Small Wars Journal

The Case for a Different Approach to Confronting North Korea

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 7:57pm

The Case for a Different Approach to Confronting North Korea

By Shawn P. Creamer


It has been more than two years since the United States and North Korea deescalated major tensions over the operationalization of the North Korean nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.  While direct leader-to-leader dialogue can prove extremely valuable when diplomacy stalls over key issues, in the case of the United States – North Korea rapprochement, the sides are just too far apart on the subject of denuclearization.  North Korea under Kim Jong Un will never voluntarily give up or trade away its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. 

The United States has a history, after a brief period of disapproval, of accepting nations into the nuclear club.  The case against such a situation occurring with a nuclear-armed North Korea, is that the Kim family dominance of the North Korean state makes it a fundamentally different situation than other breakout nations such as France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan.  Hyper-aggression and extreme violence, domestically and regionally makes the specter of a nuclear-armed North Korea down right forbidding to peace and stability in Northeast Asia. 

So, ultimately the United States – North Korea rapprochement will fail, as we are now witnessing it fracture considerably over the last few weeks.  In time, North Korea will reopen its tried and true toolbox of violence and aggression, but now armed with a reliable nuclear weapons arsenal and a delivery system of an intercontinental range.  The current United States President or one of his successors may one day be forced to face down a far more dangerous Kim Jong Un and North Korea.  Should that day come, the United States needs a different plan than those previously tried for how to address American national security interests, one that limits the danger of strategic weapons use, nor defaults to hostilities, forceful subjugation, and occupation by the United States.  This paper offers insights on North Korea and its Kim family regime, a discussion of past approaches and their risks, and proposes an alternative path for America’s leadership to consider.   


Since the end of the Korean War, the United States has encountered only bad and worse options when it comes to dealing with North Korea and its aggressive, violent behavior.  For decades risk was contained regionally, with no direct threat to the American Homeland or to its vital national interests.  During much of the Cold War the United States had more pressing problems to address, namely the strategic competition with the Soviet Union, its multi-decade involvement in Indo-China, and more recently repetitive, small wars in Southwest Asia.  In the post-Cold War era the United States deferred, hoping for and ultimately basing its policy on a soft collapse to provide the answer to its North Korea problem.  Absent a full-scale attempt by North Korea to conquer its southern neighbor, subjugating North Korea was not viewed as worth the expenditure of American blood and treasure. 

While North Korea’s decision-making calculus and view of the world is foreign to the majority of the international community, their leaders are remarkably astute in their dealings with the outside world.  Since 1953, North Korea has shrewdly operated inside the trade-space of American power - precarious to confront, high cost to clean up, little to offer post-facto to the national interest, and at risk to becoming an expanded conflict.  North Korea’s bombastic threats to escalate military action to the level of total war has convinced every President since Eisenhower to conclude that direct confrontation with North Korea was to be avoided. 

For decades North Korea had little operational or strategic reach beyond their immediate borders.  However, by at least 1992 it was obvious that North Korea was heartily pursuing nuclear weapons and a beyond region delivery capability.  Five American Presidents have watched North Korea’s quest to change calculations of power vis-a-vis the outside world.  All five underestimated North Korean determination and capability to master the complex task of developing an intercontinental capable nuclear arsenal. 

There is little, if any road left for the United States and the international community to kick the proverbial North Korea can down.  For North Korea either already has, or in the very short future will possess a reliable capability to directly threaten the American Homeland with their nuclear weapon arsenal.  The inflection point in their efforts has already been breached, with adverse ramifications for American power and world stability in the balance.    

Should the United States elect or be forced to confront the threat posed by North Korea, it is incumbent to discard past approaches and old responses.  They either never worked or stopped having any semblance of effectiveness long ago.  Moreover, previous assumptions of what constituted acceptable risk when dealing with North Korea would need to be reexamined, so that new and previously discarded approaches can be studied and pursued based on their merits, along with sober calculations of the risks and rewards.    

The Strategic Problem

At the end of the day the four most discussed options for confronting North Korea – a negotiated solution, a freeze, accept-contain-deter, and military strikes – all are inherently problematic and harmful to the national interests of the United States.

