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Relationship Under Strain

In the current cycle of provocation and escalation, understanding where China really stands on North Korea is not some academic exercise. And in September, it exploded a hydrogen bomb that was 17 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more. In-depth analysis delivered weekly - Subscribe to our newsletter, featuring our editors' top picks from the past week.

Sign in Subscribe. Subscribe Login Sign up. Foreign Policy. As defectors from his country will tell you, he was also a popular anti-Japanese guerrilla leader in the mold of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist tyrant of Albania who led his countrymen in a successful insurgency against the Nazis.

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But he has evolved into a canny operator. Expertly tutored by his father, Kim consolidated power and manipulated the Chinese, the Americans, and the South Koreans into subsidizing him throughout the s. And Kim is hardly impulsive: he has the equivalent of think tanks studying how best to respond to potential attacks from the United States and South Korea—attacks that themselves would be reactions to crises cleverly instigated by the North Korean government in Pyongyang.

And that may be reason to worry: totalitarian regimes close to demise are apt to get panicky and do rash things.


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The weaker North Korea gets, the more dangerous it becomes. The question that should be of greatest concern to the U. On the Korean peninsula, the Cold War has never ended. On the somber, seaweed-toned border dividing the two Koreas, amid the cries of egrets and Manchurian cranes, I observed South Korean soldiers standing frozen in tae kwon do ready positions, their fists clenched and forearms tightened, staring into the faces of their North Korean counterparts.

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Each side picks its tallest, most intimidating soldiers for the task they are still short by American standards. In the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, the South raised a foot flagpole; the North responded with a foot pole, then put a flag on it whose dry weight is pounds. The North then added another story to its building. Army sergeant describes the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. The two sides once held a meeting in Panmunjom that went on for eleven hours. Because there was no formal agreement about when to take a bathroom break, neither side budged.

In other divided countries of the twentieth century—Vietnam, Germany, Yemen—the forces of unity ultimately triumphed. But history suggests that unification does not happen through a calibrated political process in which the interests of all sides are respected. Rather, it tends to happen through a cataclysm of events that, piles of white papers and war-gaming exercises notwithstanding, catches experts by surprise. In , 40 percent of North Korean combat forces were deployed south of Pyongyang near the DMZ; by , more than 70 percent were.

One has merely to observe the Patriot missile batteries, the reinforced concrete hangars, and the blast barriers at the U. Air Force bases at Osan and Kunsan, south of Seoul—which are as heavily fortified as any bases in Iraq—to be aware of this. This helps explain why Korea may be the most dismal place in the world for U. While I traveled on the peninsula, numerous members of the combat-arms community, both air and infantry, told me that they would rather be in Iraq or Afghanistan than in Korea, which constitutes the worst of all military worlds.

Soldiers and airmen often live on a grueling wartime schedule, with constant drills, and yet they also have to put up with the official folderol that is part of all peacetime bases—the saluting and inspections that fall by the wayside in war zones, where the only thing that matters is how well you fight. The weather on the peninsula is lousy, too: the winds charging down from Siberia make the winters unbearably frigid, and the monsoons coming off the Pacific Ocean make the summers hot and humid. The threat from north of the DMZ is formidable. For a harbinger of the kind of chaos that looms on the peninsula consider Albania, which was for some years the most anarchic country in post-Communist Eastern Europe, save for war-torn Yugoslavia.

On a visit to Albania before the Stalinist regime there finally collapsed, I saw vicious gangs of boys as young as eight harassing people.

North Korea is reportedly plagued by the same phenomenon outside of its showcase capital. That may be an indication of what lies ahead. The Chinese, for their part, have nightmare visions of millions of North Korean refugees heading north over the Yalu River into Manchuria. In August, there were reports yet again that Kim Jong Il was preparing an underground nuclear test.

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When North Korea Falls

And the North test fired seven missiles in July. According to U. Whether North Korea has such warheads is not definitively known, but it is widely believed to have in the neighborhood of ten—and the KFR certainly has the materials and technological know-how to build them. So this is likely not an insoluble problem for the KFR. And the stronger Pyongyang appears to be, the better off it is in its crucial dealings with Beijing, which are what really matter to Kim.

