Security Studies Program Seminar

 The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements

Jennifer Lind
Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

February 16, 2011



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