If North Korea Collapses: What Happens to Its Nightmare Weapons of War?

May 2, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaWeaponsDefense

If North Korea Collapses: What Happens to Its Nightmare Weapons of War?

A North Korean collapse would be a disaster. Consider this: What happens to its nuclear, chemical and possible biological weapons? 

Secondly, finding adequate manpower to execute a WMD elimination mission will prove enormously challenging. In addition to the limitations imposed by the finite number of Nuclear Disablement Teams and technical escort units, the sheer number of potential WMD sites will require an enormous amount of general purpose forces to provide site security, transportation, logistics, communications and other critical capabilities. They will need to stay with technical units throughout the exploitation and site characterization phase as well as to prevent sensitive materials from being diverted (as occurred in 2003 with Iraqi weapons and explosive caches). Since even a small site might require as much as 600 men to provide physical security, and large sites such as the Yongbyon nuclear installation far more than that, the United States could quickly find itself unable to provide the necessary manpower.

Of course, not all sites will require ongoing security. Some may be safely abandoned, while others can be entombed through high-explosive detonation, or simply kept under surveillance through the use of air-breathing overhead reconnaissance assets (although these assets are themselves finite resources). However, the sheer number of sites, combined with real limitations in the number of technical units capable of conducting WMD elimination operations, means that manpower-intensive WMD exploitation operations may create conditions in which American forces find themselves unable to secure, characterize or even locate critical WMD sites of concern. Moreover, the need to expend significant manpower resources and time conducting these operations combined with the bleed off of personnel needed to protect sites of concern, particularly if coalition forces come across large-scale chemical weapons depots north of the DMZ, potentially could impede the movement or even combat the effectiveness of coalition forces while potentially allowing time for the transfer WMD out of theater.

In addition to these very real challenges, there will likely be high-level policy decisions that will have to be addressed during a crisis. Such issues could include: 1) how do allied forces reach high-priority sites in areas beyond their  control; 2) are the United States and its allies willing to make trade-offs between the need to protect the lives of American and coalition forces and the need to secure suspected high-priority sites where nuclear weapons may be stored and which likely will be heavily defended by elite North Korean forces; and 3) since the South Korean Army will constitute the vast majority of ground forces, and therefore will probably secure a number of suspected nuclear sites before American forces arrive, what implications does that hold for the nonproliferation regime, particularly if South Korean units stumble upon North Korean nuclear weapons, technology or design information?

A Rough Road Ahead

While much of the current discussion on unification of the peninsula rightly focuses on challenging political, economic and social tasks, the collapse of North Korea will pose a significant security challenge for the United States, South Korea, Northeast Asia and the international community. A near-term and potentially very significant challenge will be securing Pyongyang’s WMD capabilities. Given uncertainties about the location of a number of critical WMD program elements, the lack of specialists capable of deploying into an unstable and still dangerous WMD environment, the enormity of the operational challenges associated with the elimination mission, and the importance of securing these materials before they are used or proliferated out of theater, a WMD-elimination operation against North Korean assets could prove to be one of the hardest  challenges facing the United States and South Korea. Indeed, the enormity of these tasks and challenges coupled with very significant manpower requirements could prove insurmountable.

Robert Peters, now a Research Fellow at SAIS, joined the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a Research Associate in August 2005. Mr. Peters’ research focuses on WMD rollback policies, WMD elimination, and nuclear attribution. From March-November 2009, Mr. Peters was detailed to the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy as Special Assistant to the DASD for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, where he led the counter-WMD analysis for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Prior to joining National Defense University, Mr. Peters worked as a Technical Analyst for the Northrop Grumman Corp., and as a Research Associate for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, focusing on WMD detection capabilities and nonproliferation policy.

Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in International Security at the University of Maryland, Mr. Peters received an MA from Georgetown University in National Security Studies in 2001, and a BA in Political Science and History from Miami University in 1999. Publications include “China, Democracy, and the Internet” in Information Technology and World Politics; “Promoting Science and Technology to Serve National Security” in Science and Technology Policies for the Anti-Terrorism Era; and “Nuclear U-Turns: Learning from South Korean and Taiwanese Rollback” in Nonproliferation Review.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Army