Preparing for North Korea's inevitable collapse

Crimes against humanity generally cost a regime its legitimacy, if not its sovereignty. And yet most national security professionals would regard the collapse of the North Korean slave state as a calamity. The reason for this is simple: all the nuclear weapons and material. A 2015 study from the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimated North Korea possessed 10 to 16 nuclear weapons, and will possess 20 to 100 such weapons by 2020. This says nothing of the highly enriched nuclear fuel the state has produced or the mobile rockets and longer-range missiles to launch the warheads.

Trying to secure all this after a chaotic collapse or overthrow of the Kim regime would be a nightmare. General Raymond Thomas, who heads U.S. Special Operations Command, called a regime collapse in North Korea a “worst case scenario,” at a conference hosted last week by the Institute for the Study of War. “In the event of the implosion of the region, we’d have the loose nuke dilemma on an industrial scale,” the general said, describing it as a “vertical track meet between the Chinese and the South Koreans in terms of securing the nukes.”

In this sense, North Korea’s nukes are the Kim family’s insurance policy. Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. and the international community have been willing to extend the life of the regime in exchange for (ultimately broken) promises about its reactors and enrichment facilities. And while the U.S. has also placed sanctions on North Korea at times, in the end the goal of U.S. policy has been regime preservation.