Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 8:17pm
Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula

Thoughts on Irregular Threats for north Korea Post-Conflict and Post-Collapse:

Understanding Them to Counter Them

by Colonel David S. Maxwell

Download the Full Article: Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula

What is going to happen on the Korean Peninsula? This is the question that plagues policy makers, strategists, and military planners in the Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States (US) and in Northeast Asia (NEA).

If this question can be answered, the next question is: How will the ROK, US and the international community deal with what happens on the Korean Peninsula?

The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the potential outcomes on the Korean Peninsula following either collapse of the Kim Family Regime or following conventional and unconventional conflict with north Korea as well as to examine some of the possible ways to prepare for and deal with those outcomes. While optimistic planners and policy makers hope for a co-called "soft landing" and peaceful reunification of the Peninsula, prudence calls for planning for the worse case scenarios. This contradicts the current focus of the United States on having to "win the wars it is currently fighting" as stated in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). However, the worse case scenarios are, in the author's opinion, at once both the most dangerous and the most likely threats in NEA and they should be considered. Therefore soft landing and peaceful reunification scenarios will not be addressed. (however, the author hopes they would become a reality). This paper is intentionally provocative, yet only focuses on one of the many complexities of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, namely Irregular Warfare.

Download the Full Article: Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula

Colonel David S. Maxwell is a US Army Special Forces officer with extensive experience in Asia to include Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. He is a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies, and the National War College, National Defense University. He is currently a member of the faculty at the National War College. The opinions expressed in this paper are the author's and do not represent National Defense University, Department of Defense or U.S. Government positions.

Note: This paper will appear as a chapter in an upcoming book to be published by the Marine Corps University Foundation, edited by Dr. Bruce Bechtol.

A briefing that accompanies this paper can be found at the following link:

About the Author(s)


Gian, Thanks.

Great question and I did not address it. There are multiple scenarios. First a charismatic leader who will try to exploit the legacy of the regime and the myth of anti-Japanese partisan warfare success for his own personal benefit. But probably not the most dangerous. Second and most likely and most dangerous will be those 2d tier leaders, mostly military, at the corps commander level, who will use their resources and exploit the ideological indoctrination to ensure their own survival and carve out there own "fiefdom" so to speak. In essence they will become de facto warlords. Not only will they have well trained military forces with arms, they will also have access to WMD and if the network of Department 39 continues to function they will be able to possibly get external support. And most dangerous of all they will use the network to potentially barter the weapons they have which of course could mean that bad things might fall into the hands of bad people around the world. And lastly, there will be a segment who will oppose any outside element because they have been taught to resist. This will occur on many levels from outright resistance -organized and unorganized down to low level subversion. This is a potentially complex situation. While I hope to be proven wrong and would be happy to see a peaceful reunification and everyone living happily ever after, I think prudence demands that the ROK and its ally conducting planning AND preparation for the most likely and most dangerous possibilities and those will include some level of conflict - the scale of which is difficult to forecast. But I believe conflict in the form of irregular threats is inevitable after the collapse of the Kim Family Regime or if there is a war, during post conflict after the Kim Family Regime has been destroyed in the war.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 10:03pm


Excellent article. A lot of food for thought in it.

Not a pretty picture to be sure by any stretch.

I may have missed it in the article, but Dave with regard to the North and their resistance to occupation by the South supported by the US, what would the objective of the North's resistance be? I mean would it be to eject the occupiers and rebuild the North Korean state, or instead would it be to simply punish the occupiers for as long as possible?



H. Burns (not verified)

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 10:31pm

MSG Proctor,

very well observed. One of the aspects of the Korean War were massacres of "communists" killing (not only) "christians" and vice versa. Which have left wounds in communities, maybe even liable of breaking open again.
Kind of religious warfare.
Ah, and from my modest experience and knowledge: Even language could become a problem at the time of eventual reunification. Don't underestimate what different language policies during a long time of virtual isolation can do.

r.bryan (not verified)

Tue, 12/14/2010 - 4:37pm

I believe conflict is inevitable here. Can the ROK take the lead with US help? The North is convulsing it seems, once the shooting stops who is going to feed NK's pop? They will be won over with aid, but destroying the North's capabilities will be required.