Small Wars Journal

Support to Korean Resistance: Has the Time Come?

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 1:50am

Support to Korean Resistance: Has the Time Come?

David S. Maxwell

“It is time to take a professional approach to supporting a resistance among the Korean people living in the north.”

Unification of Korea is the only outcome that will solve three of the most intractable problems in Northeast Asia: (1) the Kim Family Regime’s nuclear threat; (2) the human rights atrocities and crimes against humanity that have been perpetrated on the Korean people living in the north[1] each and every day for the past six decades; and (3) the threat to peace and prosperity in the region.  It is only through unification, described as  “a stable, secure, peaceful, economically vibrant, non-nuclear peninsula, reunified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people,”[2] that can bring security and stability to Northeast Asia.  No enlightened person can deny that this is what all Korean people deserve.

The combination of threats posed by North Korea with its conventional and asymmetric military capabilities, and the impact of conflict on the region and globally as well as the thought of the humanitarian crisis with 25 million hungry and suffering Korean people, has paralyzed the nations that have a major role in the region (the Republic of Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia) as well as the broader international community.  For decades we have approached the security and humanitarian problems through stovepipes trying to solve pieces and parts of the overall problem.  There are the Six Party Talks trying to solve the nuclear problem while the regime continues to develop and test nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems while rewriting its constitution to call itself a nuclear state.  For the first time there is the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) investigation of the human rights atrocities that called for the referral of Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court.  There are many other initiatives of engagement with governments and non-government organizations to assist the north with education, technology development, and agricultural development as well as food aid trying to assist the Korean people living in the north.

It is time to recognize the central problem and to understand that nuclear weapons and human suffering are the result of one thing:  the existence of the Kim Family Regime and its oppression and enslavement of the Korean people living in the north.  With recognition of the problem it may be possible to harness or at least orchestrate the actions of the many disparate organizations to achieve one goal: to free the people in the north and reunite the entire Korean peninsula.

Of course to many this is interpreted as regime change and in effect that is what I am arguing except that I am not arguing for an externally imposed regime change but one organized, led, and executed by people from within the northern part of Korea so that they can be free to peacefully reunite with their Korean brothers and sisters in the Southern half of the peninsula. 

What stymies the international community and regional powers from achieving decisive change in the Kim Family Regime behavior and solving the nuclear and human rights issues is first and foremost the existence of the Regime and its vital national interest: regime survival.   The regime will not succumb to international engagement or pressure or carrots or sticks.  It will only continue to practice its time worn strategy of conducting blackmail diplomacy by using provocations to gain political and economic concessions while conducting illicit activities (counterfeiting, drug trafficking, and weapons proliferation to rogue states and non-state actors) around the world to gain hard currency and vital resources to ensure survival of the regime.  There is no carrot or stick that will cause the regime to end its quest for nuclear weapons or lift the yoke of oppression from the people in the north because both are deemed as key to regime survival. 

The second obstacle that prevents action is the uncertainty of regime collapse that could very likely lead to conflict or the outbreak of war between north and South on the Peninsula.  The only thing we know with some certainty is that any form of conflict from regime collapse or war will lead to a tremendous loss of blood and treasure on the peninsula and the economic effects of conflict will have global impact.

Some will argue that supporting a resistance in North Korea poses a moral hazard as it could put innocent Koreans at risk if the Kim Family Regime conducts widespread security operations to suppress a resistance.  I would argue that the regime is already conducting such operations because the system is designed in such a way as to deliberately oppress the people to prevent coups and resistance.  Yes there will be crackdowns and Koreans will be arrested and put into the gulags and worse.  But I would counter the moral hazard argument with a reminder that the 25 million Koreans living in the north are already suffering horrendously with many being sent to the gulags and worse already.  They deserve to be free and the risk posed by supporting a resistance is one worth taking for the people to attain freedom.  We should consider the morality of not helping them and remember the history of not helping the suffering and oppressed which has in past times led to genocide in other parts of the world.

