As North Korea's Dear Leader celebrates his 69th birthday, it's worth asking what plans the United States has for Pyongyang once he's gone. Turns out, Washington doesn't have much.
In North Korea, where death is far more certain than taxes, Kim Jong Il's eventual departure from this world carries secular consequences. As the ailing dictator celebrates his 69th birthday (or 68th, his age is disputed) -- Feb. 16 is one of the country's two biggest national festivals -- the ghosts of the famine years are once again descending upon his impoverished nation, only this time with noise. For the first time, reports of ordinary North Koreans boldly showing discontent at authorities in different localities are seeping through. Frustrated at the regime's redoubled crackdown on private wealth and market activity, and haunted by the collective memory of mass starvation in the mid-1990s, men, women, peddlers, traders, and even Korean War veterans -- who are among the favored class -- have been protesting on the streets.
The regime may very well continue to maintain control over the population through the distribution of extra grain, ideological indoctrination, manufactured scapegoats -- and of course, brute force. But the end of Kim Jong Il's regime, one way or another, is inevitable. Although Kim's exit will certainly be cause to celebrate, it won't inevitably lead to a happy result; in fact, it could usher in a period of instability that triggers a regime collapse culminating in the unification of the two Koreas, a possibility that will require far more U.S. involvement than President Barack Obama and his advisors may realize.
Most casual observers understand that the differences between North and South Korea are vast. The Kim family regime's attempts at securing an immortal legacy and executing its own brand of economic policy have created a nation of oppressed people surviving in extremis -- a system in which cruel and unusual deaths are often the grim punctuation mark to a life of grinding poverty and "tax-free" bondage to the state. In contrast, beyond North Korea's southern border lies a free and affluent Korea, one that claims sovereignty over the entire peninsula and to which millions of Northerners would move if given the choice. By its mere existence, Seoul poses an omnipresent existential threat to Pyongyang.
What's less commonly known is that the United States has done little to prepare for life after Kim Jong Il. It's true that U.S. and South Korean officials have been quietly discussing a contingency plan for a drastic change in North Korea, dubbed OPLAN 5029 by the Pentagon. But beyond short-term emergency response measures such as securing the North's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, maintaining public safety, controlling borders, and providing humanitarian aid to displaced North Koreans, making plans for dealing with an alternative post-Kim Korea over the long term is critical to protecting U.S. strategic interests in that vital region of the world. In view of America's political, economic, and human investment in South Korea and Northeast Asia over the past 65 years, it is also a moral imperative.
A power vacuum in Pyongyang will require the immediate dispatch of South Korean and U.S. troops. Next will come other regional powers -- Chinese peacekeeping forces securing the northern areas, followed by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force transporting people and supplies along the Korean coastlines. In the short term, a multiparty international presence north of the 38th parallel under the nominal banner of the United Nations will enforce order and provide aid. But even when the dust from the flurry of human activity and balance-of-power politics settles, the task will not be done.
En route to Tokyo in 1945 to embark on the occupation of Japan, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur laid out his goals for Japan to his aide, Maj. Gen. Courtney Whitney: "First destroy the military power, then build up representative government, enfranchise women, free political prisoners, liberate farmers, establish free labor, destroy monopolies, abolish police repression, liberate the press, liberalize education, and decentralize political power." The transformation of North Korea will require nothing less.
But unlike Japan, a developed and highly bureaucratized society in 1945, albeit one scarred by war and warped by militarism, North Korea will need a complete reinvention. The South Korean government will naturally take the lead in the political reorganization of the North, building an interim representative assembly that will eventually be incorporated into a single pan-Korean national assembly in Seoul. But reorienting North Korean society and culture toward a lifestyle marked by individual freedom and capitalism will take decades and require the sustained help of various international organizations and financial institutions. That means continued U.S. commitment to Korea and U.S. leadership in maintaining stability in the region, even in the face of mounting domestic and international pressure to withdraw or redeploy U.S. troops.
Over the past century, the Korean Peninsula has undergone two fundamental geopolitical shifts. From 1905 to 1910, Japan, after displacing Russia from the contest for control over Korea by war, imposed a protectorate status over the Korean monarchy in 1905 and absorbed the entire Korean Peninsula as its colony in 1910. Then, in 1945, Korea was partitioned and became engulfed in war five years later.
In both cases, action or inaction by U.S. leaders was a key driver: In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew the U.S. legation from Korea, which he considered an uncivilized and marginal backwater, and, in 1949, President Harry Truman's secretary of state and right-hand man on foreign policy, Dean Acheson, was so consumed by events in Europe that he allowed the U.S. Army to withdraw in the face of North Korean provocations. The power vacuums that invited aggression in these two periods stand in stark contrast to the firm U.S. presence in South Korea since 1953, which has kept the peace over the past 60 years. Only a continued U.S. commitment to maintain the peace in unified Korea can ensure stability in a region where geopolitical forces have clashed repeatedly throughout history.
Pyongyang's frozen, father-son leadership over the past six decades has made the prospect of real change in North Korea seem improbable, if not inconceivable. But the country's dire economic conditions, coupled with the inherent political risks of a second communist hereditary succession and the ever-looming alternative in neighboring South Korea, makes Pyongyang an exceptionally well-qualified candidate for regime collapse. It's time to start thinking the unthinkable.