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Maxwell on North Korean Regime Collapse and Irregular Conflict

Colonel David Maxwell, who has probably forgotten more about North Korea than I ever knew in the first place, has an insightful analytical piece up at SWJ Blog:

Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula

….This paper is written with the concepts of “military misfortune” in mind. In Eliot Cohen and John Gooch’s seminal work on military failures, they determined that militaries are generally unsuccessful for three reasons: the failure to

learn, the failure to adapt, and the failure to anticipate. This paper will recommend that the ROK-US alliance learn from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, adapt Irregular Warfare concepts to the security challenges on the Korean Peninsula and anticipate the collapse of the Kim Family Regime and the complex, irregular threats that collapse will bring.

The conventional wisdom would postulate that the worse case situation would be an attack by the north Korean military because surely the devastation and widespread humanitarian suffering as well as global economic impact would be on a scale that would far exceed any crisis that has occurred since the end of World War II. While that could very well be the case, there is little doubt about the military outcome of an attack by the north on the South and its allies and that would be the destruction of the north Korean People’s Army and the Kim Family Regime. Victory will surely be in the South’s favor; however, this paper will argue that the real worse case scenario comes from dealing with the aftermath; either post-regime collapse or post-conflict.

Maxwell’s operative assumptions are particularly good. I especially like:

….The fifth and final assumption is that while some planning has taken place to deal with north Korean instability and the effects of Kim Family Regime collapse, there has been insufficient preparation for collapse. Furthermore, in addition to planning for collapse, actiocan and should be taken prior to collapse in order to mitigate the conditions and deal with the effects of collapse of the Kim Family Regime. Unfortunately, despite some planning efforts tocounter specific irregular threats, the ROK, and the US in particular, has been distracted by the very real and dangerous threat of north Korean nuclear weapons and delivery capabilitiesproliferation of same while at the same time ensuring deterrence of an attack by the north. Deterrence is paramount and the nuclear problem is a critical international problem; however, successful deterrence over time will likely result in the eventual collapse of the regime and the associated security and humanitarian crises that it will bring.

In other words, not only are US and ROK policy makers not preparing for the most probable second and third order effects of a North Korean collapse scenario, but the status quo on the Korean penninsula represents a wicked problem that is essentially a trajectory toward a worst case scenario collapse.

10 Responses to “Maxwell on North Korean Regime Collapse and Irregular Conflict”

  1. onparkstreet Says:

    This seems to be a theme in American foreign policy currently and it may be due to the collapsing of the old Cold War arrangements and strategies that we have relied on in the past.
    The Soviet Union dissolves. What comes after? Then what?
    We invade Iraq, dispatch the regime quickly, and then what?
    We remove the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then what?
    And so on and so on. I have no answer but the "then what" seems to be an issue. It may be because that is a much tougher problem, or it may be that our institutions are not set up to deal with "then what?"
    – Madhu
    (Interesting point about not being able to post with a Droid phone. I have to say, this may be the oldster in me, but I’m not such a fan of reading things on my Droid.
    Yeah, it’s definitely the oldster in me.)

  2. onparkstreet Says:

    Looking at the free apps, thought, and there is an Iliad app.
    – Madhu

  3. Mercdutio Says:

    If H. John Poole is correct, then the North Korean army is not the pushover that this article suggests.  According to Poole, in direct small unit combat, the North Korean soldier is vastly superior to his American counterpart.   They are also masters of tunnel warfare, and are even equipped at the sort of combat which Hezbollah deployed so effectively against Israel in the recent Lebanon conflict.

    On top of which,  North Korea does have nukes.

    Accordingly, the best solution – distasteful as it may be – would be bribery.  The Kim should be bought off with guaranteed immunity, a fat Swiss bank account, and a fancy retirement to the Riviera.  This is hardly justice, but the alternative uncontrolled implosion of North Korea would be much worse.