Nor should we be afraid to talk about this for fear of upsetting the Chinese or even undermining potential negotiations with North Korea.  The Chinese and the Kim Family Regime, as well as others in the international community, believe this is the ROK, and with US support, objective of President Park’s Dresden Initiative.[3]  No amount of words, denials, or lack of words will alter their belief so we may as well be transparent about our belief and desired end state:  that there will be no end to the nuclear threat, no end to the human rights atrocities, or the establishment of security and stability in North Korea and Northeast Asia until there is unification.  We should not shy away from these objectives or the way to achieve them.

Why should we focus on internal resistance among the Korean people living in the north?  From all outward appearances it seems that Kim Jong-un has a firm grip on the nation given the successfully brutal purges he continues to execute.    In fact a reading of Robert Collins’ seminal work on the analysis of regime collapse shows that North Korea is in the suppression phase (phase four of the seven phases of regime collapse) and that it is phase five in which resistance overcomes the regime’s ability to suppress.  Once phase five is reached there could be a quick succession through phase six, the fracture of the regime, and phase seven, the formation of a new government (and possibly the beginning of the path to unification).[4]

We are seeing some evidence of internal resistance from the nascent but growing black market economy as well as the newly authorized markets in support of the Byungjin Policy  (dual efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the economy),[5] to the increasing access to outside information and people taking risks to hear the news from non-North Korean sources and watch South Korean dramas.  Although we have recently seen soldiers cross the DMZ to defect there has been an overall decline in defectors due to the increased border security to prevent civilian defections. This may be an indication of the regime’s assessment of the increasing resistance among the general population.  We also see evidence where security forces, to include the military, are strong-arming the people not to enforce laws or protect the regime but to obtain resources, both money and food, for themselves.  And while corruption has always been an integral part of the regime we are seeing it rise to even higher levels.  We have seen evidence of possible mutiny dating back to 1996 and the 6th Corps.  One of the most important indicators can be summarized by this assessment by Dr. Bruce Bechtol:

“Anecdotal incidents like this (and worse) also occurred under Kim Jong-il – including a corps-wide mutiny in 6th corps.

The difference is that now – and this is key – much of the corruption, confusion, and fear now exists at the very highest levels.  This is as a result of the misjudged overcompensation and purges conducted by Kim Jong-un.  His father always had the loyalty of the army and knew how to pay off or coerce high ranking officials to get the loyalty of those that mattered – despite the problems with maintaining a 1.2 million man military in a country of 25 million people, with an economy in the toilet.  Kim Jong-un still has no real power base in the military.  This may – may – be what brings him down.”[6]

Dr. Bechtol’s powerful and important assessment should be a wake-up call to the possibility of regime collapse and all the attendant consequences for the alliance and should motivate us to consider the importance of internal resistance in North Korea and the implications of such resistance both before and after regime collapse or conflict and especially as it might influence Korean unification.

I recently participated as a guest lecturer in a course at Ft Leavenworth called “The Special Operations Campaign Artistry Program” (SOCAP) which is based on the U.S. Army TRADOC G2’s Red Team Leaders Course.[7]  A handful of students were asked to look at contingencies on the Korean peninsula and after conducting a strategic analysis they understood that the long-term end state was unification of the Korean peninsula.

They introduced me to a technique called Premortem analysis.

"Premortem analysis is a method for helping decision makers anticipate problems.  The purpose of a Premortem is to find key vulnerabilities in a plan.  In contrast to risk analysis Premortem begins with the assumption that the plan has failed. The pull of groupthink, consensus, and a false sense of security is punctured, and is replaced by an active search aimed at preventing trouble later on.  The premise for the Premortem exercise is that people may feel too confident once they have arrived at the plan.  Premortem analysis empowers the participants to question the premise of a proposed course of action, its assumptions, and tasks.  It breaks ownership of a course through a divergent process that encourages objectivity and skepticism."[8]

