The tenuously but long divided Korean peninsula poses a problem of huge proportions for the people of North and South Korea.
But the ramifications of what will happen if the North Korean government falls, or if civil war erupts between the North and South affect much of the world, particularly the United States.
Thursday, Angelo State University’s Center for Security Studies hosted a lecture series, featuring three of the nation’s leading scholars on North Korea.
Titled “Preparing for Collapse in North Korea: Challenges and Issues,” the expert panel “explored the varied issues the world will have to face with a collapsing North Korea,” said Bruce Bechtol, a political scientist and Korean Peninsula expert on ASU’s security studies faculty.
In introducing the panel, Bechtol said: “We should all care about this because the North Koreans proliferate weapons of mass destruction to rogue states like Syria.
“They threaten U.S. forces in Asia with missiles and nuclear weapons, and yet the government is so unstable that it could collapse at any time. Because of this, we may see in the near future more U.S. troops deploying to the Korean Peninsula to conduct stabilization operations.”
Seated on the panel were David S. Maxwell, Greg Scarlatoiu and Richard C. Bush III.
Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, who as a retiring Special Forces colonel in 1999 authored the first contingency plan for the fall of North Korea’s government, spoke on the fragile situation of the “unnaturally divided Korean peninsula.”
“The war between North and South Korea has not officially ended,” Maxwell reminded the audience filling one of the largest classrooms in the Rassman building. The armistice signed at the end of the Korean conflict, or “forgotten war,” set the goal or reuniting the north and south peacefully.
Maxwell said that has not happened, nor does it seem like it will.
Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its Center for East Asia Policy Studies, focused his remarks on China, “the elephant in the room.” It is considered an ally of North Korea, but decidedly unpredictable in how it would react in any of three scenarios: collapse of the North Korean government, a North Korea attack on South Korea or, at least possible for another decade or so, the continuation of “muddling through.”
Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, discussed the human rights situation for much of the population of North Korea.
Conditions are more horrible than can be described, Scarlatoiu said. Because of the tyrannical “mafia-like-culture crime family” in power for 60 years, the majority of the population is malnourished, existing in extreme poverty.
“Most likely millions have perished and are near death in the five political concentration camps we know exist in North Korea,” Scarlatoiu said.
But such a population cannot be freed easily. And freed, the people would need extreme medical care, far beyond the basics of food and shelter, which they also don’t have.
In the fallout of a failed North Korean government, Scarlatoiu said coming to the aid of the people would “likely be the greatest humanitarian relief effort of the world.”
Scarlatoiu said: “They can’t go back to their families; their families are most likely dead. They can’t go back to their land; they have no land.”
Is China prepared for an influx of 30 million refugees? Hardly, Bush said.
Potential for war
Maxwell said the best advice would be to “prepare, prepare, prepare,” but with so many variables it’s hard to know how to prepare.
“What must be done is plan for the worst-case scenario. We know reasons for failure in war is failure to learn, failure to adapt and failure to anticipate,” Maxwell said.
“Resistance of North Korea will be far more complicated than with Iraq or Afghanistan. North Korea has a large special operations force in place, a chemical and biological weapons program, delivery systems for those weapons and numerous global networks.”
Maxwell predicts if the North Korean regime collapses, there is a danger Kim Jong Un could make a decision to go to war, and there should also be the assumption China would intervene.
“There is great potential for major powers to go to war,” Maxwell said. “China has not fought a major war in over 30 years, and then did not have overwhelming success.”
Bush added: “A war between the U.S. and China would be the first war between two countries with nuclear weapons.”
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