Black Swans in the Land of the Morning Calm: Civil Affairs and the Possible Futures of the Korean Pe

Updated: Feb 8, 2020


The prospect for peace on the Korean Peninsula in recent months has resulted in the cancellation of combined military exercises and called into question the future roll of the American military presence. Many would argue that a warming of relations between the ROK/U.S. Alliance and the DPRK will decrease the threat to peace in Northeast Asia. This paper will demonstrate that peace presents its own challenges and problems, some of which are just as threatening to ROK/U.S. interests as the previous adversarial relationship. This paper also argues that U.S. Army Civil Affairs is the premiere shaping force to prepare for an uncertain future.

The moment was surreal as the President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Moon Jae In, and the Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong Un (KJU), approached each other at Panmunjom. These were the leaders of two nations locked in a bitter battle of legitimacy, teetering on the precipice of renewed war, for over sixty years. Smiles broke out across their faces as their hands clasped together over the demarcation line. This handshake at Panmunjom was a “Black Swan”; an event previously thought to be impossible and whose occurrence had a massive disruptive impact that changed the course of future events.[i] This paper argues that working by, with, and through ROK counterparts Civil Affairs Forces can help plan now and get ahead of an enormous humanitarian crisis that may come and destabilize the region, exhausting resources on a massive scale. But this can be mitigated if we prepare. There is latent potential to unlock by using CA forces, operationalizing their core competencies and their nested functions to optimize gains on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of future Black Swan events.

Today, changes are taking place at a rapid pace in the Korean Theater of Operations (KTO); possible futures range from unprecedented peace to devastating chaos. Any future strategy must be low key and high impact; it must strengthen our ROK allies, preserve readiness of ROK and U.S. Forces, be feasible to implement, and promote stability in Northeast Asia. This paper examines the role of CA in the KTO in two Black Swan scenarios; one involving security cooperation, and the other, regime collapse. When planning for these contingencies, CA must leverage the capabilities of both the Active Component (AC) and the Reserve Component (RC) and prepare to meet the unknown as a unified Regiment of professionals who bring Order from Chaos.

Security Cooperation

According to the National Security Strategy, “Together with our allies, partners, and aspiring partners, the United States will pursue cooperation with reciprocity. Cooperation means sharing responsibilities and burdens.”[ii]

While a precarious peace now seems possible, the idea of Security Cooperation (SC) with the DPRK or that government’s direct request for help from the ROK/U.S. Alliance seems impossible. However, recent history teaches us that the impossible routinely becomes possible. The fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the Arab Spring, the election of Donald Trump, and the handshake at Panmunjom all demonstrate how quickly the world can change. The real question is not “can this happen?” but, “what will we do if this does happen?” What is our strategy if the DPRK becomes an “aspiring partner?” A Black Swan scenario in the DPRK would fit the description of the Future Operating Environment (FOE) described in the Civil Affairs 2025 and Beyond White Paper (CA 2025) where there will be “pockets of relative stability and instability, often in close proximity within defined geographic areas, in which human security is affected by changing environmental conditions, scarcity of resources, and natural or man-made disasters.”[iii]

If the DPRK continues on the path to reform and reconciliation with the ROK, it will become vital to U.S. National Security interests to ensure the stability and security of the North. Actions to address “Citizens’ lack of confidence in the central government’s ability to provide governance, security, or other essential community services” will need to be undertaken in order to prevent “declining legitimacy of state authority.”[iv] Such a scenario requires four main efforts: stabilizing governmental structures, increasing accountability and responsiveness to the civil populace, disaster response and mitigation, and preventing and reacting to a health crisis.

Stabilizing Governmental Structures

Government reform and stabilization efforts would best be carried out by the ROK Government (ROKG) and the ROK Army (ROKA) conducting Support to Civil Administration (SCA) with DPRK counterparts. A program to leverage the cross-functional specialties and civilian expertise of U.S. RC CA Soldiers from the United States Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC) and the 351st Civil Affairs Command (CACOM) to coordinate with, train, and mentor ROKG and ROKA personnel to prepare for such a contingency must begin as soon as possible. This program can leverage the framework of the Ulchi portion of the canceled Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise. An SCA effort to stabilize the DPRK government can then be bolstered by a program to reform military and security forces to make them more responsive to the civil populace.

