In the years following the Korean War, GDP levels in North and South Korea were roughly equal.  But then the two economies diverged – and today GDP in the South is around eighty times that of the North.

The disparity in wealth between East and West Germany was nothing like as large, and yet while the Soviet bloc crumbled a quarter of century ago, the Kim dynasty continues to rule in Pyongyang. It seems that nothing can dislodge the world’s only hereditary Communist dictatorship – not even the terrible famine of the 1990s.

Still, as Doug Bandow explains in the National Interest, we need to be prepared. Drawing upon the work of Bruce Bennett of the RAND Corporation, Bandow argues that the collapse of the North Korean regime would be nothing like that of East Germany:

“A breakdown of one-man rule in what Bennett called a ‘failing state’ risks a political free-for-all. The North has never tried power-sharing, or any kind of collective leadership. Concluded Bennett: ‘The division of the North into factions would likely precipitate civil war, as at least some of the factions will seek primacy and eventual control of all of North Korea.’ Moreover, the regime or even one faction could strike outward to rally internal support.”

When the Berlin Wall fell, the USSR – itself on the verge of collapse – was in no position to intervene militarily. The same does not apply to the People’s Republic of China, which shares a land border with North Korea and a history of co-belligerence in the Korean War:

“…the PRC also would be tempted to act militarily—to prevent mass refugee flows into China’s border provinces, safeguard Chinese economic interests, and ensure friendly political control in Pyongyang. Beijing’s incentive to act would be even stronger if U.S. forces entered as well.”

Whereas the collapse of communism in eastern Europe was a triumph for the West, the fall of the Kims could result in a stunning defeat for democracy:

“Although most people presume reunification would follow a North Korean collapse, Bennett warned that ‘China could take political control of much of the North, likely in cooperation with one or more North Korean factions. A failure to achieve Korean unification in these circumstances could doom Korea to division for at least many more decades.’”

Would American stand by and allow such a grotesque outcome? It might do if the alternative was a return to military confrontation with China on the Korean peninsula. After all, the last time these two nations fought a war, the best the Americans could achieve was a draw. In today’s world the consequences of a re-match would be unthinkable.

Bandow argues that in the event of regime collapse, American ground forces must stay out – and that, instead, the peacekeeping should be an exclusively Asian affair:

“Bennett figured that between 260,000 and 400,000 troops might be necessary to ‘stabilize’ the North. One option would be a multinational force dominated by the ROK and China but including troops from other Asian nations (though not Japan, for reasons of history).”

That’s sounds fine in theory, but given the tense relations between China and her neighbours it’s difficult to see how they might cooperate on such an arduous mission.

There’s another key consideration: the opening up of North Korea is likely to uncover human rights abuses on a truly horrific scale. We already know something of these crimes from the testimony of escaped dissidents and from satellite images of North Korea’s vast prison camps. However, if, with the fall of the regime, the country is opened up to world’s press, the full extent of the horror will be revealed.

As the images are played and re-played on our screens, one country will be justly blamed for propping-up those responsible. It would therefore suit the Chinese government if the Kims were succeeded by a puppet regime of Beijing’s choosing.