First and foremost, diplomacy is unlikely to resolve this strategic impasse as neither the United States nor North Korea possesses the domestic political trade-space to compromise.  The core positions of both parties are just too far apart.  Furthermore, many authorities on North Korea view diplomacy as a quixotic pursuit that has no chance of yielding a meaningful compromise. 

Moreover, such diplomatic options, even if they did yield some type of negotiated solution, are without merit for actually offering a solution the United States could rationally live with.  The simple, cold fact is North Korea has repeatedly and blatantly demonstrated that it will not abide to terms it subscribes to.  It is just not in their nature to bind themselves to such western notions of legally binding, contractual relationships.[1]  In addition to the lack of American trust when dealing with the North Koreans, they likewise do not trust the United States, believing America to be deceitful and not one to keep its word.[2] 

The only virtue to diplomacy at this and some future stage is that it might demonstrate to the world that America really tried to peacefully reach a negotiated solution with North Korea.  Although this particular feature is comforting, it does not address the United States’ national interest.  For by choosing diplomacy, the United States Government is defaulting to acceptance of a North Korean intercontinental nuclear arsenal and everything that will come with it. 

Secondly, the 2017-2018 Chinese freeze proposal, was sadly, just too late.  The window for a negotiated freeze solution probably passed 3-5 years earlier, for by 2018 North Korea had already achieved the majority of their nuclear weapons program benchmarks.  Moreover, a freeze flies in the face of countless United Nations Security Council Resolutions, demonstrating the international body to be a forum of empty talk and great power paralysis, leaving in place a bona fide regional, if not fully operational intercontinental nuclear weapons capability. 

Furthermore, the cost to gain North Korean concurrence to freeze their program would be exceedingly high, bordering on caving into extortion.  Even if one assumes a freeze deal could be reached, what compliance mechanisms are realistically possible to verify that work has actually stopped?  A negotiated freeze arrangement only rewards North Korea for flagrant deceit, and giving the regime time and space, in addition to significant financial rewards, to overtly and covertly cheat, even as the ink is drying.  Regrettably, the Chinese freeze proposal, if attempted now or in the future, would be a preamble to an eventual implementation of an Accept-Contain-Deter policy. 

Third, by choosing to not deal with the North Korean nuclear weapons program and defaulting to a mistaken belief in the viability of an Accept-Contain-Deter policy only defers the problem for a future Administration to ultimately address.  Containment and Deterrence worked in the Cold War.  Rebranding this strategy to address the unique circumstances of North Korea has not worked out as hoped.  Continued pursuit of a failed policy will not change the results observed to date.  A future serious crisis with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, should it occur, would be serious business for the United States and its future as an Indo-Pacific power, requiring rigorous analysis, not superficial comparisons to past experiences.  Three major points need to be made for decision-makers to consider with respect to soberly examining Accept-Contain-Deter:

1) North Korea is not the Soviet Union or China, nor does the recent India or Pakistan inclusion into the nuclear club provide a close rationale to assert that deterrence and containment will work.  Proponents fail to understand Kim Jong Un, the North Korean state, or its long-term strategy to decouple the United States and South Korea, get the United States military off the Korean Peninsula, coerce American non-involvement in inter-Korean affairs, and bring about Korean reunification on its terms.[3]  

2) American decision-making and options available will evolve over time.  While deterrence is and will be a moving target, North Korean numbers and capabilities matter.  The challenges the United States must overcome to protect the Homeland only become more difficult as the months and years tick by.  Efforts by the United States to protect itself and its allies from North Korean capabilities, will drive corresponding capabilities in both China and Russia, generating a strategic weapon and counter-measure arms race.   

3) Moreover, defaulting to this policy through inaction only sets in motion the collapse of nuclear arms control regimes, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), just as we’ve seen the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty evaporate before our eyes.[4]  The NPT is already under significant strain, and we are at risk for losing control of what is left of the gains that were made in the last two and a half decades of the Cold War.  Unless action is taken by the United States and the other great powers to address the North Korean nuclear weapons breakout on other than North Korean terms, it is probable that within a decade the world could see additional nuclear armed nations.[5]  The dark fears of a limitless multipolar nuclear armed world which drove the creation of these treaties will likely be the new reality.    