Accountability and Responsiveness to the Civil Populace

A Foreign Assistance (FA) program with an emphasis on support to Foreign Internal Defense (FID) spearheaded by the 97th CA Battalion (BN) and their ROK Special Warfare Command (ROKSWC) counterparts can be carried out via a Civil Military Support Element (CMSE). The creation of a FID program through persistant engagement with ROK partners will develop a cadre that can train and influence DPRK counterparts is essential. Such a program must focus on strategies to reform the DPRK military and police force, develop non-lethal capabilities, protect the populace, and bolster government legitimacy during times of crisis or disaster.

Disaster Response and Mitigation

Disasters can weaken even strong governments, and “North Korea is much more vulnerable to extreme weather events than its southern neighbor, where floods cause fatalities, damage crop yields and cause widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure.”[v] The inability of the DPRK to effectively respond to a major disaster can undermine and destabilize the regime just as it begins to moderate and reform. To mitigate the negative effects of a disaster, ROK/U.S. Alliance training programs and tabletop exercises focused on Foreign Humanitarian Assistance (FHA) and Populace and Resources Control (PRC) facilitated by KTO CJ9/G9/S9 directorates, ROKA/ROKG partners, 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion (CA BN), and the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management (CFE-DM) can fill the void left by canceled stability exercises.

FHA exercises should also include Intergovernmental Organizations (IO’s) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) to establish and maintain networks, increase transparency, create a shared understanding, and build a more effective response.[vi] In the future, such combined exercises may even include members of the DPRK government, military, or police, in order to build trust and confidence.

The backbone for such FHA exercises should be an understanding of civil considerations and operational variables in the DPRK. As CA 2025 states “The ability to collect complex data sets, often in foreign languages, requires the corresponding skill to analyze the information.”[vii] A Regimental effort to expand knowledge of civil considerations has already begun under the 19th ESC G9’s “Project W” Civil Information Management (CIM) and Digital Civil Reconnaissance (DCR) program and should expand in order to support possible future contingencies from FHA to providing information tracking public health concerns.

Public Health and the Risk of a Pandemic

According to the “DPR Korea Needs and Priorities” assessment, the DPRK suffers from:

inadequate quality of health care services, a situation exacerbated in rural areas, with lack of essential medical equipment, pharmaceutical remedies, appropriate referral systems, therapeutic equipment and assistive devices, as well as the limited professional capacity of the health care providers. Furthermore, health infrastructure is poor with many having inconsistent water, electricity, and heating.[viii]

As the DPRK liberalizes, there will be more foreign visitors to the country, increasing the chances of a health crisis that crosses international borders. A training program led by RC CA functional specialists in Public Health and Education and enhanced by AC CA CIM, PRC, and FHA specialists will brace ROKG/ROKA for inevitableassistance requests from the DPRK. Like other efforts, this can be carried out via the network established under UFG and previous stability exercises.

The above efforts, planned by AC and RC CA forces and executed by, with, and through ROK partners will form the basis of a necessary relationship with the DPRK that can transform the trajectory of events in the KTO. However, even if carried out flawlessly, there is no guarantee of success or stabilization. Black Swans are notorious for disrupting the best of plans and creating complete chaos.


According to North Korean expert Andrei Lankov, regime collapse may happen so suddenly that “even presidents and prime ministers of great powers might learn about such a crisis from TV news reports rather than from predictions by their diplomats and reports from their spymasters.”[ix] The sudden death of KJU or a revolt by generals and officials dissatisfied with the direction of the government may lead to civil war. A popular uprising, fueled by what Frans Cronje calls the curse of rising expectations, may lead to the type of mass riots and governmental collapse that defined the Arab Spring.

