Support our mission

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — Nearly half a million troops drawn from South Korean, U.S. and other allied forces might be needed to cope with a collapse of North Korea if its military was to respond by mounting an insurgency against foreign forces, according to a report issued by the private Council on Foreign Relations.

Countering such an insurgency would likely take a force of 460,000 troops — more than three times the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, said the report, "Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea." The Council, founded in 1921, is a New York-based private think tank.

Its report, released last week, outlines an array of prospective problems if the process of changing leaders in the totalitarian North went awry and the state collapsed.

With no clear successor to paramount leader Kim Jong Il, "instability and even regime change" could ensue should he die suddenly or become incapacitated, the report said. Kim has reportedly been in poor health recently.

"The country’s cult-like political system, its relative geographical and political isolation, the absence of any real civil society, and repressive state control all clearly reduce the impetus and opportunities for change from below," it said.

"As numerous cases from around the world attest, totalitarian states — despite outward signs of strength — are remarkably brittle when stressed by internal forces."

The report said a collapse could spawn a huge exodus of refugees, food scarcity, threats from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, a counterinsurgency, as well as the high potential for tensions to rise among various concerned nations, especially China and the United States.

The report cautions the United States to avoid actions that might cause China to feel threatened, especially by putting U.S. troops near its border. And it warns against "repeating the mistakes made in Iraq" by alienating scientists and technicians who might otherwise provide key information about weapons of mass destruction.

Spokesmen at U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea’s Ministry of Defense had no immediate comment on the report Friday.

To help secure and stabilize North Korea in the wake of collapse, the report says between 115,000 and 230,000 troops would be needed, and possibly tens of thousands of police. But if former elements of the North’s vast military were to wage an insurgency against foreign forces, the size of the force needed to counter them would "escalate dramatically," according to the report.

The report said the U.S. role would "almost certainly not include" having a significant number of ground troops remain in the North, but would instead be to give logistical and other support.

But U.S. forces could be expected to play a key role in finding and seizing weapons of mass destruction and related materials "before any leakage occurs beyond [North Korea’s] borders," the report said. The stockpiles include an "estimated six to eight nuclear weapons" as well as chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles, the report said.

"Although American forces would not likely become directly involved in daily security operations, they could provide vital assistance in the form of transportation services, command, control, communications and intelligence infrastructure, the distribution of humanitarian supplies, and the repatriation of refugees," the report said.

A particular risk lies in an alarmed China, the report warns.

"The prospect of North Korea being absorbed by South Korea and U.S. forces potentially being deployed near China’s northeastern border are matters of acute concern" for China, the report said. "The same fears helped trigger China’s entry into the Korean War."

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up