Small Wars Journal

Pattern of Collapse in North Korea

Thu, 04/11/2024 - 8:34am

Editor’s Note:  This work was originally researched and written by Robert Collins in 1995.  His research while in graduate school at Dankook University in South Korea contributed to this.  It has never been published in full although it is well known among the “Korea Watcher” community.  It has been known by various names such as the Seven Phases or Stages of North Korean Regime Collapse.  Robert Kaplan highlighted it in 2006 in an article for The Atlantic, “When North Korea Fail.”  This will be included in a forthcoming larger report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea ( )


However, what is most significant about this research is that it provided the foundation for the first ROK JCS/UNC/CFC Concept Plan 5029, “North Korean Instability and Regime Collapse” first published in 1999.  In addition, the annex “Indicators to Seven Collapse Phases,” also published below, has assisted intelligence analysts with indications and warnings for North Korean instability.


 The ROK/US Alliance and the world is focusing on Kim Jong Un’s recent rhetoric about South Korea as the main enemy and that he no longer seeks peaceful unification.  Many assess that Kim is preparing for war.  There is, however, another consideration and that is that Kim is under great internal stress from the elite, the second tier leadership, and the Korean people in the north.  From Kim Jong Un’s perspective the real existential threat to the Kim family regime is not the ROK and US military alliance.  It is the very idea, the values, and the example of the Republic of Korea that he fears corrupts the minds of the Korean people in the north.  This is why he continues to go to the greatest lengths possible to suppress outside information. But that information is getting into the north, and it is possible to observe growing indications of internal instability as a result.


It is important to focus on the possibility of war and the ROK/US Alliance and the United Nations Command must prepare for it.  Importantly, Mr. Collins notes:


“This paper will avoid discussion of war except as a calculated alternative to prevent irreparable fracture to the nKorean political system, which would be perceived by the current leadership as the end of their regime.”


“If the nKorean Core Group perceives that during the suppression phase that combined internal security system/military actions are insufficient to suppress localized independent action, the Core Group will seriously consider the option of war against the ROK as a means to drain the energies of resistance.”



The issue now is whether resistance inside North Korea and irreparable fracture of the regime is possible.  Since such conditions could lead Kim Jong Un to make the decision to go to war, observing for the indications and warnings of internal instability will contribute to early warning of an attack on the ROK.  Although it seems counterintuitive, focusing only on observing for war preparations will provide less warning time than observing for instability and war preparations.

Note that today we call the “Core Group” the Kim family regime.  Please note that this paper is “as is” from 1995.  Although there have been some changes in terminology, concepts, organizations, etc., this work is both timeless and timely. 


Because there has been a long decline in focus on instability and regime collapse the author agreed to publish this paper to provide analysts and policymakers with a frame of reference to observe and analyze the full range of threats from North Korea.  It is also offered to assist a new generation of Korea Watchers to develop their expertise which will be sorely needed as long as the Kim family regime remains in power.  They can start by taking this paper as a start point and conducting their own research to understand the dynamics of the Kim family regime and the potential for instability and collapse.



Pattern of Collapse in North Korea

By Robert Collins




            a. Purpose

            b. Motivation

            c. Assumptions

            d. Phase definitions

            e. Phase scenarios

            f. Variables

            g. Conclusions




            The purpose of this paper is to examine foreseeable patterns of social infrastructure collapse, as brought on by severe resource shortage, and to provide a perspective of the subsequent effects upon the nKorean administrative and political systems.  This paper will discuss general, baseline political consequences resulting from these shortages, and link these consequences to a framework of phases leading to the collapse of the nKorean administrative and political systems.

            This examination employs assessments based in structure-functionalism analyses of the nKorean administrative system coupled with behavioral analyses of historical Korean socio-political patterns (though the details of those analyses are not included in this paper).

            This paper will avoid discussion of war except as a calculated alternative to prevent irreparable fracture to the nKorean political system, which would be perceived by the current leadership as the end of their regime.