Last, but not least, reactive or preemptive military strike options, are more problematic than advocates fully appreciate.  Believers in one-time or limited strikes typically operate on one of two misplaced assumptions.  The first being that the core of the North Korean strategic weapons capability (warheads, ballistic missiles, and production facilities) can be destroyed in one period of darkness; and second, that by firmly demonstrating American resolve, North Korea will come to its senses and compromise.  A military option to address the impasse and to resolve the ongoing crisis with North Korea will probably become the defining military campaign affecting world order since the Second World War.  Decision-makers should not delude themselves into believing there are quick or low-cost solutions to disarming North Korea of its nuclear weapons arsenal.  Ten key elements on the efficacy of the military option and the adversary should be clearly understood by decision-makers, and those offering advice:   

1) Champions of the strategic strike have continually over-promised and under-delivered.

2) Military options without South Korea fully on board incurs prohibitive political and military costs to the viability of whether such an operation can be successful.         

3) A decision to conduct a military strike of the size and scope required to neutralize the North Korean nuclear arsenal is unlikely to be carried out in secret. 

4) North Korea will not stand idly by as America prepares to execute a military strike, for the United States does not have a monopoly on preemption.    

5) North Korea has other capabilities beyond its strategic weapons that provide it strategic options, giving them unique leverage in a contest of wills up the escalation ladder that the United States does not. 

6) For North Korea, fighting the United States is an existential fight, and their decision-making calculus of what constitutes legitimate weapons or targets in war is markedly different to those held by the majority of the international community.[6] 

7) North Korean decision-making calculus likely includes the underlying assumption that America will be unable to mobilize its people to bear a costly war on the Korean Peninsula.[7]    

8) The United States has little chance of gaining any veneer of international legitimacy within the United Nations framework for initiating a military action to disarm North Korea due to continued fallout from the 2003 Iraq invasion.      

9) America’s strategic adversaries will actively work to make a military conflict with North Korea as costly as possible for us, and likely would risk intervention to ensure we are delivered an incomplete victory. 

10) There is a troubling lack of discourse or analytical rigor to understanding the substantial downstream economic costs to a major conflict with North Korea, nor are there adequate military mechanisms which can mitigate the damage to the region or the world economy. 

Policy makers are being dishonest with themselves if they believe North Korea can be denuclearized with Kim Jong Un remaining in place as the Supreme Leader, or Suryong, of the North Korean state.[8]  By accepting this as a fact and not as an assumption, fundamentally then, if it becomes required to confront North Korea, American decision-makers must ask themselves what costs and risks are they prepared to pay to realize a denuclearized North Korea. 

An Alternative Approach

A negotiated settlement, pursuing the Chinese freeze proposal, acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear fait accompli, and pursuing kinetic military options are untenable destinations for the United States.  When national interests are faced with nothing but terrible options, higher risk thresholds and pursuit of non-traditional options become necessary.  The more vital the interest, the more leaders must be willing to embrace the unknown.        

One such higher-risk, alternative option worthy of further study is to aggressively use American overt and covert elements of national power to purposefully facilitate a change in North Korean leadership.  Facilitating a “transformed regime” is not regime change emanating from an external decapitation strike or the forcible removal of the Kim family regime by outside powers, and all the associated baggage that comes with a military campaign, occupation and nation-building.[9]  Rather, this alternative approach is pursuit of a deliberate policy to foment instability within the regime, and encouraging regime elites to change their leadership.  Stimulating internal forces to alter the direction North Korea is moving is probably the least bad option available that has a remote chance of constructively serving the national interests of the United States.    

North Korea’s impending collapse has been consistently forecasted for decades, shaping much of the bad American and South Korean decision-making to wait the Kim family regime out.  While the regime has proven incredibly resilient, opportunities have presented themselves over the years to exploit and exacerbate North Korea’s inherent weaknesses.  Highly authoritarian regimes are proven to be tough, but inherently fragile at specific points and times. 

Most conversations about the inherent weakness within the North Korean state incorrectly posits the end of the regime arising from a popular uprising, that once the masses get enough information about the outside world the shackles of slavery will be cast off.  Promoters of this fallacious line of thinking display an underlying ignorance of Korean history, North Korean society, and forget that revolutions without leadership are at best mobs with expiration dates.  For outside of the regime elites, there are no leaders or pressure groups amongst the North Korean masses. 