The collapse of the DPRK may trigger an unprecedented regional humanitarian crisis. To restore order, the ROK/U.S. Alliance must be prepared to influence moderate forces in the North, and to advise those forces in a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign to stabilize the country. In addition to the above-listed problems is the fact that the DPRK possesses Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The specter of such a collapse demands a mix of reserve and active duty CA forces that are “highly adaptive and expeditionary, capable of building and employing local, regional, and transregional networks to achieve national military and political objectives.”[x]

Humanitarian Crisis

According to the United Nations 2018 DPR Korea Needs and Priorities, 10.3 million people suffer from food insecurity.[xi] In the event of regime collapse followed by internal chaos or civil war, these people may flee for safety across the northern border to China or Russia. Others may stream south and attempt to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or put out to sea from eastern ports attempting to reach Japan. As CA 2025 states, “These immigrants could become resentful, begin to promote perceived failures of the host society, and incite further unrest and instability.”[xii] Such a scenario would risk the destabilization of Northeast Asia and a humanitarian nightmare.

A CA effort to mitigate the effects of such a crisis starts with RC CA functional specialists training side by side with ROK counterparts in SCA planning workshops. Preparation for FHA operations falls to KTO assigned CJ9/G9/S9 elements in conjunction with CFE-DM and ROKG/ROKA counterparts, who will conduct tabletop exercises and develop CIM and DCR to support possible contingencies. Elements of the 83rd CA BN and 97th CA BN will leverage SOF language skills and regional knowledge to work with ROKA and ROKSWC, respectively, to train for PRC and NA.

In order to stem the flow of people across borders, the ROK/U.S. Alliance will need to influence moderate forces within the DPRK and build the capacity to restore order.

Influence and Building Partnership Capacity

Engagement by RC CA with ROKG/ROKA via cooperative exchanges, planning scenarios, and tabletop exercises focused on SCA will lay the groundwork for future ROK led efforts to support and influence governance in secure areas. The 97th CA BN, working with ROKSWC, will begin the work of creating a populace-centric FID training program to shape the development of future DPRK partners. Meanwhile, the 19th ESC G9 takes the lead in planning combined logistics exercises to support possible future FHA operations while the 83rd CA BN will work with ROKA units to prepare for possible PRC missions. Preparations for such missions require a combined CIM effort to map supporting civil infrastructure and identify possible problems leveraging “multi-relational data mining, link analysis, and sentiment analysis to identify actors, patterns, and critical information in cyberspace that shapes the operational environment.”[xiii]

In the aftermath of the collapse, ROK partners influence and build the capacity of sympathetic forces and create zones of stability. However, other regional actors may be carrying out similar work in the DPRK in order to create client states aligned with their national and strategic interests. Regional powers, working via these client states, may seek to disrupt the zones of stability established by the ROK/U.S. Alliance.


In the attempt to stabilize areas of the DPRK there will remain some under-governed enclaves[xiv] where state and non-state actors may seek to establish a base for further influence. In line with the solutions put forth in CA 2025, “CA elements must integrate with conventional, special operations, and surgical strike forces. They will be required to operate with and through U.S. partners and indigenous populations to shape the operating environment.” [xv]

Some may argue that a combined counterinsurgency training and advising program is not feasible given the current political climate. In actuality, key pieces of such a program, conducted via previously mentioned influence and BPC programs will serve as a base should the need arise.

The 97th CA BN CMSE FA and FID program will form the basis of future programs that also seek to engage and influence sympathetic military and paramilitary forces. CMSE personnel will be prepared to link ROKSWC partners with other SOF elements at Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR) to augment soft skills with hard skills.

CIM products produced in support of PRC by KTO assigned CJ9/G9/S9 elements, such as 19th ESC G9’s “Project W” DCR program, will provide an overview of relevant civil considerations and operational variables essential to navigating the human terrain.

The specter of mentoring DPRK partner forces engaged in counterinsurgency while also establishing mechanisms of governance seems daunting. In reality, the largest problem set is yet to come and is the one that has fueled the crisis in the KTO for over twenty years.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

USASOC Strategy 2035 states, “the potential for destabilized governments to lose control of weapons will challenge security and interests of nations around the world to an unprecedented degree.”[xvi] The collapse of the DPRK will pose a special threat since the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and people “is a core activity that defines in fundamental ways the nature of the North Korean state.”[xvii] A long history of state-sponsored illicit activities means that there networks of people, both inside and outside of the DPRK who are willing, ready, and able to facilitate the transport of WMDs and WMD material.