President George W. I was in South Korea during the missile firings, and there were few signs of alert on any of the U. Pilots in several fighter squadrons were told not to drink too much on their days off, in case they had to be called in, but that was about the extent of it.

Middle- and upper-middle-level U.

The US and North Korea: a brief history | World Economic Forum

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:. North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mids, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States. It has now gone back to Phase Three. Kim Jong Il learned a powerful lesson by watching the fall of the Ceausescu Family Regime, in Romania: Take utter and complete control of the military.

And so he has. The KFR now rules through the army. There have been only individual defections of North Korean soldiers to the South. Even small, unit-level defections—which would indicate that soldiers are talking to one another and are no longer afraid of exposure by comrades—have not yet occurred. The defector I spoke to—a scout swimmer—told me that while the special-operations forces live well, the extreme poverty of conventional soldiers would make their loyalty to Kim Jong Il in a difficult war questionable. Would they fight to defend the KFR if there were an unforeseen rebellion?

The Romanian example suggests that it depends on the circumstances: when workers revolted in in Brasov, the Romanian military crushed them; when ethnic Hungarians did so two years later in Timisoara, the military deserted the regime. Stephen Bradner, a civilian expert on the region and an adviser to the military in South Korea, has thought a lot about the tactical and operational problems an unraveling North Korean state would present. So has Colonel Maxwell, the chief of staff of U.

Special Operations in South Korea. Maxwell has conducted similar operations before: he was the commander of a U. Army Special Forces battalion that landed on Basilan Island, in the southern Philippines, in early , part of a mission that combined humanitarian assistance with counterinsurgency operations against Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, two terrorist organizations. But the Korean peninsula presents a far vaster and more difficult challenge.

In order to prevent a debacle of the sort that occurred in Iraq—but with potentially deadlier consequences, because of the free-floating WMD—a successful relief operation would require making contacts with KFR generals and various factions of the former North Korean military, who would be vying for control in different regions.

If the generals were not absorbed into the operational command structure of the occupying force, Maxwell says, they might form the basis of an insurgency. The Chinese, who have connections inside the North Korean military, would be best positioned to make these contacts—but the role of U. Army Special Forces in this effort might be substantial. Obviously, the United States could not unilaterally insert troops into a dissolved North Korea. Japan would be kept out though all parties would gladly accept Japanese money for the endeavor.

Between and , Japan brutally occupied not only Korea but parts of China too, and it defeated Russia on land and at sea in the early twentieth century. Driving along the coast, all I saw at South Korean ports were Chinese ships.

Trump Meets Kim Jong Un in DMZ, Becoming First U.S. President to Enter North Korea

It will be truculent in guarding its interests on the Korean peninsula. And Russia does have a historical legacy here: North Korea was originally a Soviet creation and client state. Keeping Russian troops out of Korea would probably be more trouble for the other powers than letting some in. Of course, South Korea would bear the brunt of the economic and social disruption in returning the peninsula to normalcy. No official will say this out loud, but South Korea—along with every other country in the region—has little interest in reunification, unless it were to happen gradually over years or decades.

The best outcome would be a South Korean protectorate in much of the North, officially under an international trusteeship, that would keep the two Koreas functionally separate for a significant period of time. This would allow each country time to prepare for a unified Korean state, without the attendant chaos. But while the U. It would have to lead an unwieldy regional coalition that would need to deploy rapidly in order to stabilize the North and deliver humanitarian assistance.

But what if rather than simply unraveling, the North launched a surprise attack on the South? This is probably less likely to happen now than it was, say, two decades ago, when Kim Il Sung commanded a stronger state and the South Korean armed forces were less mature. But Colonel Maxwell and others are preparing for this possibility. The widespread havoc this would cause would be amplified by North Korean special-operations forces, which would infiltrate the South to sabotage water plants and train and bus terminals. But this strategy would fail. The KFR knows this; thus any such invasion would have to be the act of a regime in the latter phases of disintegration.

And there is no question: the violence would be horrific. Iraq and Afghanistan would look clean by comparison.