Following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test on September 9, the Pentagon sent two of its B-1B bombers last week in a direct rebuke to Pyongyang’s show of force. China, the economic and diplomatic lifeline of North Korea, stressed that “dialogue and consultation is the fundamental way out for the issue of the Korean Peninsula which is complex.” The U.S., Japan and South Korea are also calling for tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.
Pyongyang is already heavily sanctioned, and its economy is also being crippled by the worst flooding since the end of the second World War. The massive floods have wiped out harvests in the impoverished northeast and left thousands of North Koreans in need of urgent assistance. The World Food Program revealed on September 14 they had sent emergency food supplies to 140,000 people in flood-affected areas.
With the latest nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang, threats of further economic sanctions, and historic flooding, North Korea watchers are once again asking—will North Korea fall?
One such watcher of North Korea, the geopolitical crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat, recently conducted an 11-day simulation exploring the ways in which North Korea may collapse. Drawing from the opinions of more than 70 of its analysts, the simulation “gamed out” the various pathways to collapse and the response of major actors in the region.
Close to two-thirds (65%) of the simulation analysts predicted that the fall of the regime would occur five to ten years from now, evenly split between military, economic and political causes. The top three causes suggested by the analysts were: 1) Retaliatory Foreign Military Intervention; 2) Kim Dies of Poor Health; and 3) Internal Coup. While the death of Kim Jong-un ranked high among the causes of North Korea’s fall, most analysts (85%) expected Kim to preside over the country at the time of the fall.
In their simulation, Wikistrat analysts (who predicted the annexation of Crimea by Russia), predict Moscow may have the most to gain from North Korea’s collapse. Japan looks likely to rely on its treaty ally, the U.S., in order to exert any influence over the situation, while South Korea may be militarily prepared to take Pyongyang quickly before China can respond. However, while the simulation deemed unilateral South Korean action possible, the analysts warned such action would be tremendously destabilizing.
Which leaves the potential collapse of North Korea, and the securing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), best left in the hands of Beijing, according to Wikistrat analysts. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, recently echoed this sentiment, arguing that Beijing shares an “important responsibility” for North Korea’s nuclear provocations—and should “use” its influence to defuse the situation.
While Beijing has publicly supported United Nations-led economic sanctions in the past, these sanctions are loosely enforced by Beijing. Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, argued recently, “If China did cut all economic ties and United Nations assistance, will Kim Jong Un truly stop nuclear testing? Nobody in China believes that for a second.”
Indeed, Beijing often allows critical supplies of food and oil to cross the border in times of crisis. The last thing Beijing wants to deal with is a humanitarian crisis emanating from the collapse of its neighbor, which could see 25 million impoverished North Koreans fleeing into an ill-prepared Chinese mainland.
So it is no surprise that the Wikistrat analysts found among Beijing’s objectives the desire to keep the Korean peninsula divided, maintain stability in North Korea (to prevent the U.S. or South Korea intervening), and ensure the North Korean regime remains more or less under Chinese tutelage. Should North Korea fall, Wikistrat analysts argue the U.S. would have little incentive to contest Chinese primacy—provided efforts to secure WMD were done either in cooperation with the U.S. or carried out in such a way that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are convinced the threat has been eliminated.
With Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test in recent days, the delicate balance of power on the Korean peninsula has been upset once again. As the pivotal power in the region, Beijing holds the only remaining cards to influence the outcome. With North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, cooling relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, and inflammatory rhetoric between Washington and Beijing, further analysis, such as done by Wikistrat, should be undertaken, and all concerned powers need to plan for a potential negative outcome.