By Mark Wachtler
September 1, 2014. North Korea. (ONN) NATO and the alliance of former Warsaw Pact countries that still support the Eastern Block have been clashing in hot spots across the globe. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to Southeast Asia and even the Arctic, the Cold War has evolved into a carefully controlled shooting war with the West and East fighting mostly via proxy states and militias. But a North Korean state collapse, which has been predicted by many sources, could instantly become ground zero in a global conflict.
This spot could be a 3-way front line in a war over North Korea. Image owner unknown.
Of all the regions of the world listed above where military conflict is occurring between NATO and former Warsaw Pact forces, there is one spot that is ominously missing - East Asia. And while Western experts and Korean dissidents have long predicted the collapse of the North Korean military monarchy, reports have been sneaking out of the closed-off nation give indications something big may be on the verge of happening.
Collapse of North Korea
Many experts have suggested that the West is responsible for prolonging North Korea’s slow death with its half-century-long policy of trading humanitarian aid for peace. Not only does the country led by Kim Jong Un possess dozens of nuclear bombs, along with long-range missiles to deliver them, the North Koreans are known to have an active biological weapons program and an estimated 5,000 tons of chemical weapons.
A quick internet search of the phrase ‘North Korea collapse’ reveals that this false alarm has been sounded countless times over the past decade. More and more though, it seems a very real possibility. A 2013 report from the Rand Corporation, one of the Pentagon’s top strategists and forecasters warns, ‘These preparations need to address North Korean attitudes toward unification, providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea, demobilizing the North Korean military and security services, handling potential Chinese intervention in a collapse, and other key issues.’
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The report goes on to warn the US military that it is woefully unprepared for the collapse of North Korea. They point to similar past experiences that also caught the West by surprise like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Rand strategists warn that the unpreparedness of both the US and South Korea could result in a larger regional or world war.
‘North Korea is a failing state,’ the report warns, ‘Its government could collapse in the coming months or years, causing an immense humanitarian disaster and potentially other, even more serious consequences. This report assumes that the Republic of Korea (ROK) would decide to intervene in such a crisis with US assistance and seek Korean unification. Neither the ROK nor the United States is adequately prepared for such an intervention. Inadequately prepared, the ROK and the United States could suffer many serious consequences, including a failed or aborted intervention, a destabilization of the region, and possibly broader warfare.’
Conflicts happening already
It’s not difficult to imagine what would happen immediately following the collapse of the North Korean government. Observers unanimously agree that the first sign of the fall of the Kim dynasty would be a military coup to take total control of the government. What happens after that may depend on the three powerful militaries that border North Korea - Russia, China and South Korea. The Rand report assumes that South Korea and the United States would quickly move to unify the two Koreas and bring the new nation fully into the Western alliance.
But recent news reports leaked out of North Korea suggest both the Russians, and especially the Chinese, would have something to say about that. Both countries are currently on an obsessive mission to expand their respective borders, territories and spheres of influence. A unified Korea would not only be an economic powerhouse, but a military powerhouse as well. And both Russia and China would most-likely be unwilling to tolerate a US military presence literally on their borders.
The most recent report comes from the publication The Week roughly ten days ago. The headline proclaimed, ‘North Korea reportedly moves Tanks to Chinese Border over Betrayal fears’. While the article concedes that the news comes from a single source and is nearly impossible to verify, it also reiterates more well known recent tensions between the two nuclear powers over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. China has long demanded its ally end its nuclear program, to no avail.
Two years ago, Breitbart.com reported that China alerted South Korea and the US that any fall of the North Korean regime would result in China’s intervention. The intelligence suggested that a Korean unification was out of the question and that the Chinese would either intervene to set up a puppet government taking direct orders from Beijing or it would invade North Korea to insure the South Koreans and Americans didn’t invade first. In a concession to the West, the report says China has no interest in annexing any part of the Korean Peninsula, but instead would attempt to maintain the current status quo.
US blind intervention
One of the most forceful warnings in the report from the Rand Corporation is that both the United States and South Korea are completely unprepared for the collapse of North Korea. The analysts warn, ‘A North Korean collapse may well provide the very best chances for unification. For a ROK and US intervention to succeed in achieving unification, substantial preparations are required beforehand. While unification has been the alliance’s strategic guidance, the planning and preparation for unification appear to have been inadequate thus far.’
The report goes on to explain, ‘The most immediate consequences of a North Korean government collapse will occur in North Korea. The division of the North into factions would likely precipitate civil war, as at least some of the factions will seek primacy and eventual control of all of North Korea. And none of the factions are likely to have the resources, such as food, needed for survival throughout the area that they control.’
The analysts forecast that immediately upon a North Korean government collapse, people would begin starving and millions could die. The apocalyptic humanitarian disaster would all but require foreign humanitarian intervention. The two most likely countries to respond are China and South Korea. As the report reminds us, there is still a war raging on the border of North and South Korea with nothing more than an ongoing cease fire keeping the peace.
With that setting, the strategy experts at Rand warn that all humanitarian aid convoys, flights or ships would be accompanied by a large military escorts. The intervening countries - China coming from the north and the US and South Korea coming from the south - would not only have each other’s militaries to deal with, but the million-man North Korean army as well. Based on decades of experience, the North Korean military would regard both assistance missions as military invasions and would respond unpredictably, possibly with nuclear weapons.
‘The large size of the North Korean military would require that both interventions be led by military forces, seeking to reestablish security and provide humanitarian aid that is not immediately stolen from the people,’ the report forecasts, ‘The forces of both sides would have significant incentives to advance rapidly into the North, leading to a risk of accidental combat between them. In the zeal of the moment, the inevitable accidents could escalate into major combat between the ROK and US forces and the Chinese forces, one of the worst possible outcomes.’
One of the ‘significant incentives’ for China and the US to invade North Korea militarily are the country’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The report concludes that China already assumes that the first thing the US and South Korea will want to do in the event of a North Korean collapse is secure the fallen regime’s WMD arsenal to prevent rogue military commanders from using them on South Korea or on advancing US forces.
Recommendations for peace
Therefore, the analysts warn, the Chinese military most likely already has a plan of action for that scenario which includes Chinese forces beating US and South Korean forces to the North’s WMD sites. Whoever gets there first will probably control the country, or at least those regions. And once Chinese and South Korean troops occupy North Korea, the report warns, neither side will be willing to leave short of all out war.
That’s why the final recommendation from Rand to the US government is to negotiate now with China, hopefully toward a reunification of Korea, but at the very least a plan to rapidly take control of North Korea’s WMD’s rather than a dangerous and blind sprint to the sites that may lead to a catastrophic military confrontation that neither side wants.
For more information, read the full Rand report.