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The Peninsula

How North Koreans Might Organize an Insurgency After Unification

Published September 22, 2017
Category: North Korea

By Paul Sung

After North Korea collapses, the biggest threat to South Korea may be the potential insurgents who rise from the ashes of the Kim regime.

If Kim Jong-un and his inner circle are eliminated, most North Korean elites will not take chances or leave themselves vulnerable to the whims of U.S. and South Korean leaders. They can never be completely sure that their security and freedom will be upheld by surrendering and cooperating with the U.S. or South Korea (ROK). Especially, if they are complicit in crimes against humanity. As a result, some elites could rationalize organized resistance against a ROK-US absorption of the entire Korean peninsula.

If South Korea fails to draw a significant number of North Korean elites to their side, then it will likely face a plethora of challenges from an asymmetric force that seeks to delegitimize South Korean governance.

The Major Problems

Insurgencies are conflicts that aim to gain the influence and legitimacy of populations away from sovereign authorities. Both insurgent and counterinsurgent forces aim to shift perceptions to their own advantage. The reunified government, bearing more responsibilities to its civilian constituents, would have to manage both North Korean and South Korean perceptions. Under the reunified Korean government, a certain number of North Korean elites will have to be in power in order to maintain the public order with their familiarity with the local infrastructures. The reunified Korean government would have to ensure that the actions of North Korean officials remaining in power do not compromise positive perceptions about the legitimate government.

The conduct of North Korean leaders under a South Korean-led government is something that no one can predict. It is paramount that the government establishes institutional mechanisms, training, and assimilation for North Korean local leaders to minimize the risk of abuse and scandal. The legitimacy and trust in the reunified government would be in jeopardy if local leaders abuse their powers and do not conduct themselves appropriately. Local leaders must also not allow insurgent organizations to grow or use excessive force in containing them. They have to be reminded that they live in different parameters from the North Korean system of internal security.

Although economic development and humanitarian aid can positively influence North Koreans, those tools can be double-edged swords that allow North Koreans to overestimate the capabilities of the government. If they perceive themselves as second-class citizens who cannot reap the full riches of a globalizing society, then they may be inclined to follow other authorities that are more legitimate in their eyes. This inclination would further be exacerbated if North Koreans complicit in committing injustices against their peers benefit from the unified regime. The reunified government would have to minimize the threat of grievances and propagate clear messages of its goals and accomplishments.

What a North Korean Insurgency Might Look Like

The Kim family over the decades purposefully maintained restraints on military officers to keep them from consolidating too much power. Under the songbun system, society and government entities are divided up in order to ensure that they inevitably focus on loyalty to Kim Il-sung and his descendants. In the absence of this system, structures within North Korean insurgencies would form from the networks and norms already existing in the country.

According to Paul Staniland, there are four types of insurgent groups identified according to their central and local processes of control: integrated, vanguard, parochial, and fragmented. Integrated organization has a robust unity in leadership and local compliancy, vanguard organizations have strong central unity but weak local control, parochial groups have weak central unity but strong local control, and fragmented organizations have neither good central or local levels of control. In the absence of the central DPRK government, North Korean elite-led insurgencies would most likely form parochial groups that have centralized local groups.

The Kim regime has likely eliminated the possibility of integrated insurgencies because they are the most potent threats to the state. As a result, mechanisms for interagency competition and conflicting interests within the government and military reduce the likelihood of coherency and unity without North Korea’s top leaders in an insurgent scenario. Elites, however, may exploit preexisting mechanisms used for bribing, intelligence sharing, policing, and blackmailing that would allow control over local authorities. This organizational structure would mitigate losses from counterinsurgent decapitation strategies, but it would be vulnerable to divide-and-control strategies.

Although nationalism infused with the worship of Kim Il-sung may motivate some insurgents, shared norms and expectations among North Koreans would not likely overcome the level of distrust among themselves. As a result, these groups may be structured based on economic endowments, rather than social ones, especially if they already have easy access to foreign money-making networks, rare earth minerals (REEs), narcotics, and CBRN (chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear) materials. Given these resources, stakes in the productivity and cooperation of the civilian population would be relatively small and North Korean insurgents may be more short-term-oriented rather than long-term-oriented.

If North Korean insurgents are more interested in short-term goals of survival, then they may rush to recruit large numbers of people. Given such an influx of untrusted group members, the sub-organizations within insurgent groups will likely be centralized because they would not want to risk giving up real authority to the hands of their agents. Sub-organizational centralization would limit major decision-making to a few authorities who carry out a coherent strategy, but this strategy may come into conflict with the strategy of the main insurgent organizations. A fast, broad recruitment process, however, would put less effort in screening recruits; thus, the pool of insurgents may be characterized by declining discipline, desperation for basic necessities, and abuse of status. If that is the case, North Korean organizations may lean towards the more violent spectrum of insurgencies against civilians, perhaps looking like the Shining Path’s Comite Regional del Alto Huallaga (CRH) in Peru, a regional committee in the Upper Huallaga Valley that prioritized military training and control of coca production and trafficking. Depending on their calculus of survival, North Korean insurgents, like the centralized Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, may even use children like the million-strong middle school Red Youth Guards for suicide attacks in order to destabilize the logistics of counterinsurgent forward deployments.

The insurgent strategy of survival would likely involve concentrating forces in central provinces close to Pyongyang and the northeastern region close to the Rason and North Hamgyong provinces. Those regions would not only be in close proximity to resource-rich regions like Jongju and the Macheonryeong mountain range, but they would also be near domestic and international borders. Such locations would help them avoid pressure from government forces and complicate reactions and coordination among different authorities. Presuming that the current borders in North Korea stay the same, it would be no surprise if the North Koreans mirror this strategy by setting up bases of operation in regions near domestic borders like the South Hamgyong-South Pyongan-North Hwanghae-Kangwon region and South-Pyonghang-Pyongyang-North-Hwanghae regions and international borders with China and Russia.

Countering North Korean insurgencies will be a daunting task for the reunified Korean government that will likely span years, if not decades. In order to undermine the legitimacy and efficacy of these groups, the South Korean-led counterinsurgents would have to balance expectations and utilize their own networks with regional great powers to disrupt and fragment insurgent ties among leaders and the local populace. They would also need the cooperation of regional actors like China and Russia to restrict logistical channels that support these insurgents.

Paul Sung is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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