Robert D. Kaplan on the Collapse of North Korea
Atlantic Monthly just opened its vaults (HT to Coming Anarchy) and while perusing the Robert Kaplan section, I came across this article on Kaplan’s predictions for North Korea’s future. It was written in October 2006, just prior to the North’s nuclear test. Here are some of the notable moments from the article. Be sure and read it in its entirety.
Kaplan’s thesis is that North Korea is more afraid of China than it is the US:
He [Kim Jong Il] knows the Chinese have always had a greater interest in North Korea’s geography—with its additional outlets to the sea close to Russia—than they have in the long-term survival of his regime.
Kaplan also posits seven stages of regime collapse in North Korea:
Fortunately, the demise of North Korea is more likely to be drawn out. Robert Collins, a retired Army master sergeant and now a civilian area expert for the American military in South Korea, outlined for me seven phases of collapse in the North:
Phase One: resource depletion;
Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;
Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;
Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;
Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;
Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and
Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.
Kaplan feels that after the collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime, it will be China that has the most to gain:
China harbors thousands of North Korean defectors that it would send back after a collapse, in order to build a favorable political base for China’s gradual economic takeover of the Tumen River region—the northeast Asian river valley where China, Russia, and North Korea intersect, with good port facilities on the Pacific. De facto control of a future Tumen Prosperity Sphere would bolster China’s fiscal strength, helping it to do economic battle with the United States and Japan
Should reunification occur, Kaplan warns that a fragile Korea might became a source of conflict between Japan and China, as both countries have historically had designs on Korea’s territory. Thus, he believes that a US presence in a reunited Korea is invaluable to forestalling any future conflict. Ideally, Beijing would want to create an independent buffer state in the North, ruled by pro-Beijing loyalists.
It should be pointed out that Kaplan did make one major factual error:
American soldiers in Korea refer to the fighting on the peninsula between 1950 and 1953 as “the first Korean War.” The implicit assumption is that there will be a second.
Technically, there was a low intensity Second Korean War. See this Wikipedia article for more details.