As they looked at the problem of Korean unification they conducted the Premortem analysis and among other causes of failure and difficulty in achieving the end state (e.g., costs too high; China blocks unification, extended civil war and internal conflict) they determined that one of the biggest threats to unification could be internal resistance and insurgency waged by both remnants of the Kim Family Regime and the Korean people living in the north who have been indoctrinated with both the regime’s Juche ideology[9] and the guerrilla ethos. [10]

If unification failure could be caused by resistance among the Korean people living in the north following regime collapse or post-conflict perhaps a way to prevent that outcome is to develop and co-opt the potential resistance now and focus it on the Kim Family Regime so that when the regime no longer exists there will be an established organization with which the ROK government can work.

This proposal is not without risk.  First there will be risk to the Korean people living in the north.  It will be difficult to identify and make contact with potential actors who would assume leadership of a resistance.  The North Korean suppression mechanism remains dangerous to the people and actions by external supporting forces could compromise them.

Some will argue that this will reduce the chances for diplomacy to prevail.  While that is possible we should also keep in mind that the regime expects that we are trying to undermine its legitimacy to bring it down.  We should not shy away from a course of action that could achieve long-term positive effects especially when the alternative is regime collapse or war with no effective follow-on plan for unification.

This is also a campaign that cannot be executed by amateurs, as is now being done by defector organizations, and it must have the full support of the ROK/US alliance.  If the decision is made to execute such a campaign it must be fully resourced and given the time to develop.  Expectations must be managed and it also will require support in successive administrations.

There are five main objectives for a resistance force supported by the ROK government and the ROK/US Alliance:

1. Undermine the legitimacy of the Kim Family Regime (KFR) in the eyes of the Korean people living in the north.

2. Identify, and assist in co-opting and coercing, 2d Tier Leaders who will be influential in the post-KFR period .[11]

3. Identify and assist in securing regime scientists involved with nuclear weapons development after regime collapse.

4. Provide local leadership in a post KFR period.

5. Provide intelligence support to ROK forces and liaison between ROK Forces, ROKG agencies, and Korean organizations and agencies in the north.  (Note: A resistance force supported by the ROKG can be a key transition element leading to unification.)

This course of action can also provide options during crisis.  The larger the resistance grows the more influence it can have over the people.  Most importantly it can serve the purpose of supporting a transition government with which the ROK can work during the unification process.

If such a strategy is deemed desirable what should happen next is for ROK and US military and intelligence experts to conduct a feasibility assessment for an unconventional warfare campaign.  If they determine it is feasible the national security councils of the ROK and US should begin the process of developing a plan with the ROK in the lead and the US in support.  This will need to be a whole of government plan and require both national security councils to synchronize or orchestrate all the elements of national power.

The national security councils should consider establishing a permanent combined strategy-working group to manage the actions of both nations.  Details for such an organization can be found in my NDU paper “Beyond the Nuclear Crisis: A Strategy for the Korean Peninsula.”[12]

Naysayers will argue that US Special Forces cannot conduct unconventional warfare in an area that is so denied as North Korea because they do not fit in and would be easily compromised.  However, US Special Forces do not have to operate inside North Korea, at least not initially and most likely not for a long period of time until conditions are right.   The critical tasks that need to be taught to a resistance force can be provided to the right Koreans, and in particular those Koreans who have escaped from the north, and they in turn can infiltrate to assist in the organization, training, and operation of a resistance.  There are many new and innovative ways to conduct modern unconventional warfare to support a resistance; however, I will leave that to the professionals at Fort Bragg, Fort Lewis, Tori Station and Seongnam and the Special Warfare Command in the Republic of Korea.

In conclusion, if we believe that there is a significant threat of a resistance and insurgency that will prevent or hinder unification, we should consider developing and shaping that resistance now against the Kim Family Regime to prevent it from challenging unification after war or regime collapse.  An effective resistance against the Kim Family Regime could provide increased options for the ROK/US alliance and provide support in innumerable ways some of which have been described here but these have only been the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  A combined ROK/US strategy group could develop a supporting plan based on resistance and unconventional warfare that could mitigate the threats to and most importantly support unification.