The WMD problem set during a time of regime collapse will be a complex problem that draws on assets and skillsets from the humanitarian, influence and capacity building, and counterinsurgency mission sets. FHA operations in conjunction with PRC will move civil populations out of areas of interest or secure the populace while WMDs are moved out. Conducting FHA and PRC operations by, with, and through an appropriately trained and receptive indigenous force may remove the drivers of illicit activity. Indigenous forces will also be able to assist ROK/U.S. personnel in securing sites and tracking down weapons. ROK/U.S. CA forces conducting SCA to shape indigenous governance structures and improve oversight will increase border security. CIM products and data produced in support of other efforts will inform ROK/U.S. commanders and support indigenous efforts to safeguard and interdict WMD material.

Planning for all of these contingencies will increase ROK/U.S. ability to understand and influence key populations and help to establish order in times of crisis.

Order from Chaos

The handshake at Panmunjom between the leaders of North and South Korea led to another handshake a few months later. Donald J. Trump became the first sitting President in U.S. history to shake hands with a North Korean leader when he met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. “Shortly after the U.S. and South Korean militaries formally announced the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises slated for August had been called off.”[xviii]

As it stands now, traditional exercises to prepare for hostilities in the KTO are frozen. However, combined training, tabletop exercises, and subject matter expert exchanges based on humanitarian operations and disaster response are non-offensive and low key. Such exercises preserve the readiness of both ROK and U.S. Forces and hone abilities to react to events anywhere. Due to the non-threatening, humanitarian, and overt nature of Civil Affairs Operations, CA forces are best-positioned to play a leading role in the KTO to mitigate the detrimental effects of Black Swan events. Teaching, coaching, and mentoring utilizing the five core tasks, Civil Affairs Soldiers can provide the tools, develop the networks, and build the capacity to strengthen the ROK/U.S. Alliance, promote stability in Northeast Asia, and prepare for multiple futures.

About the Author

SSG(P) Matthew Peterson is a Civil Affairs Team Leader with B. Co. 91st Civil Affairs Battalion (Special Operations) (Airborne). Previously he served for two years as the G9 NCOIC of 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command in the Republic of Korea where he pioneered a program to map the Civil Terrain of North Korea and worked on contingency Foreign Humanitarian Assistance plans for the peninsula. In addition, he has served with the 84th and 83rd Civil Affairs Battalions, 3/7 Infantry, 2/136 Infantry, 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines, and with the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Nimitz. He holds an MBA in International Business and Finance from Oklahoma City University and a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies and Languages from Minnesota State University Moorhead. He has seven years of civilian experience in Asia, living, studying, and working in Japan, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. He currently resides in Spring Lake, North Carolina where he lives with his wife Reiko and daughter Yumi.

End Notes

[i] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. (New York: Random House, 2007), xvii-xviii.

[ii] Donald Trump, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: White House, 2017),

[iii] U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence, Civil Affairs Operations 2025 and Beyond White Paper. (Fort Bragg, NC: Civil Affairs Proponent, 2017), 5.

[iv] Ibid., 7.

[v] Leo Bryne, “Tropical cyclone currently forecast to hit North Korea,” NKNews. August 22, 2018, accessed August 15, 2018,

[vi] Civil Affairs 2025, 11.

[vii] Ibid., 13.

[viii] United Nations Humanitarian Country Team DPRK, 2018 DPR Korea Needs and Priorities (New York, NY: United Nations, 2018),

[ix] Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 234.

[x] Frans Cronje, A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years (Cape Town, South Africa: Tafelberg, 2014), Loc 71, Kindle.

[xi] DPR Korea Needs and Priorities, 19.

[xii] Civil Affairs 2025, 6.

[xiii]Ibid., 13.

[xiv] Ibid., 6.

[xv] Ibid., 11.

[xvi] USASOC Strategy 2035, United States Army Special Operations Command, April, 2016, 4.

[xvii] Moises Naim, Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2005), 27.

[xviii] “U.S., South Korea nix ‘war game’ in name of ‘momentum’”, Associated Press, June 19, 2018, accessed August 20, 2018.