Russia shares a border with North Korea which is only 12 miles long, while the border with China and North Korea is over 1200 miles long. Russia and North Korea just opened a railway link from Rajin, something Russia has been planning for a while because it will now be able to ship goods from Moscow, Novosibirsk, and the other major cities via its Trans-Siberian Railway to Asia and the Americas.
China has been using the port of Rajin to transport goods from its provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang for a few years, having signed a long-term lease for it. It is difficult to verify it, but China probably built a railway across North Korea that it alone uses, given the decrepit nature of North Korea's railways. Like Russia, it appreciates the ice-free nature of Rajin and would be loathe to surrender it. Vladivostok, the Russian port not far north of Rajin, is mostly ice-free, but is not 100%.
If the government of North Korea were to implode, both China and Russia might feel compelled to intervene in Rajin to protect their interests. Neither country would look kindly on an effort by the other to monopolize it.
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In Seoul Searching: Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification, Der Spiegel reported on a contingent of Germans in South Korea for talks on how reunification might occur. These Germans were all in leadership positions in either West Germany or the DDR during the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. These talks took place before Kim Jong-il died.
Der Spiegel noted that "Ministry of Unification officials say that every broadcast that comes from the North is blocked by South Korean state agencies out of fear of propaganda." This was never true of Western Europe during the Cold War when Westerners were able to watch broadcasts of the Soviet Bloc. Is the South Korean government really afraid that its people will fall for the childish propaganda of the North?
Der Spiegel quoted Lothar de Maizière, the last prime minister of the DDR, and Rainer Eppelmann, the last defense minister of the DDR.
"They always have the same questions. It was the same story today. The [South] Koreans basically don't want unity to cost too much, and I tell them it will cost much more than you can imagine," explained de Maizière.
"I've realized that the South Koreans are trying to figure out a way for the North Koreans to remain in the North after unification. The South Koreans were talking about border controls. I'll be damned! They seriously intend to close the border after the wall has fallen!" exclaimed Eppelmann.
Closing the border to their Northern cousins might poison the well of goodwill for decades to come.
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Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse, by Bruce W. Bennett of the RAND Corporation, spelled out just about every angle on the eventual collapse of the North Korean nightmare. It is a good reference for the realities of an implosion, including potential interventions by the military forces of South Korea, the USA, China, and Russia to invade and take control of the country.
South Korea would have no choice but to intervene in such a scenario, because to do otherwise would result in millions of Koreans starving and/or dying in a civil war.
China would almost certainly intervene militarily, but it would be more concerned about securing WMDs for its own protection. China has no interest in wearing the mantle of the world's policeman.
It is doubtful if China would bring in sufficient food supplies to prevent mass starvation, because it maintains its own archipelago of labor camps. And given China's trafficking of its own children and women, it is likely that many North Korean girls and women would be trafficked into prostitution.
China refuses to discuss the possibility of and/or plan for an implosion because it and the DPRK are "as close as lips and teeth" as Mao used to say, but today we should replace "lips" with the hideously pierced ones of Dennis Rodman.
As we learned in the Korean War, China will not tolerate U.S. forces near its border. As soon as ROK and U.S. forces moved north of the DMZ, China would quickly move with armor to secure as much of the country as it could, similar to how the USA and the UK were racing the Soviets to secure as much territory at the end of WWII. China would not negotiate any dividing line between the opposing forces, since it would want to grab as much territory as it could, so an accidental battle between China and ROK / U.S. forces would be likely, possibly leading to a greater war.
Bennett emphasized the possibility of accidental war with China with two scenarios. In the first, China is in the vicinity of North Korean artillery or missile launching facilities when a rogue North Korean, possibly thinking that he has nothing to lose, launches an attack, perhaps with chemical weapons, against South Korea. The reverse scenario, where that rogue attacks China when surrounded by ROK / U.S. forces, has pretty much the same danger. In either scenario, the attacked country will be forced to respond against the rogue, possibly killing troops in semi-friendly fire.
One factor on which Bennett does not dwell is China's imperialism in the region. China is pushing its borders out as far as it can in all directions for both border security and to safeguard all possible natural resources. Given that North Korea has natural resources China wants, it is unlikely that China will voluntarily relinquish its poor neighbor. China has always considered North Korea to be border security against the West and Japan. China remembers very well that Japan invaded the Korean Peninsula in the late 1800s, officially annexed it in 1910, and then used it as a springboard to invade China in the early 1930s.
