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CFR Report Warns U.S. Must Prepare for Potential Instability in North Korea

January 28, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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Continuing uncertainties about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and possible succession arrangements “warrant heightened attention and preparation” by U.S. policymakers, says a new Council on Foreign Relations report. “The risks are too great and the stakes too high” for U.S. policymakers “to rely on last-minute improvisation for a peaceful and stable outcome” in nuclear-armed North Korea, says the report sponsored by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA).

In preparing for sudden change, the report recommends that the United States “continue to promote behavioral change within the current regime rather than actively seek to overthrow it unless extreme circumstances dictate otherwise.” But it cautions that: “The United States should not support efforts to prop up the current regime beyond the point at which it has clearly ceased to govern effectively.”

The report also warns against “high-handed U.S. action,” advocating that the United States “defer to South Korean wishes and leadership in the management of change in North Korea,” except if “overriding national interests compel unilateral action.” The report was coauthored by CPA Director Paul B. Stares and Joel S. Wit of the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia University.

The report also stresses that the potential political, economic, security, and humanitarian challenges presented by instability in the Korean Peninsula as a result of sudden change demand U.S. cooperation with the region’s principal powers. “Failure to accommodate [these powers’] national interests… could have profoundly negative consequences for the evolution of Korea, the stability of northeast Asia, and U.S. relations with major allies and other countries in the region,” says the report.

The report, titled Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea, examines three potential succession scenarios, each of which poses its own set of challenges to U.S. policymakers:

1) Managed succession: the current regime, which has ruled North Korea since 1948, maintains power but under new leadership.

2) Contested succession: different factions vie for power in Pyongyang, resulting in regime change and a new policy direction. “How a power struggle would play out and who the eventual winner or winners might be is obviously impossible to predict, but a prolonged, divisive, and potentially even violent succession struggle is not out of the question,” says the report.

3) Failed succession: changes in North Korean leadership produce no clear and effective national leader, fatally weakening the state’s ability to function and leading to its eventual demise. In this scenario, North Korea’s “rapid absorption by South Korea is widely viewed as the inevitable next step.”

Regardless of how succession transpires, the report offers specific policy recommendations on how the United States can improve its ability to manage sudden change in the peninsula. These include:

  • Enhancing U.S. readiness: “The United States should upgrade its ability to discern and comprehend domestic political, economic, and other developments in North Korea.” For example, the report recommends enhancing U.S. intelligence to take advantage of a variety of new sources of information; establishing broader contacts with Pyongyang during ongoing denuclearization negotiations; and reestablishing the working relationship between the U.S. and North Korean militaries to recover the remains of American soldiers missing or killed in action during the Korean War.
  • Promoting allied coordination and preparedness: “The United States should work closely with South Korea and Japan to improve allied coordination and preparedness for contingencies in North Korea… The current joint military planning between the United States and South Korea needs to be augmented with a coordinated political, diplomatic, economic, and legal strategy to tackle the core issues likely to arise.”
  • Fostering regional transparency and capacity-building: “To reduce the risk of misunderstanding and friction in a crisis involving North Korea, the United States should pursue a quiet dialogue with the People’s Republic of China to discuss issues of mutual concern… The aim of such talks would be not only to raise potential concerns and discuss possible responses but also to minimize misunderstandings that might arise and seriously exacerbate a crisis.” The United States also should open discussions with South Korea and Japan, UN agencies, European counterparts, and nongovernmental organizations.

The report concludes: “Improving contingency planning, sharing the results of this planning, improving consultation on the future of the Korean peninsula, and taking concrete steps to build up generic, potentially useful capabilities—though certainly not sufficient in and of themselves to cope with these challenges—will establish a much firmer foundation for the future.”

The report is coauthored by Paul B. Stares, the General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Joel S. Wit, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute, Columbia University, and a Visiting Fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

For full text of the report, visit: www.cfr.org/north_korea_report.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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