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Wisdom of the Crowds on a North Korean Collapse



Image result for south korea armed forces day 2017

As part of the 69th anniversary of the Armed Forces Day in South Korea, special army soldiers staged a skills demonstration performance at the 2nd Fleet Parade Ground in Pyeongtaek.  (The National/UAE)

On October 1, China kicked off its celebration of the 68th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic with a giant basket of flowers in Tiananmen Square.  A few days earlier in South Korea, military officials displayed their latest weaponry to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the country’s Armed Forces Day, which normally falls on October 1.  Next door in North Korea, things were quiet, despite predictions by some analysts that Pyongyang would specifically choose to spoil their neighbors’ celebrations with another nuclear test.

North Korea’s latest nuclear test, its sixth, took place on September 3 and was widely considered to be its most powerful yet – around 16 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.  The test quickly caught the attention not only of South Korea and China, but of the U.N. Security Council, which unanimously passed a U.S.-drafted resolution on September 11 to impose new sanctions on North Korea.  

China, a U.N. Security Council member, immediately ordered North Korean companies and Chinese joint ventures with North Korean companies operating in its territory to close down by early January.  China also cut oil exports to North Korea, banned textile trade, and closed some bank accounts in China held by North Koreans, froze others, and banned the opening of new accounts.

Yet despite the ostensibly strong actions taken by Beijing, their national day passed peacefully.  Perhaps Beijing’s large shipment of corn (up 4,586 percent in August from a year earlier) and wheat (up 5,405 percent from a year earlier) to North Korea in August helped saved the day.  For Seoul, their approval of $8 million in aid for North Korean infants and pregnant women (just days after the vote on sanctions) may have also saved their Armed Forces Day from provocation.

The recent humanitarian aid granted by Beijing and Seoul may have saved the October 1 celebrations, but the latest round of economic sanctions is intended to be enforced and squeeze Pyongyang into submission.  Unfortunately, this late in the game, Pyongyang is unwilling to give up or bargain away its security blanket of nuclear capability.  Having ruled out both the capitulation of Pyongyang over its nuclear toys and the likelihood of preemptive strikes and the destruction this could entail, some analysts are predicting the regime will collapse under its own weight.  But what are the chances of collapse and how would it occur?  

The prospects for North Korea’s collapse have been mooted before, including an 11-day simulation conducted this same time last year by Wikistrat, a geopolitical crowdsourced consultancy.  By crowdsourcing information from more than 70 of its analysts, Wikistrat simulated various collapse scenarios and mapped out the expected response of major state actors in the region.

The simulation revealed a majority (65%) of Wikistrat analysts predicted the collapse of North Korea would occur within five to ten years.  The top three causes put forth 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 collapse.

Following a collapse, Wikistrat analysts predicted Moscow may have the most to gain from North Korea’s collapse, with Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, looking to the U.S. for direction.  They also predicted any Chinese action could be preempted by South Korean forces moving rapidly to exert influence, although such unilateral action would be tremendously destabilizing.  As to the securing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the analysts believe these were best left in the hands of Beijing – provided efforts were done either in cooperation with the U.S. or carried out in such a way that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul were convinced the threat had been eliminated.  Indeed, most Wikistrat analysts argued the U.S. would have little incentive to contest Chinese primacy over most aspects of a North Korean collapse.

But collapse is not a foregone conclusion – the Wikistrat simulation noted Beijing’s strong desire to keep the Korean peninsula divided, maintain stability in North Korea (to prevent the U.S. or South Korea from intervening), and ensure the North Korean regime remains more or less under Chinese tutelage.

Recent humanitarian aid from Seoul and Beijing appear to confirm their preference for the status quo over preemptive actions, and may ward off any further launches during Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress starting on October 18.  Yet as North Korea’s leverage grows with each advance of its nuclear program, and if economic sanctions are enforced and enlarged, the ability of Seoul and Beijing to maintain stability on the peninsula will weaken.  Further gaming out of specific outcomes should be undertaken urgently by all concerned powers to consider the worst possible scenarios, and prepare their respective citizens should the inflammatory rhetoric between Washington, Beijing and Pyongyang continue and lead to military action.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666