And speaking of borders, China has erected miles of barbed-wire fencing along a stretch of river dividing the two countries. It would not be surprising to see permanent machine gun mounts and other Maginot Line border construction installed in order to repel large quantities of refugees. China routinely deports North Koreans in its territory, even though South Korea has repeatedly declared that it will pay for the transportation of all Koreans. If Mao were still alive, he'd probably say that border security grows out of the barrel of a gun.
The factor which most complicates any implosion plans is the expected massacre of prisoners in the six major prison camps. Some North Korean defectors have declared that the guards will eliminate anyone who could testify against them in war crimes trials. These massacres have occurred in the past. In 1987, 5000 prisoners were mowed down with machine guns when they rioted against being tortured in Onsong Concentration Camp (Camp 12). It would be relatively easy for the guards to slaughter the prisoners and then melt away into the countryside.
The generally accepted estimate for the number of prisoners in the largest camp, Hoeryong Concentration Camp (Camp 22), is 50,000. Bennett estimated that the number of guards ranges from 6000-12,000, requiring a battalion or more of soldiers to take control of the camp before the guards could kill the prisoners.
In the 1970 Son Tay raid to rescue 60-70 American POWs being held in North Vietnam, one of the helicopters landed near a barracks. Those raiders killed 100-200 Chinese or Russian advisers as they emerged from a barracks disguised as a secondary school. The only casualty to the raiders was a broken leg caused by a fire extinguisher breaking loose during a hard helicopter landing. If the advisers had been allowed to organize, they would have posed a serious threat to the mission. Unfortunately no prisoners were rescued because they had been moved a short time before. The mission was not a total loss, however, because "the raid so frightened the Vietnamese that they decided to bring all the prisoners to Hanoi," improving their morale.
Another example is the 1944 raid at Cabanatuan on the Philippine island of Luzon where American Rangers rescued around 500 Allied POWs living in conditions similar to the North Korean camps. The raid was depicted in the movie The Great Raid. All prisoners were rescued with only a handful of raiders killed. The POWs were survivors from the Bataan Death March where Japanese troops intentionally reduced the number of Allied POWs through sheer brutality. They were rescued because their Japanese captors had previously demonstrated an eagerness to kill their prisoners rather than release them. Kim Il-sung borrowed his policies from both Mao and the Japanese, so this raid is especially relevant.
The South Korean and U.S. governments know which buildings house guards in the camps, so it would be relatively easy to start the mission with the dropping of smart bombs. In Camp 22 with its 6000-12,000 guards, this would be the only way to prevent the guards from organizing against a relatively small force. Besides, if we have to choose between the lives of political prisoners and brutal guards, the choice is easy. And the risk of not doing this is huge; if the team is out-flanked, they and all prisoners will be killed by the guards post-haste.
This is not to say that guards who immediately throw their weapons to the ground and place their hands behind their heads should be slaughtered. If they surrender, we should take them prisoner. However, this is unlikely to happen. Most of the psychopaths in the country probably volunteered for duty in the camps. Everyone working for the camp commandant, including teachers and cooks, would need to be either killed or arrested, with survivors being thrown into someplace unpleasant to await trial for crimes against humanity.
Given that executions are usually carried out with machine guns, it would be safe to assume that many of them are located in the camps, perhaps in the barracks, in case of a prisoner revolt. This has serious implications for the raiders, i.e. they must not underestimate the willingness of the guards to kill on a large scale. The commandos used for the raid must be ROK troops. If U.S. troops were used, eventually the word would get out that Americans killed Koreans and this might cause a backlash against the new government.
Bennett noted the problem of the camps being surrounded by North Korean troops, especially given that the raiders will be a long way from friendly forces. This could be mitigated by the use of B-52s to carpet bomb any troops approaching the camps, after warning them them that interference will not be allowed.
After we secured the camps, we would not need to worry about China because the situation would already be a fait accompli. Having a military cameraman go live on CNN when Chinese troops arrive would increase the odds of survival.
Another factor is the lunatic nature of the Kim family. Kim Jong-il once declared regarding his reaction to an implosion of the DPRK: "I will be sure to destroy the Earth! What good is this Earth without North Korea?" The check-and-balances he and Kim Il-sung established to maintain their grip on power resulted in a system where their lackeys will kill with wild abandon.
