Event Date: April 2, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has done what U.S. and U.N. sanctions have not been able to do. It has forced North Korea “to shut off almost all outside trade,” David Maxwell (Col., Ret., U.S. Army) told participants on a Jewish Policy Center conference call April 2.
“The virus could have damaging effects” on Kim Jung-un’s dictatorship, Maxwell said. If it does, and that leads to conflict within North Korea or between it and South Korea, the consequences would be global, he warned.
A senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Maxwell spent 30 years in the U.S. military, more than 20 of that in Asia. He helped draft the original United States-South Korea-United Nations’ plan for dealing with possible regime collapse in North Korea and taught national security strategy at the U.S. Army War College.
Considered a leading American expert on the Hermit Kingdom, Maxwell nevertheless said “we really don’t know what’s going on inside” what he termed Kim’s “mafia family-type cult regime.” Washington has “only anecdotal evidence,” some of it from defectors, including former members of the North Korean military.
Included in that evidence are “reports that as many as 200 soldiers have died from the virus.” That means “there is potential for a really serious outbreak” in the north. Pyongyang has forbidden more than 100 freighters outside North Korean ports from entering, according to Maxwell.
The regime already imposes “draconian control measures” on North Korea’s 23 million people to ensure the military—the world’s fourth-largest, though heavily reliant on obsolete Soviet armament—gets what it needs and Kim’s “loyal regime court” what it wants, including luxury items from abroad. “Survival of the regime is Kim’s primary,” in fact “only aim.” Maxwell said.
North Korea already divides its population into 51 categories, from elite and loyal to disloyal, he said. A pervasive and “evil” police state system of coercion, including communist-style regular self-criticism and neighbor-criticism sessions means the entire society functions like the former Soviet gulag system of fear, internal exile and prison.
A Vise-Grip on Power
Even though as many as three million North Koreans perished in the 1993 – 1996 famine, Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, maintained power. The regime and the people “demonstrated tremendous resilience,” Maxwell said. A subsequent “sunshine period” that saw the government ease some economic controls, plus foreign money and aid “saved the regime from collapse.” And, he added, enable it to stage its first nuclear test in 2006.
In any case, Kim Jong-un “certainly is afraid of the effects of the virus,” Maxwell added. He said North Korea’s “medical system is so poor … it’s unlikely to be able to deal with a widespread outbreak” of the virus. It therefore was possible the regime would seal off any hot spots of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and kill not only those infected but also those around them.
To illustrate the regime’s ruthlessness, Maxwell noted that three years ago North Korean operatives, using the highly toxic VX chemical nerve agent, assassinated Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur international airport. How did the regime know it would work as desired in such a setting? “Live human testing.”
In addition, public executions have been conducted for decades, using heavy machine guns, Maxwell added. Some members of the ruling elite who are exposed to Western influences—there are now 6.5 million smartphones in North Korea—may be dissatisfied but nevertheless depend on the regime for survival and promotion. Should pandemic devastation destabilize Kim’s rule, “civil war” among elements of the military for resources and authority seems more likely that a public uprising.
If upheaval occurred, many among the eight or nine million North Koreans who live within five days walk of either China or South Korea could take to the roads. But China doesn’t want them and South Korea is not prepared, Maxwell said.
Meanwhile, in the past year, Kim has launched 20 test rockets and missiles, to no response from Washington or Seoul, he said. A long-term goal of this program is for North Korea to be able to better target the 25,000-member U.S. troop deployment in South Korea, including bases for America’s F-35 stealth fighter-bombers.
Kim’s Dangerous Temptation
Should the pandemic spark a worst-case scenario in North Korea and Kim Jong-un fear “he can’t maintain control … he might execute his campaign to use force to unify the [Korean] peninsula.” Defectors have told Maxwell and others that the only thing preventing such a war has been “the presence of U.S. forces and fear of a U.S. nuclear response.” The problem with such a counterbalance, he said, is that “deterrence works, until it doesn’t.”
War on the Korean peninsula would be on a bigger scale than any conflict involving the United States since the original Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, Maxwell cautioned.
Complicating American analysis, diplomacy and military preparations is South Korea’s “very dangerous” concept of “one country, two systems,” he said. President Moon Jae-in envisions not one Korea unified under the Republic of Korea in the South, but a confederation with a North that for seven decades “has executed a strategy to infiltrate and undermine” the democratic South. “We need to be very concerned about that,” Maxwell warned.
Though American and South Korean forces are superior to the North’s in training, technology and logistics and likely to prevail in combat, “70 percent of the North Korean military is arrayed all along the DMZ [demilitarized zone] in an offensive posture,” he noted, with the South’s capital of Seoul only 30 miles away and in range of part of the North’s large artillery force. Meanwhile, the South’s and American forces hold a defensive posture.
“Kim is being criticized within the elite for failure to get sanctions relief” after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon, Maxwell said. North Korean propaganda does not attack Trump directly, but does go after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Maxwell said. “They think they were successful getting rid of [former National Security advisors] H.R. McMaster and John Bolton,” who advocated a harder line with Kim, and now “they want to get rid of Pompeo.”
If failure to gain sanctions relief and the virus lead the regime to risk aggression against the South, “all bets are off.” Only one of Kim’s top generals is a non-political military man, Maxwell said. Hearing from “yes men,” the North Korean leader “may well underestimate U.S. and South Korean military abilities.”