North Korea Relations (CRS Report No. 41043) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010), https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41043.pdf.; Mark E. Manyin and Mary Beth D. Nikitin. Foreign Assistance to North Korea (CRS Report No. R40095) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2014), https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40095.pdf.

[9]Jian Chen. “China’s Strategies to End the Korean War.” In Mao’s China and the Cold War, 85-117. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 2001.

[10]Xiaobing Li. A History of the Modern Chinese Army. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007). 110-111.

[11]Niksch, 11.


[13]Bennett, 267.

[14]Anne Wu, “What China Whispwers to North Korea,” Washington Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2005): 35-48.

[15]“Chapter Six: Asia.” The Military Balance 112, no. 1 (2012): 238-40. doi:10.1080/04597222.2012.663215, quoted in Bennett, 263.

[16]Bennett, 100.

[17]John J Mearsheimer, “Introduction.” In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (NY: Norton, 2014), 1-28.

[18]Jason Lim, “If North Korea collapses,” The Washington Times, December 16, 2004, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2004/dec/16/20041216-081425-8021r/.

[19]Bennett, 90.

[20]The National Assembly of the ROK. “Constitution of the Republic of Korea.” October 29, 1987. Accessed April 13, 2015. http://korea.assembly.go.kr/res/low_01_read.jsp?boardid=1000000035.

[21]Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROK. “Spokesperson’s Press Briefing.” March 17, 2015. Accessed April 11, 2015. http://www.mofa.go.kr/ENG/press/pressbriefings/index.jsp?menu=m_10_30&sp=/webmodule/htsboard/template/read/engreadboard.jsp?typeID=12&boardid=303&seqno=314999.

[22]Bennett, 263.

[23]Bennett and Lind, 84-119.

[24]Ministry of National Defense, ROK, 2012 Defense White Paper, (Seoul: 2012), http://www.mnd.go.kr/user/mnd_eng/upload/pblictn/PBLICTNEBOOK_201308130553561260.pdf.