What happens if North Korea collapses?

The Week
A man walks past propaganda posters in Pyongyang, North Korea on March 26.
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A man walks past propaganda posters in Pyongyang, North Korea on March 26.

Pyongyang is threatening nuclear war. But that might not even be the worst-case scenario

North Korea shut down its last military hotline to South Korea on Wednesday, warning that nuclear war was imminent. The threat was the latest in a series of increasingly belligerent statements made by the Hermit Kingdom since world leaders imposed sanctions as punishment for the communist regime's recent missile and nuclear tests. Pyongyang has threatened to nuke both South Korea and the U.S.

On the bright side, security experts say North Korea doesn't have the ability to strike the U.S., and war on the Korean Peninsula is far from inevitable. "The North's wild gesticulations are unsettling," but "this is the seventh time Pyongyang has renounced the 1953 cease-fire" with the South, Doug Bandow points out at The American Spectator. "War has yet to erupt." One can't take anything for granted, but there's little reason to believe that North Korea's untested young leader, Kim Jong Un, "and those around him have turned suicidal after the death of his father."

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North Korea is certainly dangerous, but as many experts point out, this is a war that the West would likely win. Perhaps that's why officials in Washington have been planning to confront "a more insidious threat: the untimely collapse of Kim Jong Un's government," says Geoffrey Ingersoll at Business Insider. This is the most closed-off country in the world. If its struggling regime finally collapses, our forces will have to dash over the 38th parallel blind to secure North Korea's nuclear stockpiles and long-range missiles in a rush that will make "the Pentagon's frenzied scramble looking for Iraq's WMD's look calm and orderly by comparison."

The Army has conducted war games to prepare, says James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, and it took 90,000 American troops 56 days to get into a dummy failed nuclear state and round up its nukes. If we ever do have to go into North Korea, "it would not be a cakewalk."

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The trouble is, says Robert Taylor at PolicyMic, the "threats, sanctions, and dangerous, tax-guzzling war games off the Korean Peninsula" are costing the U.S. big-time, even if there's no war and the North Korean regime somehow manages to stay afloat. With President Obama's pivot to Asia, we're adding to billions to the fortune we've spent meddling in Korean affairs over the past several decades. In this time of sequester cuts, Taylor says, this kind of thing could be "disastrous to the fiscal state of America." As Dennis Rodman suggested, maybe the time has come for the U.S. to "try a little basketball diplomacy instead."

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