Academic journal article Military Review

Finding America's Role in a Collapse North Korean State

Academic journal article Military Review

Finding America's Role in a Collapse North Korean State

Article excerpt


IRAQI DICTATOR SADDAM HUSSEIN was an irritant to the United States and defied the international community over his weapons programs for a decade, causing some U.S. leaders to push for removing him and transforming Iraq into a democratic state. Unfortunately, few of those leaders thought seriously about how to accomplish the second half of their aim, thus, we are going on our fifth year in Iraq with no end in sight. One lesson we should learn from this mistake is that we must plan now for stability operations in countries where the risk of regime collapse is greatest.

North Korea has been a U.S. adversary responsible for the deaths of thousands of American service members over the past 55 years, and it is the only country in the world that holds a commissioned U.S. naval vessel hostage. (1) It also possesses stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, has an advanced ballistic missile program, and recently detonated a nuclear weapon. The nations within range of its medium-range missiles include 3 of the world's top 11 economies, combined, the 3 nations contain one-fourth of the world's population (2) and are responsible for nearly one-fifth of the world's trade volume. (3) Today, North Korea faces the very real threats of internal collapse or forced regime change. Either event would create one of the greatest humanitarian crises of modern times overnight. Infectious diseases, severe economic burdens, and even weapons of mass destruction could spread across the borders North Korea shares with some of the world's greatest economic and military powers.


After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Soviet troops occupied the Korean peninsula north of the 38th parallel while American troops occupied the area south of it. The Soviets installed dictator Kim Il-sung in the north and oversaw establishment of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the south, the U.S. installed Princeton-educated Korean exile Rhee Syng-man, who established the Republic of Korea (ROK) and became its first president. After the Americans and the Soviets withdrew nearly all of their forces from Korea in 1950, Kim Il-sung's DPRK invaded the ROK and nearly unified the peninsula by force. An American-led UN intervention averted South Korea's extinction and almost reunified Korea under a democratic government, but China entered the war, producing a stalemate that continues to this day.

During the 55 years since the end of the Korean War, the United States has kept troops in South Korea to maintain the UN-brokered armistice that ended the conflict. Over 36,000 American Soldiers died during the Korean War. (4) North Korea has killed more than 750 others since the signing of the armistice. (5)

In recent years, the North Korean regime has defied the United States and the international community with its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. The U.S. and North Korea nearly went to war over the latter's nuclear program before the countries signed the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was supposed to impose a freeze on the DPRK's nuclear ambitions. (6) North Korean belligerence continued, however. Soon after it signed the Agreed Framework, the DPRK began a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of that agreement, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a 1992 Inter-Korean Denuclearization Agreement. (7) Under the leadership of Kim Il-sung's son, Kim Jong-il, who took over upon his father's death in 1994, the DPRK has continued to expand its missile program. In 1998 it fired a missile through Japanese airspace, and in 2006 it carried out additional tests over the Sea of Japan. Its ultimate act of defiance was an October 2006 nuclear test detonation.

Humanitarian Costs of Defiance

The DPRK's defiance of the international community and expansion of its military capabilities has come at a great human cost. Since the mid-1990s, North Koreans have lived through a series of famines that various scholars estimate have killed between 600,000 and 2. …

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