What's Our Plan if North Korea Collapses? No Plan.

Some thoughts are even more disturbing than the idea of Kim Jong Il's controlling an arse nal of poison gas, germ-war cul tures and nuclear devices. Like what if the North Korean leader suddenly didn't control those weapons of mass de struction? The question became particu larly worrisome last week after Kim failed to show up at a major parade in Pyong yang marking the Stalinist regime's 60th anniversary. The Dear Leader hadn't ap peared in public for weeks, and senior North Korean officials soothed no one's doubts when they broke their usual silence to deny that Kim had suffered a stroke. With no solid information on Kim's health—even his best friends, the Chinese, said they knew nothing—Washington could only hope North Korea wasn't on the verge of a succession crisis.

That would be last thing the region needed. Kim, a former smoker who's 66 and is more than fond of good food and drink, has no designated successor. While no one in North Korea is in a position to challenge the military's grip on power, ri valries within the top ranks might get ugly, South Koreans worry. "The possibility of a complete collapse of the system [in the North] is not low," warned the influential Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo. "In that case, it will be difficult to predict the moves of the 1.17 million North Korean soldiers armed with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons." Still, what really scares South Koreans is not the North's military but its desperately poor civilian population. If the demilitarized zone were to disappear as suddenly as the Berlin wall did, the South's economy would undoubtedly be crushed by the overwhelming poverty of the North.

Despite those fears, Washington and Seoul have no real contingency plans in case of a regime collapse in Pyongyang. "The question has been completely taboo," says Andrei Lankov, a North Ko rea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. "The major players are completely unpre pared. The South Koreans don't want to touch it, and the U.S. takes its lead from the South." The closest thing to an emer gency protocol was conplan (Concept Plan) 5029, which outlined nonmilitary steps to cope with refugees, WMD risks and other problems in the event of a North Korean collapse. But three years ago the Americans sought to add military measures to the plan. Seoul refused, cit ing concerns about national sovereignty. The two sides vaguely agreed to "up grade" the original deal instead.

Still, U.S. officials seem largely uncon cerned about the current situation. The odds are that Kim is recovering, they say. And if he doesn't, North Korea's secretive leadership will likely set up a governing committee to take over as smoothly as possi ble. None of the Dear Leader's three sons seems ready to fill his shoes. The youngest is barely out of his teens; the middle one is said to have health problems, and the eldest notoriously got caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport. Even so, experts say the new regime is likely to include a token fami ly member, for the appearance of continuity.

If there are any problems, the Bush ad ministration is betting that Beijing and Seoul will do anything necessary to stabilize the situation. Neither neighbor wants to be flooded with refugees. China deployed 100,000 troops along its North Korean frontier in 2004 to head off an earlier wave of refugees. If necessary, those forces could push southward to Pyongyang to impose order. The Chinese already exert a powerful hold on Kim's country. North Korea im ports more than 80 percent of its daily ne cessities from China, and Chinese firms control much of the country's natural- resource production. "While Seoul and Washington sat idly, Beijing vigorously pre pared for any emergencies in the North," says Park Young Ho, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Even in the unlikely event that China failed to restore order, U.S. security officials aren't too worried about the threat of loose North Korean nukes. Military analysts say there's no evidence Pyongyang has anything close to a deliverable nuclear weapon (as op posed to the underground test devices that have been detonated deep in the northern mountains). In fact, the evidence says they do not. No matter how bad the chaos might get, no one is likely to drop the bomb—or auction one off. Kim's stockpiles of plutoni um probably aren't going anywhere either. Defense experts say America has monitor ing technology in place to detect shipments of nuclear materials out of North Korea.

The regime can't go on forever. After six decades of disastrous rule by Kim and his father, their country is in ruins, utterly dependent on foreign assistance. The in evitable end may not be as catastrophic as some people fear. But as Jonathan Pollock, a North Korea expert at the U.S. Naval War College, warns: "We should all get ready for a very bumpy ride."