North Korea has advanced weapons of mass destruction programs but poor WMD security, and tensions in the region are growing in response to increasing brinkmanship between Pyongyang and Washington. This report identifies the major challenges that the United States, South Korea, and China would encounter in the wake of a North Korean government collapse and recommends establishing a sustained trilateral dialogue to increase cooperation and understanding of North Korea contingency planning among the three countries.

Summary

  • The reality of a North Korea with advanced nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs makes it imperative for US policymakers and experts to intensify their examination of the security and humanitarian implications of regime instability and collapse.
  • In a North Korean regime collapse scenario, the potential use of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and their movement outside of the country would be the paramount concern, especially for the United States.
  • North Korean instability also has the potential to generate a large-scale humanitarian crisis, including millions of refugees pouring into China and South Korea—the Republic of Korea (ROK)—as well as severe starvation, poor health conditions, and human rights abuses within North Korea.
  • Additionally, US-ROK Alliance and China’s forces would face massive stability operations, including conventional disarmament and potentially counterinsurgency.
  • US-ROK Alliance and Chinese forces each have separate contingency plans but the threshold for intervention is unclear. Were these forces to intervene in North Korea without coordination and communication, confrontation and greater conflict are possible.
  • The United States, ROK, and China should establish a sustained trilateral dialogue at the Track 1.5 or Track 2 level that focuses solely on North Korea contingency planning. The goal would be to share views on the implications of regime collapse and discuss ways to coordinate and collaborate to avoid miscommunication, conflict, and negative outcomes.

About the Report

This report identifies the major challenges that the United States, South Korea, and China would encounter in the wake of a North Korean government collapse. Commissioned by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), this report is based on a review of relevant existing literature, discussions during a US-Korea Institute Workshop, “Instability, Insurgency, and WMD in North Korea,” held in March 2017 in Washington DC, and the author’s work on contingency planning at the US Department of Defense. This report will inform potential USIP Track 1.5 dialogues with China on North Korea.

About the Author

Frank Aum is a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, and a former senior adviser for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. From 2011 to 2017, he advised four secretaries of defense and other senior defense leadership on policy issues related to the Korean Peninsula, including US policy toward North Korea, military responses to North Korean provocations, cooperation with China and Japan on Korean Peninsula issues, and contingency planning efforts.

Related Publications

After North Korea Summit, Military Cooperation Can Reduce Tensions

After North Korea Summit, Military Cooperation Can Reduce Tensions

Monday, June 25, 2018

By: Frank Aum; Francis Kim

As U.S. officials build on last week’s summit conference with North Korea, two notable military-related outcomes could facilitate future diplomatic negotiations and help reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They are (1) the cancellation of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and (2) the commitment to resume the recovery of remains of U.S. service personnel from the Korean War.

Peace Processes

What Does the Singapore Summit Mean for South Korea, China and Japan?

What Does the Singapore Summit Mean for South Korea, China and Japan?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

By: Frank Aum; Jennifer Staats ; Ambassador Joseph Yun

The June 12 summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a watershed moment in relations between Washington and Pyongyang. But, the more immediate and profound impact will be felt in East Asia, where North Korea’s nuclear program has threatened regional stability and security. While South Korea, China and Japan have different—sometimes starkly so—interests and positions vis-à-vis North Korea, all three of the Asian powers will be important players in efforts to implement the pledges made in Singapore. USIP’s Ambassador Joseph Yun, Jennifer Staats and Frank Aum discuss the implications for Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Are the Korean Peninsula and the World Safer After Singapore? (Video)

Are the Korean Peninsula and the World Safer After Singapore? (Video)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

By: Frank Aum; Stephen Rademaker

Following the June 12 summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, the U.S. Institute of Peace asked North Korea experts Stephen Rademaker and Frank Aum whether the world is safer because of the summit and what differences—if any—there are between the pledges made in Singapore and previous agreements.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

View All Publications