While purges have been a fact of life for regime members since the earliest days of the North Korean state, their intensity and scope have markedly increased under Kim Jong Un.  When Kim Jong Un came into power in late 2011, the Kim family position as the chief executive for the North Korean state had not been this fragile since the great purge of 1956-1960.[10]  Much has been said of Kim Jong Un and his ascension to Suryong, but it is important to remember that he came into power held up on a borrowed support network.  Over the last nine years Kim Jong Un has instituted his own support network and solidified his power through cunning, determination and extreme ruthlessness, silently leaving many regime elites with low levels of allegiance.

Despite Kim Jong Un being on much firmer ground, Kim Jong Un’s familial link to power remains weak.  For what is often overlooked is the fact that there are other Kims that have more direct bloodline linkages to the North Korean patriarch, Kim Il-Sung.  While a member of the family, Kim Jong Un is considered by traditional Korean society as an illegitimate son of Kim Jong-il.[11]  This inherent vulnerability is most likely the reason why he started targeting family members and their personal support networks.  Recent high level defectors have communicated that these “royal family” purges have struck a particular nerve within the elite community. 

Being a member of the regime has always been dangerous, but under Kim Jong Un it probably has become incredibly more hazardous, particularly for those whom are over 40 years of age.  North Korea remains in a weakened state since their near collapse to famine in the 1990s, with much of the state’s infrastructure eroding due to time and lack of care, leaving the regime in a precarious position that does not appear will get better with time.  Internal troubles lead to two solution sets for the regime, finding external threats and purges. 

The regime historically leverages external threats, in particular stoking fears of the United States, to unify the populace and those within the regime.  So when the next internal stability crisis happens, we should expect Kim Jong Un will switch back to generating a crisis with the United States, just as his father and grandfather did.  Simultaneously, while looking for external threats to deflect the attention of the country from their troubles, Kim Jong Un and the regime security apparatus will intensify purging of the incompetent, those perceived disloyal, or those becoming too influential.[12] 

In addition, Kim Jong Un is progressively growing ever more unhealthy over time, and the perception of him and his health internally and externally likewise makes his position more fragile as witnessed in April 2020 when Kim Jong Un was widely reported to have suffered major complications following a surgical procedure.  The absence of any bona fide succession plans is likely to make those within the regime uneasy, compounded by an environment where any discussion of post-Kim Jong Un realities is particularly frowned upon and dangerous for those suspected of even thinking this way.[13]  Fissures such as these will be present within the regime for the United States to exploit, by unambiguously and directly communicating to the regime elites that their future is best served sans Kim Jong Un.[14] 

Fears of instability and the unknown fallout of what comes next are legitimate concerns, and probably why such an approach has not been actively pursued.  Kim Jong Un and his inner circle will likely not give up power quietly.  Instability within the regime or struggles for power could produce bloodshed, with factions fighting for control, with perhaps a succession of leaders assuming executive authority.  Should the United States and its allies remain disciplined, and avoid appearances that it intends to intervene and capitalize on North Korean weakness, it can probably contain the worst effects of instability inside North Korea.

It goes without saying, that inducing instability could go awry for the United States.  North Korea could initiate military action to stave off rebellion, hoping to unite the nation behind a weakened Kim Jong Un or another successor.  Under the best circumstances, North Korea would already have undergone some form of instability and be in a fractured and weakened condition, making a military campaign easier.  Second, by initiating the military campaign North Korea would be the unambiguous belligerent and the aggressor in the world’s eyes, thereby providing both international and national legitimacy needed for the United States and its allies to fully prosecute a military campaign.

Arguably, some international and domestic actors will accuse the United States of goading North Korea into attacking by deliberately attempting to destabilize the North Korean regime.  While absolutely true on deliberate American actions to destabilize, it is false on the account that North Korea was coerced or forced into war.  For ultimately, they have a distinct choice to make in that regard.  Moreover, North Korea has engaged in far worse destabilizing behavior against South Korea for over 70 years.  North Korea must patently understand that the United States can play inside the grey zone of conflict just as well, if not more effectively than they can.[15] 

The United States should not mislead itself either, a post-Kim regime will most likely not turn out to be a liberal, democratic republic on the other end.[16]  The United States should be prepared to find a regime leader of some disrepute at the helm, most likely with another Kim in some type of ruling or reigning capacity when the dust settles.[17]  However, anyone but Kim Jong Un offers far greater prospects for a negotiated settlement on the future of the North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal than the present.  A new leader offers greater chance, over time, for North Korea to be less authoritarian, more prosperous, and one day become a responsible member within the community of nations.