Bennett claimed that we must hold our nose and allow some North Korean leaders to continue to run the country. He stated that we can allow those who were only merely corrupt, as compared to brutal, to assume positions of authority. Nazi, Japanese fascist, and communist leaders did not rise to the top because they were more competent; they rose because they were more ruthless. This is a second cousin of the theory that today's CEO's are worth two orders of magnitude more money than CEOs of a few decades ago. They're not.
The leaders responsible for brutality cannot be allowed to hold any position of authority. They need to be prosecuted for war crimes. We must not pardon them in the manner of General Douglas "dugout Doug" MacArthur, who allowed world-class Japanese torturers from Unit 731 to go free, after being directly responsible for what Australian military historian Gavin Long described as "the greatest [defeat] in the history of American foreign wars" referring to the debacle in the Philippines in late 1941 and early 1942. We cannot allow North Korean leaders to blackmail us into thinking that they are the only ones who know where the bodies are buried and where the looted assets are hidden. Given that the leadership used their secretaries and subordinates to do their work, we can eliminate the middleman and use those subordinates to find what we need.
On the subject of why the DDR imploded without violence, Bennett is mistaken. He stated that the main reason was that the West did not previously demand that all East German leaders be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. That was a factor, but the overriding reason was that Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev announced many times that he was breaking with the past and would not employ machine guns against his people.
As I wrote in Reagan's conquest and other fairy tales, Gorbachev told a Communist Party conference in 1988 that "the imposition of a social system, a way of life, or policies from outside by any means, let alone military force, are dangerous trappings of the past." As soon as people trapped in a totalitarian government realize that they will no longer be shot for dissent, the clock starts ticking. East Germans shouted "Gorby! Gorby!" in 1989 as Gorbachev visited the DDR for its 40th anniversary. He opened the door to implosion because he naively believed that people would choose "socialism with a human face" rather than freedom.
Instead we need to inform middle-level generals that they will be allowed to keep their Mercedes Benz automobiles -- all generals at or above the rank of divisional commander are issued these -- if they will join the revolution. If we can convince a majority of divisional commanders, we will have effectively corralled the army. This is the perfect level for this type of persuasion: powerful enough to stop the violence, probably low enough that they did not issue orders to kill civilians (thought they may have accepted such orders from higher-ups), and privileged enough that they have something to lose if everything goes to hell in a hand-basket.
The groups of people which will need to be subdued as quickly as we can are the various security organizations, mainly the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Military Security Command. Just as we saw with the Nazi Gestapo and Soviet NKVD/KGB, these people are much more ruthless than any military organization and will fight to the death to protect their government.
However, in the aftermath of an assassination of Kim Jong-un, an implosion is not necessarily the logical outcome. Since Kim Jong-un's aunt and uncle, Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek, are probably already pulling many, if not all of the strings, it is almost assured that they would simply officially take over the leadership position. Many DPRK military officers believe that Kim Jong-un is a petulant child incapable of running the DPRK, so they may very well view this as an improvement. Given Jang's level of corruption, however, nothing would change with respect to the starvation of ordinary North Koreans.
The best hope for a relatively peaceful resolution to North Korea would be via an inside job. If military officers who are fed up with the status quo would eliminate Kim Jong-un, Kim Kyong-hui, and Jang Sung-taek, the implosion could be managed. China could be prevented from going a bridge too far by placing Korean tanks at the entrance to the bridges on the border, close enough to block them within a few minutes.
Two birds could be killed with one stone by moving North Korean special forces to the Chinese border: getting them out of the way by giving them something to do and giving China a not-so-subtle hint that interference will not be tolerated. Given that South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks Mandarin, she could personally mention this to the Chinese leadership.
Bennett commented in N. Korea Could Fall Faster Than We Think that "South Korea should make it clear to North Koreans that it is creating stockpiles of food that will be available in the event of a collapse." This is an outstanding idea and one which would be useful regardless of how North Korea implodes.
We should not worry too much over the apparent slavish devotion to their leader. The expressions on the faces of the people dutifully laying flowers and bowing multiple times on the 17th anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung are much the same as we saw in the former Soviet Union. However, just as with Volgograd and Ulyanovsk -- respectively, the site of WWII's turning point and the birthplace of Lenin -- where all good communists were expected to visit at least once during their lives, this sort of public charade will quickly end when the dictatorship implodes.
Originally posted in 2013 and edited in 2015.