  4. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Gooch and Cohen had a sort of fourth category Military Misfortune: catastrophe. This is when all of the first three types of failure "the failure to learn, the failure to adapt, and the failure to anticipate" happen at the same time. The example they gave was the fall of France in 1940.

  5. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I don’t know if the individual NORK soldier is better than his American or ROK counterpart at small-unit combat at this point. NORK soldiers are much smaller and less robust than the NORKs of even 15 years ago. Of course if American and ROK soldiers have to wage man on man combat, something has gone terribly wrong. If we are waging something close the (possibly chimerical) American Way of War, artillery should kill most of them before you get close to the NORK soldier. However, we’re probably not waging something close to the American Way of War. The use of an atom bomb by the DPRK is a curious question. I don’t know if they can deliver it on a missile at this point. A more plausible scenario might be burying an atom bomb along the major avenues of advance into the North and then detonating them in the midst of an advancing UN formation like a giant mine.

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    I have long feared that North Korea would the invasion of Japan in 1945-46 that never happened.  You have a bunch of people dug into holes, stocked with ammo, indoctrinated to fight, and spread over a large country that has been preparing for exactly this scenario for sixty years. 

    I don’t see how the invasion and occupation of NK is not massively worse than the occupation of Iraq, where we faced an extemporized and ad hoc resistance.   Everything about Korea is worse: terrain, preparation and training, commitment of resistance, prepared positions, stockpiled weapons.  NK is Okinowa 2.0. 

    I see no rosy scenarios there.  It will be an epic mess.   Toss in the prospect of some atomic land mines (Joseph Fouche’s suggestion) and it just gets worse and worse. 

  7. Mercdutio Says:

    Of course if American and ROK soldiers have to wage man on man combat, something has gone terribly wrong.

    Given the experience of the past 10 years, who could possibly imagine anything going wrong?

    NK is Okinowa 2.0. 

    If we follow H. John Poole, it would be more precisely Iwo Jima 2.0.

  8. Joseph Fouche Says:

    One distinction between Iraq and North Korea is the presence of South Korea. This provides a large pool of native speakers who are already integrated with American forces. The burden of pacification and reconstruction would fall on South Korea, a prospect that they greet with little enthusiasm. You’d probably also have to have ROK forces approach the Yalu rather than American forces since I doubt the Chinese would appreciate even the short-term prospects of American troops 500 miles from their capital.

  9. J. Scott Says:

    Some good quotes lifted from an excellent article…for me this was the linchpin: "…with sufficient cultural expertise to understand the problems in the region and allow for effective plans and policies to be developed that are informed by cultural awareness and understanding…. An investment should be made in developing younger “north Korea-hands” to be ready to deal with the aftermath of the Kim Family Regime. A competent staff and organization of experts cannot be created rapidly after the crisis occurs. A ROK-US “north Korean- hands” program should be established immediately to develop the expertise that will be required among ROK and US military and civilian security practitioners before the crisis occurs. These north Korean Hands need to be from across the professional spectrum and assist in the development of policy and strategy as well as the development of the campaign plan to deal with collapse." We have enormous number of Korean American professional stateside who would probably jump at the chance to make a difference. Cultural fluency is the key, imho; and you either have it or you don’t and when you don’t it hurts. Excellent post.

  10. Phil Ridderhof Says:

    As I commented over at SWJ, I think we may be assuming a lot in our alignment with the ROK and our (the US) actual influence on what will occur in the case of a North Korean occupation, whether in a post-conflict scenario or internal collapse (although those two scenarios will likely drive very different situations).     The argument can be made that the ROK will see actions on newly occupied Northern territory as an internal matter (a unified Korea), and not an international problem. While China might accept a unified Korea, it’s doubtful they would do so if it meant US troops in the north.    It’s hard to make predictions, but I think we need focus more on influencing how the ROK plans to handle the problem, rather than how we think we need to deal with the North Koreans—that is very different from the directive approaches we’ve been able to take in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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