            The focal point for this paper lies in the understanding of the personal and organizational enigma faced by most nKorean citizens and groups when posited between two absolute requirements - the personal requirement to employ unsanctioned methods and circumvention of established procedures to secure basic resources to survive in a collapsing economy versus the requirement of the nKorean state to suppress such unsanctioned methods.  This suppression will be the consequence of Kim Chong-il and nKorea’s Core Group’s perception that such methods represent direct challenges to their authority.  This suppression will be indiscriminate.  Furthermore, it will be carried out by all internal security agencies as well as the military, perhaps in joint operations.

            The impetus for this paper is simply the compelling nature of nKorea’s economic resource shortages of food, energy and hard currency to obtain the former two.  The more drastic the shortage, the greater the impact on individual citizens and groups.

            Exacerbating this dilemma is the totalitarianism of nKorea’s political and economic systems; historical resistance by Koreans to the political center; political polarization by Koreans toward individuals as leaders as opposed to issues; concentrated personal use of localized influence; state prioritized rationing procedures already in place; and the lack of evidence the Kim Chong-il regime is willing to implement reforms to turn around its economy.




            a. nKorea will not implement significant political and/or economic reforms in the foreseeable future.


            b. nKorea will continue to maintain a policy of military first in all areas of resource allocation.


            c. nKorea will go through a series of definable phases in which the development of each phase contributes to the onset of the next phase.


            d. It is impossible to predict two things: strict timelines for the beginning and end-state of each phase; and the exact effect of external factors contributing to or slowing collapse. 


            e. nKorea is led by a totalitarian, cult-centered, family and croney-dominated regime which focuses on self-interests rather than the western standards of national government or national homogeneic ethnic interests.


            f. nKorea’s current shortage of food, energy and hard currency is so severe that radical short term fixes replace long-range economic and administrative planning.  (an example of radical fix is nKorea’s policy decision to request grants of rice from the ROK.  Such “fixes” are radically different from nKorea’s historical problem-solving decision patterns.)


            g. nKorea maintains a minimum of five pervasive internal security (I/S) apparati capable of overlapping and competing surveillance, all designed to suppress political and economic dissidence at all levels and in all segments of nKorean society.


            h. The primary mission of the I/S system is the maintenance of the nKorean political system.  This effort is augmented by totalitarian control of all media information systems, whose mission is political and ideological support of the nKorean political system.


            i. The I/S system is linked to the military as necessary, and the military will be employed in dissidence suppression as required.


            j.  nKorea has moved through phase one into phase two (phases defined below) and is now generally in transition from phase two to phase three.  However, some geographic areas are already in phase four while some areas can actually simultaneously incorporate elements of phases two through four.


            k. If the nKorean Core Group perceives that during the suppression phase that combined internal security system/military actions are insufficient to suppress localized independent action, the Core Group will seriously consider the option of war against the ROK as a means to drain the energies of resistance.



Phase Definitions


            a. Phase One: Resource Depletion - Economic collapse paradigm stresses across-the-board mistakes in domestic and foreign policies that contribute to inputs/outputs in a national production model (nKorea emphasizes heavy industry over light industry at an 8:2 ratio).  Policy mistakes and subsequent failures in major components of the economy begin to impact infrastructure and economic sub-systems as major system-maintenance resources become unavailable.


            b. Phase Two: Prioritization - Quantity of resources becomes insufficient to supply/maintain each sub-system of infrastructure.  Administration employs one or both of two policies of selective provision:

                        - Selective provision policy one (SPP 1): Each sub-system receives proportionately less than minimum maintenance level; and/or:

                        - Selective provision policy two (SPP 2): Selected sub-systems receive no resources whatsoever in order to provide subsistence levels to the other sub-systems.


            c. Phase Three: Local Independence - Realization of lack of subsistence or perceived near-term lack creates localized independent motivation to acquire subsistence materials, either individually or collectively, through intentional circumvention of established policy.  Sub-system types are collective farms, factories and administrative units that are integrated units whereby workers/citizens acquire social identification.


            d. Phase Four: Suppression - Empirically, localized independent economic activity implies a corresponding level of independent political intention.  This in turn is perceived by the Core Group as violation of state (read Core Group) policies and threatening to Core Group control.  National I/S assets will be employed with maximum, even indiscriminate, powers necessary to suppress actions that are in contradiction, or perceived to be in contradiction, of state policies.  This is the most pivotal of phases.  Successful suppression is critical to regime/Core Group survival and the continuation their policies. The lack of success in suppression implies success in resistance.


