How the US and Allies Could Undermine the North Korean Regime, Peacefully
by Marc Belisle
You can’t cover the whole sky with the palm of your hand. –Korean proverb
Between bites of a cheeseburger, my Korean teacher Park Hae On told me on Thursday at a diner here in Washington, DC that she’s not sure if she wants to go back home to South Korea because of North Korea’s “embarrassing” threats. The “recent threat was quite scary,” she shook her head. She worries that “their situation is getting worse and worse” and “they might think they have nothing to lose.”
In the four years I lived in South Korea, from 2005 to 2009, most Koreans I knew either thought of North Korea’s violent rhetoric and turbulent behavior as bad weather or ignored it. Even when North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon, folks barely discussed it. Now, though, it is requiring more determination than it has in decades to keep calm and carry on in Seoul, in the shadow of Kim’s bomb. Things have changed. In 2010, the DPRK sank the ROKS Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island. The South Korean Lee Administration scrapped the Sunshine policy of his more liberal predecessors. Under Sunshine, South Korea handed over the food aid that North Korea desperately needed, and the peninsula was calmer. American and South Korean conservatives had always bristled at what they viewed as a policy of abetting extortion. The Lee Administration built up the South’s military, and fought a war of words with Kim Jong Il. His Administration was marked by a deepening chill. As famine claimed more North Koreans, the confrontation created a cycle of escalation.
After a year of relative silence, young Kim Jong Un seems to have fully grabbed the reins, but remains desperate to assert authority. Now, he has announced his dictatorship with a bang. Combined, the 3-stage rocket launch and nuclear test of the last several months are a disturbing development. They were artfully timed to crash onto the desks of new leadership in China, South Korea and Japan and new Cabinet leadership at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.
Kim Jong Un has not only broken new ground in his weapons capability, but in rhetoric as well. The South Koreans are unnerved that North Korea is moving to formally shred the Armistice, and has announced specific targets in Seoul in the cross-hairs of its rocket launchers. It has promised to turn Washington DC into a sea of fire, and declared that it has a right to stage a preemptive nuclear attack on America. To be clear, North Korea is not likely to have the capability of hitting major cities in the continental United States with a nuclear warhead any time soon. But it does have the very real ability to launch tens of thousands of rockets at Seoul, one of the world’s most crowded cities and a bastion of democratic and economic development in East Asia. Washington should not ignore this sharper threat to target America and its allies for attack, even from basket case North Korea. Pyongyang’s bluster does not always translate into action. But its belligerent actions are usually preceded by particularly bellicose bluster.
Another sign that things are different now is that China is acting differently. China’s decision to support sanctions against the North may have caught Pyongyang by surprise. China is worried about an arms race on its eastern front if South Korea and Japan decide America’s umbrella is not enough of a guarantee and they need to pursue native nuclear programs. So Washington’s and Beijing’s interests are beginning to align. It is clear to all that containment has failed. For nearly two decades, America’s policy on North Korea was to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon and a system to deliver it. Now they have both. Containment began to fail the moment that Lee scrapped Sunshine for confrontation. It began to fail when Bush singled out North Korea in his surreal Axis of Evil speech, then proceeded to invade the one country of the three that did not have a WMD program. Tehran and Pyongyang concluded they needed a nuclear deterrent against Washington.
Hawks and doves are debating America’s next step in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who was just elected to replace John Kerry as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, argues that the US should push for even more punitive sanctions and build up our military presence in South Korea. Joel Wit and Jenny Town, researchers at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, argue that President Obama should heed Dennis Rodman’s advice and call Kim Jong Un to initiate negotiations. There are problems with both of these arguments.
CNN reports that the Pentagon “yawns” at North Korea’s threats. The US military is as ready to meet a threat on the Korean peninsula as anywhere in the world. It has all the necessary strike forces and missile defense systems in theater. The Pentagon only takes a threat seriously if satellite images show North Korea moving hardware around. A US military buildup would only be a symbolic waste of taxpayer money. The sanctions conundrum is one of enforcement, not toughness. The sanctions that are imposed should have the power to cripple the regime. But North Korea apparently launders money by sending officials with suitcases full of cash. Freezing a bank account is irrelevant if the money walks in the door. Apart from the challenges posed by corralling North Korea’s pre-industrial economy, China complicates sanctions by saying one thing and doing another. The solution is not to slap North Korea with more sanctions but to plaster Switzerland and the Cayman Islands with pictures of Kim’s deliverymen, and to leverage China into doing something to its buffer state that it clearly doesn’t want to do.
At this point, it is inconceivable that Obama would pick up the phone and call Kim any time soon. Right after the sanctions were announced, the North produced a propaganda video that depicts American soldiers and the president burning under a nuclear attack. While there’s no reason anyone in Washington should take this personally, Obama can’t offer an olive branch so soon after that stunt. That would be an enormous propaganda coup for Kim and would make Washington look weak and scared, certainly in Pyongyang if not also in other important capitals. Arguably, Washington should have been talking to Pyongyang before, but they clearly can’t start right now. Perhaps secret low-level meetings in a neutral country could be productive, but probably not. The thinking is that only a heart-to-heart between leaders could soothe anxieties without all the bluster. But that would be closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. And the US can’t reward nuclear blackmail.
