The absence of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, from the country’s political stage has roused the suspicions of the foreign policy, internet and media communities. Kim may well return to the political spotlight after recovering from some mysterious ailment, and he may not. If he doesn't, and it turns out that there has been some type transfer of power in the country, East Asian anxiety will be piqued by the possibility of the collapse of the anachronistic regime.
Is this a bad thing? Could this just be an additional footnote on the inherent instability of dictatorial regimes and command economies? There was an interesting retort in Foreign Policy this week to the implicit jubilation and hand-wringing of those watching for signs of drama from within the "Hermit Kingdom", but I don’t think it went far enough in developing the gravity of what was being speculated. A dramatic North Korean collapse, according to Peter Hayes, lies within a "2 % per year probability" with a positive outcome hovering at around 1-2% at the peaceful end of the spectrum. The rapid disintegration of the current DPRK regime would provide a real challenge for American grand strategy in this decade and it would raise the stakes of the Asian pivot. Here’s a quick overview of how it might affect American grand strategic thought.
It would be expensive.
Some analysts place the cost of the unification of North and South Korea at $2 Trillion. The estimated costs of building and updating DPRK infrastructure alone (based on figures from the cost of German unification) range between $ 40 to $ 400 Billion dollars. These numbers, of course, don’t take into account the cost of rebuilding after a possible war. This would be enormous burden on South Korea, and by extension, the United States. Even with heavy capital injections by international and multilateral financial institutions, the United States would probably still have to pick up a large part of the cost. The amount of the cost shared with regional actors, particularly China, would be illustrative of how the current administration sees itself as a world power and organizer of international cooperation. An aid and re-construction policy that sought to marginalize China’s involvement may point to an American grand strategy of hegemony.
It would require the type of military commitment that the US is actively trying to avoid.
A collapse of North Korea, especially a sudden and violent one, would probably require the application of American military capabilities beyond air power and targeted drone strikes. At the outset, American Special Forces would be required to secure nuclear weapons and material, as well as chemical and biological weapons. This would probably be part of a larger strategy to secure production facilities and knowledgeable personnel. It would also likely involve a large influx of regular American troops (on top of the 28,000 already stationed in the country) that would work in concert with our South Korean allies to keep the peace and put down any intransigent North Korean regular or Special Forces units. The military would also be responsible for facilitating the amelioration of the resulting humanitarian crises and mass migration problems. For Neo-conservatives, this could be salient justification for the expansion of the military’s capabilities in a post sequester political environment hostile to military spending.
It would force the US to make tough choices about the shape of its wider foreign policy.
US involvement in the stabilization, rebuilding and unification of the Korean peninsula, because of the enormity of the challenge, implied investment of time and regional implications, would denote a task that must be considered in grand strategic terms. A US, aware of its limitations or interested in offshore balancing, would not be able to fully commit its power around the entire globe without acknowledging significant costs, explicit and implicit. An expanded military, with a much larger budget, may be required to maintain a US hegemonic position in a world after a North Korean collapse. In the spirit of Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforths,Reshaping the World Order, it could also be the perfect moment for the United States to work on re-shaping international institutions as well, with the Korean project as legitimating evidence in America’s case for its primacy and status as protector of the public good.
Even without Kim Jong-un, the DPRK could continue under a military dictatorship, or gradually liberalize its economy like China and Vietnam. There is even the possibility of a peaceful unification, with an animated Psy dancing Gangam style (a la Hasselhof) on the 38th parallel. All of these are equally interesting scenarios with intense implications for the people living on the Korean peninsula, within the surrounding states, and US foreign policy.