            e. Phase Five: Resistance - Based on success of suppression (or lack thereof), sub-system groups and/or individual leaders (as opposed to individuals) will elevate levels of resistance both horizontally and vertically, organizationally and violently.


            f. Phase Six: Fracture - Progression to this phase is difficult without an extreme amount of violence occurring beforehand.  Increased and confident organizational resistance, from the local level upward, will move Core Group members (read military leaders with real power or influential civilians allied with real military power as opposed to mere influential leaders) to splinter into sub-groups.  These sub-groups splinter because of opposing views in dealing with the resistance.  The splinter process will be consistent with Korean political socialization (loyalty based on family, association and/or classmate, regionalism).


            g. Phase Seven: Realignment - Should suppression fail, and the fracture phase be reached, a realignment of national leadership will be unavoidable.  The elimination of the entire Core Group is not likely.  New national leadership will find it necessary to implement immediate reform consistent with its support base.  Realignment of the national leadership does not mean immediate peaceful unification with the Republic of Korea.



Phase Scenarios


            a. Phase One: Resource Depletion - This phase is already completed.


            b. Phase Two: Prioritization


                        1/   Four rules of prioritization are:


                                    a/ Support defense industries and activities first.


                                    b/ The lower (localized) the level of administration, the greater the negative effects of prioritization on sub-systems as these sub-systems fail to receive adequate quantities of food and/or supplies.


                                    c/ Political and social contacts take primacy in manipulating resource allocation.


                                    d/ Availability of resources.


                        2/ Sub-systems are defined as basic production or administrative elements capable of completing state administrative council-directed tasks.  Examples of sub-systems are factories, collective farms, fishery cooperatives, county or minor city administrative elements, social welfare units such as hospitals and clinics, schools, day care centers, and public service/work project units.


                        3/ Non-defense related factories that compete for resources with defense-related factories will cease operations as defense industries receive all short-supplied materials.


                        4/ A large percentage of remaining non-defense, competing factories (those that produce like products) shutdown due to discontinuation of supply of energy and/or manufacturing components.


                        5/ Closed factories face insufficient means to support collective worker populace.  Lack of production will be justification to reduce food rations for members of collective activity.  Reduced food rations, already at basic subsistence level, will create individual initiatives for survival.


                        6/ Collective farms will be denied sufficient production components such as agri-chemicals, seed, agri-machinery parts.  Two possible policy direction models, SPP 1 and SPP 2:


                                    a/ SPP 1: Of the five collective farms in a model county, all five farms receive drastically reduced provisions.  All farms then cannot meet quotas.  All manage to feed selves.  Unless well connected politically, sub-system leadership, both individual and committee, of all farms suffer political consequences of not meeting quotas.  This in turn intensifies crisis at sub-system level due to sub-system’s inability to access senior decision-making bodies, whether administrative or political, to modify quotas or obtain resources.


                                    b/ SPP 2: Of the five collective farms in a model county, one farm is targeted for no supplies (sacrificed) to maintain survivability of the other farms.  Selection process based on grassroots politics and local personal influence (or lack thereof) with Workers’ Party officials.  One collective farm work force and its leadership face alienation from senior administrative supervision. This leadership, both individual and committee, also faces personal crisis due to inability to meet any quotas, much less feed themselves.  Again, individuals create initiatives for survival.


                        7/ Local administrative units, i.e., counties, workers’ wards, and small cities subjected to SPP 1.  These units unlikely to be subjected to SPP 2. These units include local works projects, cooperative management committees, supply ration points, and local transportation elements.


                        8/ Realization of endangerment of survival creates psychological impact on sufficient numbers of the populace to activate survival motivations and creative survival methods independent of approved governmental and ideological means.


            c. Phase Three: Local Independence - The more a sub-system is negatively prioritized, the greater the likelihood for that sub-system’s independent subsistence or even economic action.  This independent activity will take on social Darwinian principles, i.e., survival of the fittest social unit, as measured by its ability to create survival mechanisms.  Independent activity will transition from individual initiative to organized initiative through a variety of social integration methods.  The larger the group, the greater the likelihood of detection by internal security (I/S) services.  However, the incorporation of grassroots I/S representatives into independent activity facilitates the expansion of that activity.


