By Andrei Lankov

Changing North Korea - Information Campaign Can Beat Kim Jong-un

When it comes to dealing with North Korea the United States and its allies have no efficient methods of coercion at their disposal; the regime is remarkably immune to outside pressure. Its leaders cannot afford change, so they make sure their state continues to be an international threat, using nuclear blackmail as a survival tactic while their unlucky subjects endure more poverty and terror. Since outside pressure is ineffective, change will have to come from the North Koreans themselves. The United States and its allies can best help them by exposing them to the very attractive alternatives to their current way of life.

This is a well-tested approach: it is, essentially, the one that allowed liberal democracies to win the Cold War. Americans sometimes credit containment with cracking the Soviet Union, but it was the West's economic prosperity and political freedom that irrevocably undermined popular support for communism. This approach might be even more efficient in the case of North Korea.

Long aware of their vulnerability, Kim Jong-un and other North Korean leaders have taken information control to extremes unprecedented even among communist dictatorships. Since the late 1950s, it has been a crime for a North Korean to possess a tunable radio. Private trips overseas are exceptional, even for government officials. North Korea is the world's only country without Internet access for the general public. These measures seek to ensure that the public believes the official portrayal of North Korea as an island of happiness and prosperity in an ocean of suffering.

Truth is subversive in regimes built on lies and isolation. So to crack North Korea's control over information and bring about pressure for change from within, truth and information should be introduced into North Korean society. As the Cold War demonstrated, cultural exchanges can be effective in transferring forbidden knowledge and fostering critical thinking. Exchanges can also bring young members of the North Korean intelligentsia into contact with the outside world. Away from police surveillance (and close to Internet-equipped computers), they would learn much about the true workings of the world.

Of course, the Kim Jong-un regime might be disinclined to support any initiative with subversive potential. But since the immediate-term beneficiaries of such initiatives would be self-interested members, relatives, and clients of the ruling class, they would likely support opportunities for exchange and professional training even if they posed longer-term risks to the system.

The importance of encouraging North Korean rulers to support exchanges is one reason why talks with the regime are important, whether through the six-party structure or not. Although talks will not solve the nuclear issue, they can reduce the likelihood of confrontations and support an environment conducive to exchange and interaction.

Hard-liners in the United States would likely criticize exchanges as a form of "appeasement," but they would be missing the point. Although compromises may be unpalatable at times, exchanges with North Korea would ultimately weaken the regime's physical and ideological grip on the population.

There are other ways besides open engagement to weaken the North Korean regime through the spread of information. As during the Cold War, radio broadcasts remain a reliable method of disseminating information, and an increasing number of tunable radios are being smuggled into North Korea. Although often illegal, videos and DVDs smuggled from South Korea are watched widely. It makes sense, then, to support the production of documentaries that inform North Koreans about daily social and economic life in South Korea, North Korean contemporary history, and political matters such as reunification. And instead of continuing its current harmful ban in the sale of Pentium-class personal computers, the United States should encourage their spread inside North Korea.

Broadly, the U.S. government take part in cultivating a political opposition and alternative elite that could one day replace the fallen Kim regime. Due to many factors, including information control and police surveillance, those few North Koreans who are politically aware hardly constitute a community of dissenting intellectuals. An increasing number of North Koreans have doubts about the system, but they remain isolated and terrified. Washington should focus, therefore, on aiding the dissident community in South Korea, where some 16,000 North Korean defectors live.

Combining engagement, information dissemination, and support for émigrés is the only way to promote change in North Korea. This approach, however, might be a hard sell to most Americans. It is likely to bring about only barely visible, incremental change--at least until the situation reaches a breaking point, which could be many years away.

But the American public should recognize that there are no quick fixes to the North Korean problem. For two decades, Washington has searched for those, sometimes by way of concessions to Pyongyang, sometimes by way of threats. Both approaches have failed and--given the goals of the North Korean regime, as well as its hold on power today--would fail again and again. Only low-profile and persistent efforts aimed at promoting change from within will make a difference. North Korea is often described as the last outpost of Cold War politics. So why not seek to change that by using the policies that won the Cold War in the rest of the world?

Article: © Tribune Media Services


Information Campaign Can Beat Kim Jong-un & North Korea