The North Korean state may survive for years or may go peacefully. But a violent end, however unlikely, would be very bad indeed. Washington must look beyond the immediate crisis and prepare for the worst.

Even if the immediate Korean crisis eases, the underlying problem of a crippled but dangerous North Korean state will remain. The state, as we know it, may not survive for long. Yet, given its paranoia, the Kim regime can be expected to strike at its enemies if and as it faces oblivion. On top of a possible human apocalypse in the North, the stakes for the United States include the security of South Korea and of US forces there; the control of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; Japan’s security; US standing in East Asia; the intervention of China in Korea; the future of Sino-American relations and prospects for a unified and democratic Korea. In the event of collapse, US interests and obligations would require action by the United States – quite possibly, major use of its armed forces. Although the North Korean state may survive for years or may go peacefully, the possibility of a violent end requires that the United States make serious preparations, which is the point of this essay.

After examining the troubled conditions and troubling conduct of the North Korean state, the essay describes missions US military forces could be asked to perform if those conditions and that conduct go from bad to worse, or worst. It then explains what capabilities could be needed to perform such missions, taking into account both South Korean and Chinese capabilities and possible moves. The essay concludes by suggesting steps the United States should take to be well prepared. The most important of these are to maintain adequate ground forces in the US military and to draw China into planning for crises in Korea. The first of these is within US control, of course, though it calls into question conventional wisdom that US naval and air forces would largely suffice for East Asian military contingencies. The second step would introduce a major new American ‘ask’ in Sino-American relations, with no assurance of a positive Chinese response.

Korean conditions and contingencies

Although the crisis that began with North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 might not result in a violent climax, it has exposed a hard reality: Korea is now the most dangerous security challenge facing the United States. This is not because of the risk of a North Korean invasion of South Korea, although a Northern attack on the South cannot be excluded. The operational capabilities of North Korea’s conventional military forces have been declining for some time, an inexorable result of a general decay of its industrial and human capital.

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David C. Gompert is a Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the United States Naval Academy. He was Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence in the first Obama administration, and has served as a senior official in several prior administrations and as a senior business executive.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June–July 2013

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