                        1/ The first core factor in independent activity is a black marketing system.  This system is supported by general theft, illicit border trade, and misappropriation of state assets, particularly food, energy, and transportation means.


                        2/ The second core factor in independent activity is independent policymaking.  As independent activity gains momentum, alternative policy centers at the micro level gain the capability and resources necessary to initiate greater influence on higher administrative units.  An example is the provision of food supplies as bribes in exchange for falsifying official reports.  Independent policy types are black market price setting, determination of sales points and market access, security payoffs, and integration of government/official activity as cover for misappropriations.  The most advanced stage of independent activity is independent, unauthorized production and sales.  This begins with a simple proverbial tomato and grows to small, product-line or agricultural items either in high demand or profitable for the risk.


                        3/ Storage access and transportation means in support of illicit or unreported production implies culpability of local I/S systems.


                        4/ Misappropriation of food and energy reserves develops from series of unlinked incidents to organized activity.  Organized misappropriation slowly begins to replace some functions of the government’s resource allocation system.  Leaders of organized misappropriation develop influence spheres that shadow local government influence and illicitly incorporates the use of local logistical support functions.


                        5/ The success of black market leads to second economy which wins local support and parallels current economic infrastructures. Further success threatens function of government ration points and sales outlets.


                        6/ Previously alienated local leadership recovers means of influence and expands that influence in direct proportion to independent economic success.


                        7/ Active-duty rear area military units, those military units stationed along the Chinese or Russian borders, and those units not closely monitored by internal security personnel have a greater capacity to initiate independent activity due to either proximity to opportunity or circumstantial opportunity.


                        8/ Some local I/S systems, with their inherent surveillance and investigatory capabilities, will manipulate independent activity for personal profit through threat and terror.  These elements have the greatest to gain through the least amount of effort.  Local I/S officials then become not only culpable but pro-active in independent economic activity.


            d. Phase Four: Suppression - Both the incorporation of local internal security elements into independent activity and the activity itself are perceived as direct challenges to the authority of Kim Chong-il and the Core Group.  The Core Group will respond to such challenges in both indiscriminate and calculated manners.  This phase must be successful to prevent the further breakdown of the regime’s control.  The regime’s full energies will address whatever the regime itself perceives as threats.  nKorea’s track record at suppressing isolated incidents is well established.  Again, success here is paramount to the survival of the regime and world public opinion will not be an effective deterrent.


                        1/ Internal Security systems (even paramilitary units) will be mobilized to employ indiscriminate force to make examples of groups of citizens or entire sub-system(s). Entire sub-systems, such as collective farms deemed collectively guilty of independent (read politically disloyal) activity, will be instantly converted into political crime camps guarded by military or paramilitary units.


                        2/ Local active-duty company and battalion-level military units will be mobilized to employ indiscriminate violent force for the most severe cases.  A severe case would be organized demonstrations (of any kind, but food riots would be an eminent example) against the local or national government.


                        3/ Suppression operations could be streamlined to improve overall effectiveness in dealing with dissidence and/or independent activity.  An example of this streamlining would be the establishment of local “civil order” commands which consolidate local internal security and military assets.  (Inter-agency sharing of information and planning is indeed uncommon to the nKorean political structure.  However, the severity of the situation most likely would be perceived as justification to consolidate.) This inter-agency cooperation would facilitate both detection of and response to increased dissidence and/or independent activity.  The command function could vary.  Two proto-types would be a local ministry of state security official obtaining operational control of a military quick reaction force provided by the local military commander for the purpose of immediate countermeasure.  A more likely proto-type would be the requirement for local security officials to report not only up their chain of command but laterally or even directly to the local military commander.  The commander then acts on this information and, armed with the authority of the “local civil order command,” orders his troops to suppress the reported dissidence with whatever force necessary. 


