Speculation on the eventuality of a North Korean government collapse has fueled analysts and policy makers for years. From the famine and economic crisis in the 1990s to recent political purges within the Kim Jong-un government, the potential for collapse always seems to be around the corner. Regardless of how changes take place on the peninsula, North Korea’s entrenched security structures, humanitarian complexities and depleted infrastructure will induce significant instability challenges for regional actors. As calls to support unification and prepare for contingency of an unexpected collapse continue, it is an opportune time for U.S. forces, located on the Korean peninsula, to help the ROK (Republic of Korea) military prepare for stabilization and humanitarian relief efforts.
U.S. forces should leverage their operational experience from recent military campaigns and its unique relationship within the ROK-U.S. Alliance to provide capacity building and security assistance in stability operations, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration and humanitarian assistance. Strengthening capacity and coordination now will propel ROK military planning from a demand-driven response to an informed, supply-led posture in confronting anticipated instability challenges.
The ROK military has roughly 500,000 active-duty troops and can activate hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers. This additional manpower forms Stabilization units that mobilize in support of the active duty troops and homeland defense. However, ROK Stabilization units consist mostly of reservists with limited combat and stability training with which to manage and mitigate against potential drivers of instability. To effectively plan and prepare for instability, U.S. forces should establish training opportunities in which both ROK reservists and active-duty military attend in either peacetime or in conflict conditions to exercise the skills and training needed.
An annual stability operations training for reservists would focus on further developing infantry and artillery skills to enhance their capability in managing combat threats while stabilizing an area. In addition, building expertise and specialty skills in critical stability tasks such as medical training, water and sanitation, and disaster relief would mitigate capability gaps and build a stronger cadre of forces dedicated to stabilization efforts. By using the personnel and facilities already available in South Korea, U.S. forces can utilize and expand integrated training camps, simulations and tabletop exercises for ROK units to develop and build response strategies and capabilities.
Another opportunity U.S. forces should consider is developing a rapid deployment academy for mobilized stabilization divisions preparing to engage in a collapse or conflict environment. U.S. forces could add on to the ROK units’ predeployment training to encourage a greater emphasis on stability operations and civil affairs, building off the U.S. operational experience from recent campaigns. This military-to-military engagement gives the U.S. forces on the peninsula a significant training opportunity to build the capacity of their ROK counterparts.
A critical area of U.S. security assistance will likely be assisting ROK-led efforts in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of NK forces. In a conflict scenario, NK generals and military elite will be the primary actors to establish control or encourage factional fighting, influencing the potential for insurgency or resistance. Co-opting NK military leaders and security forces not only thwarts a potential driver of insurgency, but also indicates to the rest of the population a willingness by elites to participate in demobilization. The ROK-U.S. Alliance should work to develop a standards-based methodology and doctrine for DDR activities to ensure a successfully coordinated program across military and civilian sectors. The U.S. can assist their ROK counterparts to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that meet established objectives and end-states in disarming or demobilizing North Korea’s military. U.S. forces can assist in building disarmament facilities and weapons caches to disarm the NK security forces, and work with ROK forces to secure political prisoners and elites in accordance with joint and combined doctrinal procedures. The United States can also support the ROK government in establishing incentives and amnesty programs for former combatants and the professional community of scientists, doctors and engineers to encourage participation in demobilization and reintegration.
In addition, U.S. forces can provide liaison teams and partnering units to support the ROK military conduct key stabilization tasks, such as engineering and short-term infrastructure repair. U.S. security assistance can provide expertise to ROK engineer units to prepare for route clearance and construction missions, and set the conditions for critical infrastructure repair, such as roads, bridges and power distribution centers. A major initial operation for the ROK government will involve restoring fuel and electricity services and distributing power generation systems to population centers. U.S. engineer units should partner with ROK units now to plan effectively and to build the capabilities to execute such initial repair efforts.
ROK forces must also be prepared to provide humanitarian assistance and emergency relief. The U.S. can assist by providing advisory support to build capacity in disaster relief delivery and crisis planning. The U.S. should encourage the ROK government and private sector to build greater stockpiles of portable water, medical supplies, food rations and temporary shelters that the military can reach upon for immediate distribution. In addition, the Korean Integrated Humanitarian Coordination Cell (KIHAC), established to coordinate humanitarian relief activities, should be better integrated with the ROK military and interagency to ensure a synchronized response. U.S. forces can utilize its Civil-Military Operational Cell (CMOC) security assessment and planning capabilities to influence KIHAC integration with government and nongovernmental organizations.
Additionally, U.S. forces will be crucial in enabling international humanitarian agencies to enter affected areas and in providing protection for aid operations. Located miles from the Military Demarcation Line, U.S. forces are able to mobilize immediately to stage and support humanitarian relief operations. They maintain the airlift and aerial reconnaissance capabilities to quickly assess affected areas and to provide immediate, large-scale delivery of supplies. Similar to the military’s plans and models for receiving and integrating troops and equipment, U.S. forces should use their logistics and sustainment hubs to facilitate and secure the delivery and transport of humanitarian aid to ROK military posts. Taking advantage of U.S. staging points and movement networks allows for a more effective and efficient supply distribution and forward movement of international aid agencies.
The Korean peninsula is a ripe environment for U.S. forces to support preparation for instability challenges. Its strategic position and enduring relationship with the South Korean military and government provides opportunities to advise, train and assist the ROK military. While speculation will continue on how collapse or unification scenarios may take place, the recommendations and planning considerations here can strengthen the capacity of the ROK military and offer solutions to more effectively employ U.S. forces against future needs.
Priya Sethi is a civilian defense consultant, currently working in Seoul, South Korea as a U.S. Army planner.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0