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News | Sept. 1, 2011

Korean Futures: Challenges to U.S. Diplomacy of North Korean Regime Collapse

By Ferial Ara Saeed and James J. Przystup Strategic Perspectives 7


Executive Summary

There is no shortage of plausible scenarios describing North Korean regime collapse or how the United States and North Korea’s neighbors might respond to such a challenge. Yet comparatively little attention has been paid to the strategic considerations that may shape the responses of the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, China, and Russia to a North Korean crisis. These states are most likely to take action of some kind in the event the North Korean regime collapses. For the ROK (South Korea), North Korean regime collapse presents the opportunity for Korean reunification. For the other states, the outcome in North Korea will affect their influence on the peninsula and their relative weight in Asia. This study identifies the interests and objectives of these principal state actors with respect to the Korean Peninsula. Applying their interests and objectives to a generic scenario of North Korean regime collapse, the study considers possible policies that the principal state actors might use to cope with such a crisis.

The goal of this study is to motivate policymakers to consider how the United States would respond to regime collapse, not to identify the most plausible scenario. It is the precrisis planning process that is necessary in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the issues, choices, and priorities that will challenge U.S. diplomacy in the event of North Korean regime collapse. In particular, Washington must plan for the likelihood that while the United States and South Korea will seek to be the primary actors in a crisis induced by North Korean regime collapse, the actions of China and North Korea will profoundly influence U.S. decisions and room to maneuver. The United States will also need to gain the cooperation of Japan and Russia, as well as the support of the United Nations, to achieve politically acceptable outcomes.

Regime collapse in North Korea is unlikely, especially in view of China’s interest in preserving North Korea as a viable government and state. If it were to take place, however, North Korean regime collapse could fundamentally alter the strategic landscape in Asia, potentially in ways that would diminish U.S. influence in the region. Reduced American influence would constitute a serious, adverse turn of events for the United States. Asia is home to rising powers with which Washington must cooperate to set the global agenda in the 21st century. Continued American ability to shape the Asian strategic landscape will constitute a measure of U.S. power in the future and will be fundamental to achieving global stability, security, and prosperity.

The findings of this study highlight the complexities and dilemmas the United States would confront in a North Korean regime collapse crisis. First and foremost, the study emphasizes that regime collapse does not mean state collapse, at least not in the short run. China will seek to keep regime collapse from becoming state collapse—the end of the North Korean state. The international community also will not endorse ending the North Korean state without the support of a North Korean majority. In fact, North Korean cooperation will be more critical to the achievement of U.S. and ROK goals than has been previously appreciated.

Second, China will be in the most powerful position to act because it will likely be the first state in the region to become aware of a regime collapse crisis, having the best “eyes and ears” inside North Korea through its extensive commercial and diplomatic presence as well as pervasive party-to-party and military-to-military ties. China also will be the least conflicted among states in the region in its priorities, unlike the United States and South Korea. Without a guarantee that a unified Korea or a North Korea free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would be politically inclined toward China, Beijing will not support ROK and U.S. intervention aimed at reunification or WMD elimination. In seeking to constrain U.S. and ROK actions on the peninsula, China may find an ally in Russia. At the same time, Russia is likely to use the crisis to try to expand its influence in the region at China’s expense.

Third, in this complicated environment of clashing interests and competing priorities, there is great potential for serious damage to U.S.-China relations, and misunderstandings and unmet expectations could create long-term problems for U.S. alliances with the ROK and Japan.

Washington will need to make momentous and difficult decisions: whether to intervene in North Korea and under what auspices and for what ends; and when to introduce the North Korea issue into the United Nations Security Council, to name a few. While making these difficult decisions, the United States will simultaneously be undertaking sensitive diplomatic and political tasks: taking steps to avoid creating an adversarial relationship with China while deterring Beijing from intervening militarily in North Korea, and possibly seeking congressional support for outcomes Washington judges to be less than ideal. Failure to gain strong bipartisan support for U.S. policy could undermine diplomacy with the ROK, China, Russia, Japan, and North Korea.

The realism and skill of U.S. diplomacy in the face of a North Korean regime collapse could determine the future of U.S. leadership in Asia and, in any event, will affect any resultant reshuffling of the strategic landscape in that region. It therefore is essential that Washington consider today how best to position the U.S. Government to respond intelligently to what could be the most serious challenge America has faced in Asia since the Vietnam War.