There is likely little doubt that the average North Korean citizen will suffer increased hardships under such a pathway.  While the suffering and loss of life could be high, it will likely pale in comparison to that which might be expected in a major war on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, the future prospects for the average North Korean citizen, more than 19 million living a life no better than a slave, can only improve absent Kim Jong Un from the equation.[18]  Future generations of North Koreans are apt to look back on the removal of Kim Jong Un as a cost worth bearing, just as those in the United States look back on our own Civil War to exterminate the evils of slavery.  

Lastly, while it is not necessarily politically apropos to state, as it comes across as unsympathetic to the plight of the average North Korean soul, it must be said – lives lost will be North Korean, not American, South Korean or Japanese.  Empathy as a human being is important, but it has little place in a policy where the stakes are so high.  American obligations are to its citizens first, allies second, and lastly to the plight of adversaries.  The United States can show its humanity and extend its historically unparalleled generosity afterward.   

Transition to a Post-Kim Jong Un Regime

Under optimal circumstances, an individual from within the regime will capitalize on both opportunity and access to dispatch Kim Jong Un and perhaps a few others within the inner circle.  After such an event, an internal struggle for power will likely ensue due to the absence of succession plans.  Ultimately a leadership dynamic will arise, either in a single individual, but more likely a junta of regime officials wielding executive power for not one single individual will likely possess the power base necessary to singularly control executive power as Kim Jong Un or his father Kim Jong Il possessed.  For even the Eternal Leader and family patriarch, Kim Il Sung, did not fully consolidate executive power until 1960. 

Under less than optimal circumstances the regime will begin to lose control, and the regime will begin to demarcate along personal, organizational or regional lines.  Kim Jong Un, or another inner circle successor, will attempt to reassert control through the state mechanisms that he retains control or influence over, resulting in an attempt to reconsolidate power and control over the Korean Workers Party, the military and the country.[19]  Factionalism may lead to divided rule and inter-regime conflict, with North Korea possibly degenerating into a scenario comparable to what is observed now in Libya or Syria.  

Once a transformed regime circumstance begins to occur, the United States, to remain credible to any future post-Kim Jong Un regime, should explicitly follow-through on a policy of non-intervention, and economic and diplomatic enticements to new leadership.  A transformed regime approach will require the United States to adopt certain pragmatic measures that likely would receive criticism within certain domestic and international circles.  As an example, such a policy may include key positions such as, the United States of America:

1) accepts North Korea as a sovereign state in the international system, but no longer finds any prospect in negotiating with its current leader.

2) will utilize the full extent of its national power to encourage the North Korean people to adopt new leadership, to better their future as a responsible member of the international community.

3) will not militarily intervene or support other third party intervention, under any circumstances, in the domestic affairs of North Korea.

4)    will defend itself and its allies against any and all threats utilizing the full resources of its national strength.

5)    will, without condition, progressively lift economic sanctions on North Korea when Kim Jong Un is removed from power.

6)    will offer a new North Korean regime an economic and humanitarian aid package.

7)    will initiate dialogue with the new North Korean state to conclude a peace and friendship treaty and begin the process of establishing diplomatic relations.

8)    will, only after the new North Korean state achieves stability, begin discussions without conditions, in conjunction with other international stakeholders, to realize a gradual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  

The United States should welcome with open arms any follow-on regime within North Korea, regardless of their past actions (and crimes) within the former regime.  Furthermore, the United States approach to the new regime should be focused forward on its future potential, and not on past sins or to proselytize western notions of justice.  Ultimately, reconciliation for past crimes within North Korea is a Korean issue to be addressed by them alone, over time.  If the new regime is disparaged, shunned or fears the gallows are in their future, then the entire enterprise will have been for naught.  Simply, it is hard to motivate or inspire one to change, if they face a victor’s justice if they do.  The primary, overriding goal would be to disarm the new North Korean state leadership of all their preconceived notions of the United States by demonstrating uncharacteristic patience, altruism and mutual respect of the highest order.  The new regime must accept that the United States would let bygones actually be bygones. 

