Even though North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un popped up at a fertilizer plant on Friday, speculation has been rampant about his health and the stability of the notoriously unstable nuclear-armed country.
Intelligence officials from Texas to Taiwan weighed in on the health of Pyongyang's basketball-loving leader, with some speculating he was in a vegetative state after receiving a botched heart operation. Others claimed he was wounded by an explosion from a missile test while another chalked up his 20-day disappearance from the public eye as Kim just being Kim.
But if the rumors had been true and the dictator did die - or was on the verge of dying - what would happen to the cache of nuclear weapons and missiles the country has bragged about?
Turns out, there is a plan in place and it's part "Cops" part "Mission Impossible."
Operations Plan 5029, or OPLAN 5029, was prepared for a scenario when a sudden shift in power or massive instability occurred in North Korea - something that could happen if Kim was sick or removed from power and his sister, Kim Yo Jong, wasn't able to step in.
The U.S.-South Korean contingency plan, created in 2008 among heightened tensions from Pyongyang's missile launch, addresses everything from securing the border to sending in secret operatives to find Pyongyang's nuclear stockpile and prevent it from being used, stolen or sold to the shadiest bidder.
"The million-dollar question is: When do you invoke the OPLAN and what indicators do you rely on to do so? Because one country's 'securing the country' operation can look to the other nation like an 'invasion plan.' And then all hell can break loose," Vipin Narang, a North Korea nuclear specialist at MIT, told The Associated Press.
OPLAN was created at the request of then-South Korean President Lee Hyuang-bak who asked the United States and South Korea's Combined Forces Command to finalize a joint action plan that would be ready to respond to instabilities in North Korea that could be further complicated by civil war, refugees and an anemic economy.
In 2009, the U.S. and ROK militaries agreed that if something were to go down, the U.S. would take the lead in securing and eliminating weapons of mass destruction.
According to a 2015 RAND report, a major point of concern is whether the U.S. would have sufficient troop strength to lead in a post-Kim world. According to the study of troop size requirements, the U.S. would need more than 850,000 military personnel which would need to include members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. About 160 vessels and 2,000 aircraft would likely be moved to the Korean region. Such a big presence would be needed to secure and remove WMD any materials with "enough fissionable plutonium and uranium by build up to 75 weapons by 2020," the report said.
Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii, warns U.S. intervention should only be about the nukes.
"Beyond that, it makes little sense for the U.S. and/or South Korea to get involved in internal North Korean power struggles," he said.
If the United States makes the wrong move, the consequences could be deadly.
Among the biggest unknowns would be the actual coordination with South Korea's military at a time when Chinese troops would likely be operating in North Korea and funding military and humanitarian efforts.
"China is better positioned than the rest of us if a succession crisis happened, but even China has few inroads and limited leverage," Van Jackson, a former senior defense official for Korea policy told the Asia Times.
Foreign affairs expert Gordon Chang told Fox News he has his doubts about China having the upper hand.
"I wonder whether we are able to implement OPLAN 5029 at this moment, especially with China engaging in a series of provocations in its peripheral waters," he said. "We are stretched thin now, and coronavirus has decreased readiness."
David Straub, a former State Department official, told AT that despite there being plans in place to respond to a crisis in North Korea, "military plans, and especially 5029, depend fundamentally on lots of assumptions, including about what the American president will want to do."
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