The Boy Scout Plan for a North Korean Collapse: Be Prepared


On September 24, 2013 Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute published an essay  critiquing Bruce Bennett’s new RAND report released on September 19, 2013 on the possibility of the collapse of North Korea.  Hayes takes to task those who us who have warned and written about the possibility of North Korean regime collapse, to include yours truly.

I make no apologies for being a “collapsist.” I do not have thin skin about being challenged and in fact hope that Peter Hayes puts together a conference to discuss it as I will gladly attend (Editor’s Note: WOTR would be happy to host a podcast debate at the Jefferson Hotel bar).  But I do feel passionately about being prepared for the worst and not just hoping for the best.  It is true that North Korea did not collapse in the 1990’s when those of us began looking at the problem in detail.  Perhaps the life of the regime has been extended due to the decade long Sunshine Policy.   But few predicted when it would collapse, only that if it does collapse the R.O.K./U.S. Alliance and international community had better be prepared.  We still believe that to be so.

While people can wish away regime collapse, it is the height of irresponsibility to not prepare for an event that is not only very possible, but could have a catastrophic impact on international security and stability as well as the global economy because the economies of the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and Russia would be effected by a collapse. This is what prudent strategists, policymakers, and military planners do.  It could happen next week or next month; next year or in a decade or longer.  While we can hope that there will a collapse would be more akin to the demise of East Germany and the Warsaw Pact, most who take even a cursory look at the situation on the Korean Peninsula can see the great differences that exist that make the potential for conflict and humanitarian suffering far greater than any European analogies of the last three decades.

Effective preparations for collapse could actually have the benefit of mitigating the worst the effects of collapse so much so that collapsists like me will be accused of over-reacting.  But it is in the absence of preparation that the greatest catastrophes in war and human suffering occur. I am happy to be proven wrong but I think the only way to have a chance at preventing the worst is to prepare for the worst.   Those who count on north Korea not collapsing do a great disservice to the Alliance and the Korean people (those in the North and South).

Further complicating regime collapse is the possibility that the process of collapse could lead to a decision to go to war so collapse and war planning should be linked.  That will be a subject for future columns.

(For the record and to correct two errors in Dr. Hayes’ essay, the monograph I wrote on north Korean collapse was in 1996 vice 2006 and I have never been the “head” of US Special Forces in Korea, simply the Director of Plans Policy, and Strategy for one tour and the Chief of Staff for a second tour at the Special Operations Command Korea.)


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.


Photo Credit: Graeme Lawton, Flickr