                        4/ Mass arrests and purges. nKorea has a long history of this activity.  Political reasons are invariably cited as justification, even when activity is clearly not political but civil crime.  The nKorean regime has already divided the nKorean populace into 51 distinct categories of loyalty or disloyalty.  Those arrested and their families are reclassified to disloyal categories.  Arrests and purges become indiscriminate when local authorities feel personally threatened when Pyongyang’s intended impact is not delivered to the expected extent.  


                        5/ Show trials and public executions.  These are employed to demonstrate regime’s resolve and demand for adherence to political guidelines.


            e. Phase Five: Resistance - This phase presupposes that the suppression phase failed to meet its intended goals.  Local groups, even new sub-systems evolving out of independent activity, will gain confidence in their ability not to succumb to the government’s suppression attempts either through open resistance or manipulation of reporting that forwards false data.


                        1/ Refusal to obey government directives.  These directives will be ignored because those that resist perceive enforcement is unlikely.


                        2/ Usurpation of government assets, such as storehouses or competing sub-systems.  This will enhance the power of local resistance activities, whether economically or politically based.


                        3/ Threats and violence employed against internal security representatives to either win their culpability or simple elimination.  Resistance groups will lose their fear of internal security forces and either eliminate them, beginning at the basic level, or incorporate them into their local sub-system to assist in their activity.


                        4/ The more successful local resistance becomes, the more likely a resource-denied sub-system (which is already a paramilitary unit within the nKorean social system) will begin to employ counterforce against the regime’s mobilized military units.  Such an incident will become a central issue dominating the attention of the Core Group.


                        5/ Successful armed resistance, though only at the sub-system level (company to battalion-sized paramilitary level) will lead the regime’s Core Group to employ combined arms operations against the resistance group.  Some military leaders receiving such orders will hesitate to employ maximum indiscriminate force against local citizens and will immediately be relieved if not executed on the spot.  Other leaders will execute the executioner.  The depth of the resistance phase can be measured by the rank of the officer who does not obey orders from Pyongyang.


                        6/ Low echelon border units, along both the northern border and the DMZ, will cross the border and the mdl while senior echelons are preoccupied with resistance suppression.   Platoon commanders will be capable of initiating a platoon level crossing of the border or DMZ for the purpose of avoiding punishment, chaos, or worse.  After eliminating the company’s single political officer, a company commander would be capable of taking a whole company across the DMZ.  The senior battalion commander would be forced to call for artillery fires into the DMZ or beyond to halt the platoon or company-sized defections across the DMZ.  He would do this knowing that he would probably be immediately executed for permitting it to happen in the first place.  This process would not likely end until the division or corps level.


            f. Phase Six: Fracture - This phase is the most unpredictable.  The current regime and its Core Group members must see the success of the suppression phase as critical to their survival.  Failure of the suppression phase likely results in a quick transition through the resistance phase to the fracture phase.  Fracture will likely result in violence.  The types of fracture are calculable but where the fissures begin is not.  This phase will be characterized by the following:


                        1/ Internal Security systems (regional or national) will be unable to comply with directives due to ineffectiveness.


                        2/ Core Group members or sub-group(s) openly (as opposed to private consultation) oppose Core Group directives.


                        3/ Division-sized military unit commanders ignore Core Group orders.  They perceive the orders extraordinary and do not believe them or are so appalled (through Korean perception) by the orders they make a conscious decision not to obey.


                        4/ Public execution employed against core-group member or members.  This is an indication of severe disagreement within the Core Group.  However, successful execution of one of these Core Group members is also an indication of containment to a limited degree.


                        5/ Division-sized military unit commanders who oppose Core Group orders ally with one another to oppose counter actions.  This amounts to civil war.  If Kim Chong-il and the Core Group wait to this point before initiating a nKorean attack against the Republic of Korea (as

a means to put an end to resistance energies), it may be too late.  As other dictators have in the past, a wartime footing provides the opportunity for internal security apparati to eliminate military commanders previously perceived by the regime to as supporters of resistance.


                        6/ Internal security officers executed or neutralized within entire systems or numerous adjacent sub-systems.


            g. Phase Seven: Realignment: This will be the most straight forward of the seven phases because the implications of previous actions or non-actions have played themselves out.


