Security Studies Program Seminar
The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements
Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College
February 16, 2011
- This study was coauthored with Bruce W. Bennett, Senior Defense Analyst at the RAND Corporation.
- We are focused on a specific question: What are the military requirements on the ground if North Korea collapses?
- Why worry about this now? North Korea has strong authoritarian tools to maintain domestic stability. But with succession on the radar screen, it is a time when something could go wrong. And even if the chances of collapse are low, the potential consequences are high. We need to start preparing for these consequences now.
- We make a key assumption upfront about the nature of the North Korean collapse. We assume that there will not be widespread armed resistance from North Korean forces, or a major struggle for the leadership of the country, or WMD use. Instead, we assume a benign implosion of the North Korean state — no one is sure who is in power but no one is trying to take power; the elites are fleeing the country; and the military self-demobilizes as in Iraq.
- Another important caveat: We are not trying to estimate how many American forces are needed for these missions — only estimating how many soldiers are needed in general.
- There are four potential problems after North Korean collapse that military intervention would seek to solve: (1) Loose nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, (2) a humanitarian disaster, (3) flows of refugees, and (4) insurgency. Hence there would be four military missions:
- Locate, seize, and secure WMD.
- Conduct stability operations to avoid humanitarian disaster.
- Secure the borders of the state to stem refugee flows.
- Deploy a rapid reaction force to deter insurgency, or to counter insurgency in the event that it arises.
- What would be required for the stability operation (the largest mission of the four)?
- The problem: collapse of provision of public services; starvation, disease, anarchy, and criminality.
- Military objectives: Secure lines of communication; distribute food and medicine (avoiding banditry, as occurred in Somalia); provide public security (since North Korea’s police are notoriously corrupt).
- Types of forces required: Light infantry; military police; psychological operations/civil affairs; civilian police.
- For estimating the force requirements of this mission, we used the metric of 13 soldiers per 1,000 local inhabitants (based on studies by John McGrath, U.S. Army, and James Quinlivan, RAND Corporation). Since the North Korean population is 24 million, this yields an estimated force requirement of 312,000.
- We also thought about a sequenced stability operation rather than a simultaneous one — dividing North Korea into five tiers and proceeding northward from the South Korean border. The force requirement in this case would be about 180,000 troops. But the tiered operation might not be ideal; the territory next to the Chinese border would get stabilized last. That is not a good outcome if we are worried about Chinese intervention on the peninsula.
- What would be required for the counter-WMD operation?
- The problem: Potential dispersal of North Korean WMD (fissile material, toxic chemicals, pathogens, assembled bombs, and scientific personnel). This mission is the most important from the U.S. standpoint, but also the most difficult.
- Military objectives: It is probably not feasible just to insert soldiers into WMD facilities and grab the weapons. These facilities are numerous, large, and well-defended (they are North Korea’s most important military asset), and they are generally located in the north of the country. Alternatively, we envision a mission with four simultaneous components.
- (1) Monitor and intercept vessels leaving North Korean waters; monitor aircraft and overland traffic as well.
- (2) Surveil known WMD sites and watch for looting.
- (3) Secure the highest-priority WMD targets (where friendly forces have established control), essentially by conducting raids against defended facilities.
- (4) Conduct a sequenced, methodical sweep through known facilities and facilities named by cooperating North Korean military personnel.
- We estimate 50 raids will be necessary. Past raids (Son Tay, Entebbe, Iran, the capture of Aidid) have required 100-200 soldiers. So we assumed 2 companies (200 soldiers) per raid, for a total of 10,000 soldiers.
- This force requirement assumes simultaneous raids; if targets can be prioritized or sequenced, the requirements will be fewer.
- What would be required for the other two missions?
- Border control: 28,000 soldiers (based on the metric of 17 guards per kilometer, as well as study of the U.S.-Mexico border and the Vietnam War).
- Disarmament: 49,000 soldiers (based the metric of 35 soldiers per 1,000 combatants, the ratio used during UN operations in Cambodia).
- Insurgency deterrence/combat: 7,000-10,500 soldiers (a rapid reaction force of 2-3 brigades throughout the country).
- Total force requirements: 267,000-409,500 (the low estimates are based on 180,000 troops tasked to stability, 3,000 troops tasked to counter-WMD, and 7,000 troops tasked to insurgency deterrence/combat). And these are with the benign assumptions about the basic nature of the North Korean collapse. If this turned out to be more than a typical peacekeeping operation, you might need 20 soldiers per 1,000 population instead of 13 for the stability piece.
