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