United States policy should be designed for facilitating incremental gains over a 20 year period, and avoid the pitfall of attempting to push instant change.  The North Korean people have never in their entire recorded history, outside of the roughly 60 days of United Nations Command occupation in the fall of 1950, experienced anything remotely analogous to a liberal democratic society.  Change will take a very long time and North Korea will need a steady hand, not overbearing arrogance. 


North Korea is counting on continued divisions and inaction by the international community to achieve its national objectives.  Sadly, if North Korea must be confronted, America is by and large alone to carry the burden; the days of European active involvement in managing Indo-Pacific affairs are long gone, the distance being too great and for most, their convictions hollow on really tough problems that may involve use of force.  The South Koreans, despite their tough talk, prefer to wish away the problem by buying off North Korea, naively believing that it can have coexistence, and an eventual peaceful reunification.  While the Japanese Government is politically the most solidly aligned behind the United States, weak popular support and lingering pre-1945 historical issues significantly limit any active role they can provide.  For the three great powers in the Indo-Pacific, the issue is outside the national interest of the Indians, while it is in the Chinese and Russian national interest to not solve America’s North Korea problem, despite the risks to stability and future of the NPT. 

Should the United States face a final confrontation with North Korea, there will be no room left for talk or strategic patience.  Time will be the limiting factor in the equation.  Continued inaction and pursuit of failed policies will only increase the risk to the United States should it be forced to take action.  However, rather than immediately default to a high cost military solution, it would be to the United States’ benefit to perhaps take another proactive pathway to achieve its national interests, while still respecting those of its allies and the other regional stakeholders. 

While the risks of the alternative approach posited here may be higher than what one might normally assume, it offers better odds of successfully meeting the national security goals of the United States than diplomacy or acquiescence.  Should the United States have to go further and conduct a major military campaign to disarm North Korea of its nuclear arsenal, this pathway would aid such an endeavor by weakening the regime prior to hostilities, and thereby lower the blood and treasure expended. 


The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, the Department of Defense,

or the United States Government.



[1]A recent high level defector conveyed in 2018 that North Korea’s approach to negotiations is to gain money and time, and that cheating on agreements is foundational, asserting that it is “the strong player is the one who cheats.”

[2] North Korean officials conveyed to American officials following the Agreed Framework’s implementation that they knew the United States made false promises during the negotiations based on the belief North Korea would collapse, and the terms would not have to be honored.  Likewise, North Korean officials also observed American and European assurances tossed aside to Libya’s Gaddafi in 2011, concluding that if a country gives up its weapons of mass destruction, then even the French will bomb you.  Atsuhito Isozaki, Understanding the North Korean Regime, (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, April 2017) 35-36.

[3] Stephen Bradner, North Korea’s Strategy, (accessed February 5, 2020).  While long-time students of the region like Stephen Bradner still are convinced North Korea’s grand strategy includes designs for forcible reunification, others believe it is focused on a campaign of gradual coercion and subversion to win without fighting.

[4] Joe Gould, “Kissinger: If North Korea keeps nukes, other nations will seek them,” Defense News, January 25, 2018, (accessed February 5, 2020).

[5] The most likely countries include, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine.  Additional nations which are possible include Australia, Vietnam, Poland, Indonesia and Taiwan.  Peter Layton, “Why Australia Should Consider Sharing Nuclear Weapons,” The Interpreter, January 17, 2018, (accessed February 5, 2020); Reuters Staff, “Poland may have first nuclear power plant by 2029,” Reuters  News Service, September 6, 2017, (accessed January 19, 2018); Frank Chen, “Idea of Taiwan-made nukes has historical resonance,” Asia Times, October 17, 2017, (accessed February 5, 2020); Kyle Mizokami, “Inside Taiwan’s Secret History of Trying to Obtain Nuclear Weapons,” The National Interest, January 27, 2020, (accessed February 5, 2020).