This paper is a condensed version of one to be published either by the Korean Institute of National Unification (KINU) or the International Council on Korean Studies (ICKS) in the International Journal of Korean Studies.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University. At Georgetown he teaches a graduate course on Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists.

End Notes

[1] The use of the phrase  “Korean people living in the north” is deliberate.  It is used to recognize that there are no north or South Korean people but only Koreans out of respect for the ROK Constitution and the unnatural division of the peninsula.

[2] David S. Maxwell, “A Strategy for the Korean Peninsula Beyond the Nuclear Crisis,” Military Review, September-October 2004, p. 104.

[3] “Full Text of Park’s Speech on N. Korea,” The Korean Herald, March 28, 2014, (also known as the Dresden Initiative), available at:

[4] Robert Kaplan, “When North Korea Fails,” Atlantic Magazine, October 2006,  Kaplan summarizes Robert Collins’ Seven Phases of Collapse.

[5] Cheon Seong-Whun, “The Kim Jong-un Regime’s “Byungjin” (Parallel Development) Policy of Economy and Nuclear Weapons and the ‘April 1st Nuclearization Law,” The Korean Institute of National Unification, April 23, 2013,

[6] Email from Dr. Bruce Bechtol to the author, June 19, 2015.

[8] The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook (Formerly the Red team Handbook), Version 7.0 January 2015, University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, TRISA (TRADOC G2 Intelligence Support Activity), Ft Leavenworth, Kansas. Page 167-169

[9] Han S Park. ed.  North Korea: Ideology, Politics, Economy, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,1996), p. 15 in which Han S. Park describes Juche as theology.  See also the Korea military newspaper  “Kuk Pang Ilbo” editorial on 15 MAR 99, p. 6. Chuje’s (Juche) basic concept is this:  “Man rules all things; man decides all things.”  “The Kim Il Song Chuche ideology is based on these precepts:  In ideology Chuche (autonomy); in politics, self-reliance; in economics, independence; and in National Security: self-defense.”  See also Mattes Savada, ed., North Korea: A Country Study (Washington: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1994), p. 324., “Kim Il Sung’s application of Marxism-Leninism to North Korean culture and serves as a fundamental tenet of the national ideology. “Based on autonomy and self-reliance, chuch’e has been popularized since 1955 as an official guideline for independence in politics, economics, national defense and foreign policy.”

[10] Adrian Buzo, The Guerrilla Dynasty Politics and Leadership in North Korea, (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1999), p. 21

[11] 2d Tier Leaders defined as those who have regional political and military power and influence but who are not members of the core of the Kim Family Regime.  An example is a Corps Commander outside of Pyongyang.

[12] David S. Maxwell, “Beyond the Nuclear Crisis: A Strategy for the Korean Peninsula,” April 2004, National War College of the National Defense University.


About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 1:15pm


A well thought out, well informed, and well stated position. I suspect internal revolution will indeed likely someday be what ends the Kim Regime, whether that unifies Korea or "merely" forces change of governance in the North. I also agree that US SF could conduct UW to foment and leverage such a revolution, and that much of those efforts would not be physically in the North, but through cyber "infiltration", engaging populations shared across borders into accessible spaces, and by engaging diasporas. But while I believe this will happen naturally in time, I am not convinced it is in US interests to risk the potential consequences of attempting to put such change on a timeline set by us.

Any war game I have seen that explored forcing a change of regime in North Korea ends in the use of nuclear weapons against the US or our vital allies in the region. What interest validates that risk? I can't get the cost/benefit/risk ratio to come out to any answer beyond one of posturing so as to create a credible threat of UW to help us more effectively deter Kim today, but to let nature take its course in terms of political change.

That equation may yield a different answer in time, but for now I believe the best application of US UW is for deterrence rather than regime change.