Seoul Must Prepare for Regime Collapse in N.Korea

      September 10, 2009 12:52

      The U.S. Defense Department is said to be seriously considering the inclusion of a regime collapse scenario for North Korea in the Quadrennial Defense Report to be delivered to Congress early next year. The QDR preparation team, led by Defense Under Secretary Michèle Flournoy, is studying how the U.S. should deal with 11 different scenarios, including loss of control by the Pakistani government over its nuclear weapons arsenal and a military confrontation between Taiwan and China. The fact that the possibility of regime collapse in North Korea is being studied under the QDR, a blueprint for defense policy, signals that the prospect of sudden changes in the North has become part of the U.S. government's official agenda.

      This year, the U.S. government has been putting the same amount of focus on how to deal with sudden changes in North Korea as it does on the North's nuclear weapons and missile programs. During her first trip to South Korea in February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern about the succession to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. "If there is a succession, even if it's a peaceful succession, that creates more uncertainty, and it may also encourage behaviors that are even more provocative," she said. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg proposed talks with Chinese officials to discuss how to deal with the succession in North Korea. Beijing is said to have rejected Washington's offer due to fears of agitating Pyongyang.

      But China is not neglecting the issue. Quite the opposite: it has been steadily increasing troops along the border. It could use them either to intervene directly when North Korea undergoes sudden change or to take the issue to the UN and block South Korean efforts to unify with the North. Japan has also quietly been preparing for some time to deal with a crisis in North Korea.

      The U.S., China, Japan and other powers now have no choice but to treat an emergency situation in North Korea as a major consideration. Kim, who had disappeared from public eye for almost two months last year due to a stroke, is now attending official events again, but nobody can say with certainty for how long the 67-year-old leader will wield absolute power.

      South Korea would face a national emergency if something happened to Kim, causing North Korea to spiral into chaos and its nuclear weapons and missiles fall into the hands of opportunists. The U.S., which believes its national security depends on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, will be on high alert. Unexpected changes in North Korea are like landmines buried under the political situation in Northeast Asia and could affect the lives of 75 million Koreans on both sides of the border.

      But we are unprepared. A draft operational plan prepared by South Korea and the U.S. for sudden changes happening in North Korea was downgraded by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which was afraid of incensing North Korea. But whether we like it or not, regional superpowers have already begun preparing for sudden changes in North Korea. If the regime should collapse, we would not be able to use that opportunity for our benefit and end up entrusting our fate once again to the hands of other countries.

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