There was some unanalytical chuckling about the irony of it at the time. But this child may have been a harbinger of an enormous change. Two recent fascinating reports in the Economist describe an exploding black market in consumer goods in Pyongyang. Apparently, inflation became so rampant in the late 1990s, that in order to get anything done, officials were forced to turn a blind eye to items like cement being smuggled across the Chinese border. This slight relaxation of state control, and the bribery that it engendered, stuck. Kim Jong Il tried, and failed, to crack down on the black market. As bizarre as it sounds, the capital of the most communist nation on earth features a burgeoning nouveau riche decked in conspicuous consumption. There are apparently informal nightclubs (that lack plumbing) and restaurants that sell relative luxuries like sushi. Illegal phones, computers and DVDs flow into the hands of the elite. A currency devaluation experiment in 2009 instantaneously made the illicit traders and anyone with cash in hand much richer. With money comes influence. If they get caught engaging in evil capitalism, they can easily bribe the officials with cash.
Supply and demand is gnawing at the state-controlled economy and spreading quickly in Pyongyang at precisely the moment when the young dictator is trying to consolidate power. In a marked change from his father’s usual rhetoric, one of his first speeches lauded the people’s livelihoods, rather than just the glorious military. He may not feel powerful enough to challenge the growing capitalists in his own capital. North Korean defectors are beginning to tell stories of people, particularly the children of elites, watching contraband DVDs of South Korean soap operas. Images of capitalism and democracy are beaming into North Korean eyeballs. Kim Jong Un may be absolutely terrified.
The US and its allies should do everything in their power to open the North Korean mind. The black market is a fissure in the dam that holds up the Kim dynasty. We could turn this trickle into a torrent. The US and its allies could, starting right now, finance a tsunami of consumer goods to flood North Korea. We could start putting everything from Coca Cola and Yankees hats to Samsung electronics and Hello Kitty in every hand in North Korea. But most importantly, we should use the black market to start funneling information into North Korea. We should get North Korean eyes and ears on sitcoms, movies, soap operas, radio stations, telephones, the Internet and forums like The Everlasting GOP Stoppers. This could trigger the same kind of chain of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The US should use intermediaries and keep its fingerprints as far away from this project as possible. The American, Japanese and South Korean governments should create incentives for South Korean banks to secretly finance the contraband’s international pathways. The South Korean military and foreign service should create an underground railroad for people to defect, and for defectors to return, armed with cash to bribe their way in and out, trading black market consumer goods, but more importantly, trading information.
It was once possible for North Korea to keep their people entirely in the dark. Now it seems, due to its own cruel incompetence, the Kim dynasty has allowed globalism to find its way even into North Korea. Suddenly, the West has evidence that light is seeping into the Plato’s Cave that the Kims have kept their people in for over half a century. Let’s turn the lights on in North Korea. Let’s give the people something to compare their country to.
As the Economist points out, in the short term, an acceleration in black market trading could make North Korea more dangerous. When Jong Il died in December, 2011, I argued that the world had a vested interest in keeping North Korea stable, because of the refugee crisis that its collapse would cause. Things are changing quickly, though. It is now clear that there is nothing the world can do to stop the Kim regime from eventually being able to screw a nuclear warhead onto the shaft of a ballistic missile and then rattle it at everyone in reach. The combination of the regime’s increasing belligerence and military capacity with its decreasing control over its economy that has collapsed to the point of simultaneously starving the majority while enriching an open secret merchant class creates a system that is not sustainable. Someday, somehow, the regime will collapse. It can collapse in a historic orgy of blood and fire. Or we can help the air slowly hiss out of Kim’s balloon. As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” We can essentially educate and buy off the North Korean people right under Kim’s nose. If we surround Kim with elites invested in clandestine trade, they may choose iPhones and sushi over Stalinism and sacrifice. When the moment of truth comes, Kim Jong Un may be the last man in the world to realize that he is no longer in charge of North Korea.
Obama should summon a few Senate hawks like John McCain to keep a lid on Congress while he appears to continue to ignore North Korea. The President should then channel Eisenhower and deploy a hidden hand. This hand will eventually grab Kim Jong Un by the 불알. With a population increasingly wondering why North Korean state media’s depiction of Seoul doesn’t match the South Korean sitcoms’ version of Seoul, the next time Kim asks Obama to call him, he might be a little more polite about it.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t wish a neo-liberal conquest on a poor country, but North Korea is an example of a fate far worse than vapid consumerism. Hopefully, this plan would result in a peaceful implosion similar to the fall of the Soviet Union, or at least in reforms that would empower merchants invested in peaceful trade, forcing the regime to be more open and reasonable. There’s little reason not to try to exploit this weakness. Ultimately, my teacher Hae On may be able not only to return home to South Korea without fear, but someday to go north and meet her brothers and sisters in the other half of the Land of the Morning Calm.
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