                        1/ Pre-identification of a nKorean individual or an oligarchic group as successor to the leadership of Kim Chong-il is extremely difficult to predict.  However, centuries-old historical Korean patterns of political realignment indicate the nKorean military maintains the only power to actually replace the previous regime, resist internal security apparati, and maintain public stability.  This process will be simplified if internal security procedures have been streamlined to include consolidation of control.


                        2/ This military group will be shaped by an associational bond such as common military class, common military training, or regional background.  The overwhelmingly dominant common associational bond in existence now is graduation from the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School.  Service/duty in the organizational guidance department of the Korean Workers’ Party, whether military or civilian, is also a common associational bond among real power holders.  However, this department is so strongly associated with Kim Chong-il that its influence will evaporate with Kim Chong-il’s downfall.


                        3/ This or any other associational bond is likely to search for solutions/methods which enable them to hold onto power in nKorea for themselves.  This groups’ announcement of its intention to reform economically is more likely than an announcement supporting the concept of immediate peninsular unification.


                        4/ A new Core Group will move to protect its own interests and new domination of power. The new Core Group will attempt to ensure nKorean sovereignty through international efforts at the United Nations and other world bodies.  Because they view it as a method of cementing their new-found control, the new Core Group will seek immediate humanitarian relief for the nKorean populace and will seek assistance in improving the nKorean economic infrastructure.





            a. Fracture is preventable through unprecedented levels of suppression or the implementation of the war directive.  During the latter, Kim Chong-il and the Core Group will perceive resistance energies at all levels will be diverted to nationalistic motivations targeting the concept of “saving the fatherland.”  Possible. 


            b. Massive foreign economic assistance that perpetuates Phase II - Phase III transition.  This is unlikely.


            c. Major power intervention.  Only China could force substantial changes in nKorea’s policies.  Unlikely, too costly for China in terms of resource allocation.


            d. Independent Republic of Korea intervention during the fracture or realignment phase.  Only likely during full scale civil war in nKorea after central military control has disintegrated.


            e. Assassination of Kim Chong-il.  Due to the pervasive and overlapping security systems, this is difficult (not impossible).  This would require assistance from the inner circles of the Core Group.  Possible only during fracture phase when internal security systems compete for power rather than influence.  In such abnormal circumstances, one cannot predict the actions of a “Mr. X”, who could be a member of the Core Group or an internal security system.


            f. Coup d’état (one of two core components of fracture phase, the other being polarization within the Core Group).  Remote possibility.  No recorded incidents of successful coups in communist systems due to intense organizational aspects of political control.


            g. Flight from country by Kim Chong-il.  Possible.  However, Kim is likely to consider the use of war to maintain control of his regime prior to flight.


            h. Kim Chong-il and Core Group initiate war with the Republic of Korea because Kim and the Core Group see this as the only option for survival as fracture approaches.  Indeed, Kim and the Core Group cannot wait for the fracture phase as fissures along loyalty lines may disenable full compliance with war order.  Possible.




            a. This paper discussed war as a nKorean option only in the form of a tool to suppress extreme dissent as perceived by Kim Chong-il and the Core Group.


            b. For the purpose of survival, nKorean individuals and groups will employ unsanctioned methods to circumvent present administrative functions.  This circumvention will lead to shadow economic systems, the detection of which will activate extreme suppression measures.


            c. The execution of indiscriminate force will be perceived by Kim Chong-il and the Core Group as critical to the maintenance of the nKorean political system and the preservation of the Core Group’s lifestyle.  Consequently, nKorean I/S systems will implement a two-fold approach: ruthless suppression of dissidence (real or perceived) at both the grassroots level as well as at the elite level (particularly the military).


            d. Further economic decay is unavoidable.  Economic collapse will begin to impact the perimeter of those organizations designed to ensure regime survivability.  As this process develops, the Core Group itself will be affected by extreme reactions by Kim Chong-il and certain members of the Core Group.


            e. Domestic nKorean propaganda will increasingly turn inward at domestic targets as well as blame foreign - read Republic of Korea and American - interference in nKorean domestic affairs.


            f.  However, though extreme and indiscriminate suppression measures may be successful in preserving the Kim Chong-il regime in the short term, continued economic collapse and prioritization, along with lack of reform, will reinitiate the cycle until the realignment phase is realized.