- Other issues have not been addressed here.
- The composition of the stability forces: Where will these people come from? We believe it makes the most sense for the South Koreans to provide the bulk of this force. They will at least have more legitimacy than Americans, Chinese, or Japanese.
- Does there need to be an institutional mandate, i.e. from the UN Security Council?
- Other medium/long-term challenges associated with North Korean collapse:
- Infrastructure: How will we repair and build new roads, etc.?
- Re-education: How will we deal with a populous that grew up in isolated North Korea?
- Demobilization: What will we ultimately do with the military?
- Political integration: How will we unite the North and the South?
- This is a vast and complex mission that should be planned early and jointly. (We have tried to talk about contingencies for North Korean collapse with the Chinese, but it has not really gone anywhere.) The potential consequences of a poorly planned response are calamitous; we do not want a repeat of November 1950.
Q. Does the South Korean army have any history of participating in UN peacekeeping operations, or any institutional memory of such operations?
A. South Korea has participated in various peacekeeping missions, and was the fourth-largest contributor to Operation Iraqi Freedom. They do not prioritize peacekeeping sufficiently in their training, though. Meanwhile, although the U.S. and South Korea have started training more since Kim Jong Il’s 2008 stroke, there has been little coordination with the Chinese.
Q. What is the size of the South Korean army? Is there enough logistical capability in the army to support a durable presence north of the border?
A. Right now South Korea has 545,000 ground troops. The government is thinking of cutting that number to 450,000 by 2020, which based on our estimates would not be adequate for this type of operation. Logistically, we should assume that if you need anything in North Korea, you should bring it with you. The roads are in bad shape, particularly around the WMD facilities.
Q. What if the U.S. ignored the stability, border control, and insurgency components of your plan, and just launched an operation to secure the WMD sites — our primary interest? Seemingly the U.S. has the wherewithal to do that.
A. Our initial intuition, that WMD site raids alone would be sufficient for that mission, was soundly rejected by the U.S. military; it conjured images of Black Hawk Down. To do the counter-WMD mission on its own would require more soldiers in the field for force protection, but then the mission would become less mobile.
Q. Would the border security mission not be simplified by the fact that there are land mines all along North Korea’s southern border?
A. The DMZ would be formidable for refugees moving to the south, but they could cross at the fordable Han River Estuary, depending on the time of year. Also, if we did a tiered stability operation (the 180,000-troop option), the border would essentially move, and the true border would no longer be land-mined. This suggests another virtue of the simultaneous stability operation (the 312,000-troop option).
Q. What is the Chinese interest in these missions?
A. The U.S., South Korea, and China all share an interest in not having this level of instability. But there are areas where our interests diverge. When I talk to the Chinese about this scenario, the idea of American or South Korean forces entering North Korea constitutes an invasion. Meanwhile, when I talk to the U.S. Department of Defense, the notion of Chinese participation in these operations is completely unacceptable. But maybe it would be useful for us to have the Chinese exert control over their own border.
Q. Do the words “stability operations” really coincide with this “benign scenario”? Your scenario includes the idea that we need to replace the entire police force.
A. We do not know if the police will show up for work or not. And do we really want them to? They have been informing on citizens in their districts; there will be no local trust in their authority. Over time they can be brought back into government, but for this short-term scenario we are arguing that they need to be replaced.
Q. You are talking about peacekeeping, but the tiered form of the stability operation is structured to look like an invasion (sweeping up from the south). I am not sure that is the way Quinlivan meant his numbers to work — I think he was thinking more of peacekeeping in an urban environment. Could the stability operation be structured so as not to look like an invasion, but instead as a grab for urban centers that look like they will be the most troublesome?
A. That is the way the simultaneous stability operation would likely go. But a simultaneous operation is logistically difficult and probably unlikely. Looking at the tiered operation, there are also drawbacks. So maybe we should combine the two operations by setting up simultaneous aid distribution in major cities, while slowly working our way northward through the countryside.
Q. North Korea is a very difficult intelligence target. How confident can we be in the population numbers and the other metrics on which your analysis is based?
A. Population data are fairly good, because international institutions have been involved in aid distribution on the ground. The World Health Organization gives data on health and malnutrition. Satellite imagery is also helpful. But it is important to note that we know almost nothing about the beliefs and perceptions of the North Korean people — whether, for example, they would welcome or resist foreign troops.
Rapporteur: Nathan Black
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2011