Managing Instability on the Korean Peninsula

RealClear World (December 20, 2011)

View original publication

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il gives rise to an urgent security issue in U.S.-China relations. Peace and stability in Northeast Asia now depend in large part on the ability of Washington, Seoul, and Beijing to diplomatically manage this crisis and prevent it from triggering a military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

It is not at all clear, at this point, whether a relatively smooth leadership transition or a collapse of the regime in North Korea will occur. Kim Jong-il had been grooming his 27-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, to become the country’s future leader. There have also been reports that a “military council” would take over and manage the government (perhaps using Kim Jong-un as a figurehead) because of the son’s inexperience and comparative youth.

Despite North Korea’s planning for a leadership succession, some analysts believe a power struggle and the resulting fragmentation of the regime may well take place, now that Kim Jong-il is no longer able to assert control.

In recent years, the U.S. and South Korea have made contingency plans to move troops north of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas in the event of a collapse in North Korea’s regime. Preventing a humanitarian disaster in the north has usually been the main justification for the planned intervention. The prospect of “loose nukes” – Pyongyang’s lack of control over its small stock of nuclear weapons – is another rationale that Pentagon planners have often cited.

In South Korea, alongside the concern over instability in North Korea, persists the long-time desire of a hawkish faction to use Kim Jong-il’s death to bring about near-term Korean reunification under South Korea’s control. While a majority of the South Korean public fears instability on the Korean peninsula more than it desires immediate reunification, hawks remain influential in the national debate. It is not yet apparent whether South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak will side with the hawks in his party or take a more patient, long-term perspective.

Of all the outside countries, China most deeply fears the collapse of North Korea‘s regime. Chaos in North Korea could precipitate massive and destabilizing refugee flows to China’s northeast provinces, where many ethnic Koreans now live. Most significantly, from Beijing’s standpoint, collapse could lead to the loss of North Korea as a buffer that provides China with “strategic depth.”

China’s nightmare scenario is the presence of South Korean troops operating with strong American military support on the country’s current border with North Korea. With their awareness of this acute Chinese sensitivity, Pentagon planners have long considered it likely that Beijing would send its troops at least 40 kilometers into North Korea, along the full length of the border, in the event of serious instability – before South Korean or American forces could reach the region.

China’s fear of American and South Korean intervention has undoubtedly been heightened by the series of aggressive military measures the Obama administration initiated at the time of the president’s trip to Asia in early November.

Among these measures were the deployment of 2,500 marines to northern Australia, strengthening the U.S.-Philippine military alliance to resist China’s territorial claims in the South China sea, endorsement of the Pentagon’s “Air Sea Battle” concept that foresees joint Navy and Air Force long-range strikes inside China and likely deployment of the Navy’s ultra-modern Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. Taken together, Chinese commentators have viewed the Obama administration initiatives as evidence of America’s intention to encircle and contain China.

Now is the time to prove wrong the skeptics and pessimists in Beijing who argue that the U.S has recently adopted a “Cold War posture” to counter China. Washington and Seoul should seek new and in-depth diplomatic discussions with Beijing on preventing instability in North Korea – discussions which China has avoided in the past for fear of offending Kim Jong-il when he was alive.

Close cooperation by Seoul and Washington with Beijing to prevent instability in North Korea is the best means of realizing three critical policy goals – bringing about a more benign regime in Pyongyang; preventing proliferation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, materiel and technologies; and laying the long-term basis for eventual Korean reunification. As importantly, this cooperation will eliminate the possibility that the U.S.,South Korea and China could be drawn into a new military conflict on the Korean peninsula, which would prove disastrous for all the countries concerned.


Donald Gross served as senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State and counselor of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Clinton administration.  He is author of “The China Fallacy:  Security, Economy and Politics in U.S.-China Relations” (Bloomsbury) forthcoming in 2012.