[6] Paul Bracken, Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age, (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 43-45 and 50.

[7] Director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll Shibley Telhami, “Confronting North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs,” briefing slides, Washington, DC, The Brookings Institute, January 8, 2018, (accessed January 18, 2018). Poll data was conducted November 1-6, 2017.

[8] Robert Collins, Kim Jong Un’s Hats: the Concept of Authority in North Korea, October 6, 2016, (accessed January 11, 2018).

[9] A “transformed regime” is one “where the governing authority has either replaced its leadership or adopted new policies while still retaining political control.” Paul B. Stares, “Assessing the Risk of Regime Change in North Korea,” The United States – Korea Institute Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), The North Korea Instability Project, December 2016, (accessed January 24, 2018), 8-9. 

[10] The post-1945 North Korean state originally consisted of four separate factions, a Domestic faction, a Chinese faction, a Soviet faction and the Kim Il Sung guerrilla faction.  The Kim faction was probably the weakest at the start.  Kim Il-Sung was able to engineer the elimination of the Domestic faction by 1953, and the Chinese and Russian factions were eradicated in the great purge of 1956-60, leaving Kim Il-Sung’s faction in sole control of the North Korea state.  Andrei N. Lankov, “Kim Takes Control: The Great Purge in North Korea, 1956-1960, Korean Studies, 26, no. 1 (2002). 

[11] North Korea retains far more conservative features representative of traditional, feudal Korean society than South Korea or the Korean diaspora observed elsewhere in the world.  In traditional Korean society, the children of a second marriage are lower in status to the children of a first marriage.  Kim Jong Un is the result of a Kim Jong Il’s second marriage, while his father Kim Jong Il was the product of Kim Il Sung’s first marriage.  Kim Il Sung’s children from his second marriage lost their connections to power within the North Korean regime when Kim Jong Il was formally elevated as Kim Il Sung’s successor. 

[12] Robert Collins and Amanda Mortwedt Oh, From Cradle to Grave: The Path of North Korean Innocents, (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017), 15-17.

[13] There are no succession plans in place, because the concept implies, in regime leadership eyes, that there are alternatives to Kim family rule. No foundational document within North Korea - the constitution, the Korean Workers Party charter, nor the legal code - addresses succession.  The only place succession is addressed is in Korean Workers Party ideology - the Kim family “Paektu line” linkage to Dangun, the mythological founder of the first Korean state in 2333 BC. 

[14] The Kim family regime’s control logic is simply, that by controlling leaders, the institutions they lead are likewise controlled.  The regime is most vulnerable when the internal security services and political watchdogs are at their weakest, particularly after purges gut these institutions.   

[15] Grey zone attacks are feared by the Kim regime, which is evident by their virulent reactions to perceived slander against the Kim family, their emphasis on loyalty above all other considerations, and their focus on internal propaganda to that effect.

[16] Studies have repeatedly proven this point, for “since World War II, only about 45% of leadership changes [in autocratic regimes] led to regime change, and more than half of regime breakdowns were transitions from one autocracy to another.”  Digging deeper, the facts show “only 20 percent of autocratic leaderships existing from 1950 to 2012 led to democracy.”  Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz, “Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set,” Perspectives on Politics 12, no.2 (June 2014), 313 quoted in Stares, “Assessing the Risk of Regime Change in North Korea,” 12.  

[17] The United States should be pragmatic on this highly emotional issue for North Korea, just as it was at the end of the Second World War when it allowed Japan to retain their Emperor.  Public rationale for the new leadership would be critical, and as long as they can demonstrate a linkage to the Kim Family “Paektu line.”

[18] While the population of North Korea is above 25 million, the 19 million figure is the population that is categorized within the hostile and wavering classes of the Songbun social classification system.  Robert Collins, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012).

[19] The “likelihood of a violent counterreaction by forces loyal to the regime appears high.” Stares, “Assessing the Risk of Regime Change in North Korea,” 12.  

About the Author(s)

Shawn Creamer is an active duty U.S. Army Colonel. He was commissioned through ROTC as an Infantry Officer in 1995 when he graduated from The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. He has served in a wide variety of command and staff assignments over the course of his now 25 year career, which include eight years of service on the Korean Peninsula. He is currently in Brigade Command.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:49am

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