An annex to this paper includes political-military indicators to the seven phases of collapse.




Annex to Paper Entitled “Pattern of Collapse in North Korea”


Indicators to Seven Collapse Phases


Purpose:  The purpose of this list of indicators is to provide general indicators that will be inherent to each phase.  The more prevalent the incidents or group of incidents, the more advanced into the phase nKorea has progressed.

            Most of these indicators can happen at any time.  However, the phases of fracturing and realignment are direct, unambiguous actions and are unlikely to happen without a progression through the first five phases.  Indeed, transition from phase four to phase five dramatically increases the likelihood of phases six and seven.




            a. Isolated incidents of the type listed below do not constitute, in and of themselves, either collapse or subordinate phases.  Concentration of these incidents above usual norms, as perceived by nKorean officials, is a better yardstick to gauge advancement from one stage to another.


            b. No indicators related to war preparations will be included in this list.  However, some of nKorean government actions to suppress internal dissidence may be similar to actions determined to be indicators for war preparations.


Phase One - Resource Depletion: nKorea has already passed through this phase at almost every level.  The only areas likely not to affected by resource depletion are the personal resources of Kim Chong-il and the Core Group.  Significant indicators that are already publicly evident are:

            a. Consecutive years of negative growth.

            b. Discontinuation of major trading agreements.

            c. Foreign trading partners demand hard currency in exchange for goods and services.

            d. Foreign credit denied.

            e. Drastic reduction in energy acquisition due to lack of capital investment instruments.

            f. Significant energy prioritization.


Phase Two - Prioritization: This transition is difficult to detect because the process by which non-capitalist nation’s economic planners determine prioritization is politically vice economically based. 

            a. Closure of production facilities critical to infrastructure support.

            b. Adjacent collective farms with similar crops produce significantly different harvest rates. 

            c. Closure of all “type non-essential” production facilities such as all furniture factories, kitchen utensil factories, or any other production facilities not directly related to the military. 

            d. Energy blackouts to specific regions for weeks or months at a time.

            e. Implementation of policies denying the use of infrastructure (transportation/mobility assets) to non-defense related operations.

            f. Consolidation of public welfare facilities.  For example, closing local dispensaries to preserve hospital services, thus conserving energy and personnel.

            g. Reducing the number of ration points.


Phase Three - Local Independence:   

            a. Significant rise in misappropriation, as perceived by nKorean officials themselves.

            b. Black market operations which conduct transactions on misappropriated items.  (In any nation-state there is a shadow - or second - economy to some degree.  It is the impression of local officials that indicate “higher than usual” status.)

            c. Recognition by local officials that certain sub-systems continue to perform despite negative prioritization.

            d. Dramatic increase in arrests of individuals for “economic crimes against the state.”

            e. Increase in arrests of internal security officials for inability to control economic crimes.

            f. New or increased waves of, or personnel involved in, supply and demand along nKorea’s borders with China and Russia.


Phase Four - Suppression:  Ruthless suppression of dissidence has been the modus operandi for Kim Il-song and Kim Chong-il regime since the founding of the nKorean state.  Furthermore, Kim Il-song has also regularly employed force to suppress resistance against his policies.  Therefore, the perspective necessary to the detection of this phase is scale rather than type.

            a. Consolidation of means of population control.  This can be accomplished through the following or any combination of the following measures: consolidating several internal agencies under a single command system; militarization of one or more security agencies; or militarization of specific departments of the Korean Workers’ Party.

            b. Indiscriminate use of force against entire groups of people identified with a geographic sub-region or administrative/economic sub-system.  nKorea already employs indiscriminate force against individuals through the Ministries of State Security and Public Security.  This force would be carried out directly by military units or by military personnel under the directions of internal security leadership and would result in a large number of human deaths.

            c. Increased number of public show trials.

            d. Increased number of public executions, particularly of high-ranking personnel.

            e. Hereto unforeseen increase in the number and degree of propaganda attacks against domestic “enemies of the state,” “reactionaries,” and “economic sympathizers.”

            f. Implementation of martial law in specific regions.

            g. An unusual but effective step would be the military mobilization of an economic sub-system such as an individual collective farm or factory.  This would increase control of that sub-system’s personnel through court martials or through mass or separate deployments to other areas or projects (never to be reconstituted?).


