North Korea watch
Judging by recent developments inside North Korea, however, clinging on to its nukes may not actually help prolong Kim Jong-il’s regime. The country’s unfolding economic catastrophe has clearly taken a toll on the regime’s legitimacy and durability—only the most desperate governments in history have resorted to outright confiscation of its people’s money. Seasoned analysts have also reported rising popular resentment against Pyongyang. Thanks to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and other efforts to weaken Kim Jong-il’s regime, North Korea has failed to blackmail the international community into supplying more economic assistance.
More importantly, the Kim Jong-il regime, which has become a classic family dictatorship, is about to face its most difficult test of survival: succession. Stricken by a stroke not too long ago, Kim Jong-il is in frail health and his hold on power is certain to weaken. He appears desperate to install his 27-year old son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, this process is likely to end in failure. A review of transfers of power in modern family dictatorships (excluding traditional monarchies) shows that the chances of a successful succession from the first-generation dictator to his son are roughly one in four, and no grandson of a first-generation dictator has ever succeeded in taking over a regime and consolidating his power.
As a world renown North Korea expert I know you're all dying for my opinion. Kim's regime is more unstable now than it was during the famine in the 1990's. With Kim ailing and his son too young to be taken seriously as heir, he's in a bad spot. Combine that with at least two other aspirants who probably want The Big Chair as much as he does.
The good professor asks some very pertinent questions:
As a result, many crucial questions remain unanswered. For instance, how should the United States and South Korea react if China sends combat troops into North Korea to conduct ‘humanitarian assistance’ missions?
South Korea would have to pour over the border in numbers to prevent North Korea from becoming another "Special Administrative Zone" like Tibet.
In all likelihood, Beijing will be tempted to do so if millions of refugees start fleeing into China. Which country will take the lead in securing nuclear materials?
Frankly, whomever gets their first. The South Koreans want that stockpile for a whole host of reasons. First because they want them off their doorstep. Second, it's going to be an intel goldmine. The designs are going to be very telling in determining how far along the illicit nuke market is and who's designs are being sold and by whom.
How will China respond to the crossing of the 38th parallel by South Korean and US forces?
They won't be happy. In fact, they'll be at the UN so fast they probably have the speech pre-written. They will likely put air assets in theater to give cover to mech infantry and armored cav units. They may even go so far as to threaten hostilities to defend their "neighbors and close friends".
Who will take the lead in reaching out to Pyongyang’s post-Kim regime?
That depends on whether this is a total collapse or a soft one. If it's a soft collapse where the government is still in place but the borders are simply over-run then China is going to take the lead. They're going to have to because they have to somehow repulse several million refugees or absorb them. The former is not easy and the latter is highly undesirable. It's going to make the collapse of East Germany look like the end of a soccer match. If it's a total collapse, regime elements likely have cash stored abroad for just such an occasion. The rest of them either have to flee or hope they don't find themselves in the dock facing execution.
What will be the collective security architecture after the Korean peninsula is reunified?
Again, that's going to be driven by a few things. The assumption that they're re-unified means that it would be as part of South Korea not some sort of hybrid North/South joint thing. Likewise, it assumes that Chinese have not installed a friendly or even puppet government.
The professor is correct that this sort of discussion needs to take place now to prevent a shooting war later. Obama and Hillary have shown themselves to be bumbling fools at foreign policy and are no doubt clueless as to how dire this situation is going to be if it happens. The best I can hope for is a slow collapse to make for soft landing for everybody.