Phase Five - Resistance

            a. Assassinations of local Korean Workers’ Party and internal security personnel.

            b. General local non-compliance with government and party directives.

            c. Infrastructure assets such as transportation, energy and storage are employed by sub-systems counter to government directives.

            d. Local sub-systems and their personnel employ counterforce to use of government force.

            e. Low-level military commanders and internal security forces hesitate to obey orders of indiscriminate force or mass execution.

            f. Party propaganda publicly claims Republic of Korea and foreign ideological - read capitalist - infiltration of regional areas within nKorea.


Phase Six - Fracture

            a. Internal security agencies or sub-units fail to comply with orders.

            b. General-grade officers at the field level fail to obey orders.

            c. Public execution, with or without show trial, of Core Group member(s). (one incident is not enough to designate complete onset of this phase.)

            d. Active military units physically oppose or are put in a position to oppose each other.

            e. Party propaganda publicly denigrates a number of high-ranking members of the Core Group either by name or by associational affiliation.


Phase Seven - Realignment:  simplest phase to detect; straight forward actions.

            a. Kim Chong-il is removed from power, either voluntarily or by force.  Methods include personal flight from country, assassination, coup d’état, and arrest with imprisonment.  Personal resignation is unlikely.

            b. Oligarchic leadership from Core Group openly announces authority in all decision-making.

            c. Reform resulting in open policies similar to Gorbachev’s Perestroika - economic restructuring.  It is not unlikely that glasnost policies of openness would be simultaneously implemented.  This is unlikely as long as Kim Chong-il is in power.





            The perspective presented in this paper is based upon 22 years of near daily Korean-language study of the nKorean society, political economy, political leadership, and political ideology.   This research, entirely concentrated in open source materials, originated as supplementation to professional duties as a military analyst focusing on nKorea, and culminated in graduate study, in the Korean language, at both the master’s and doctorate levels at Korean universities in Seoul.  This graduate research required numerous papers on various aspects of nKorea as dictated by course of instruction and professorial approval.  A few of these papers have been published in Korean political science journals.  The conclusions of this research are employed in the construction of this perspective.


Robert M. Collins completed 37 years of service as a soldier and U.S. Department of the Army civilian employee. He served 31 years in various assignments with the

U.S. military in Korea, including several liaison positions with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. Mr. Collins’ final assignment was as Chief of Strategy, ROK-US Combined Forces Command, serving the four-star American commander as a political analyst for planning on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian security issues. He received the Sam-il Medal (Republic of Korea Order of National Security Medal, Fourth Class) from President Lee Myung-bak and the U.S. Army Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service by the Secretary of the Army.

Mr. Collins earned a B.A. in Asian History from the University of Maryland in 1977, and an M.A. in International Politics, focusing on North Korean Politics, from Dankook University in 1988. Mr. Collins is a Senior Advisor at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), where he conducts interviews with North Korean escapees living in South Korea to gather data on the North Korean population and their human rights.

He is the author of Marked For Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System; Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial; From Cradle to Grave: The Path of North Korean Innocents; Denied From the Start: Human Rights at the Local Level in North Korea; North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial; and South Africa’s Apartheid and North Korea’s Songbun: Parallels in Crimes Against Humanity; Propaganda and Agitation Department: Kim Jong-un Regimes Sword of Indoctrination which were published by HRNK.





About the Author(s)

Robert Collins is a 37-year veteran employee of the U.S. Department of the Army and served 31 years in various positions with the U.S. military in Korea, the last position as a political advisor for policy and planning to the Commander, ROK-US Combined Forces Command.  He is the author of several reports on North Korean human rights and leadership including  “Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System,”  and "North Korea's Organization and Guidance Department," Committee on Human Rights for North Korea, Washington, DC; and “Strategic Assessment of North Korean Human Environment During Crisis,” United States Forces Korea’s Korean Battle Simulation Center, 2013.