Lankov in the NYT, on Changing North Korea

My friend Andrei begins by advocating “cultural exchanges” as a means to change North Korea, a topic we’ve often debated in the past. If only such exchanges had the potential he suggests they do. North Korea only permits them on an infinitesimal scale, with people whose loyalty is thoroughly vetted, and when it calculates that the regime-stabilizing financial benefits outweigh the risk that the participants will be corrupted. Look no further than the Kaesong experience, or that of the North Korean cheerleaders who ended up in the gulag.

In that sense, I’m surprised that Andrei doesn’t see how financial pressure supports the goal of opening North Korea by weakening the regime’s capacities to repress and isolate, forcing more of the regime’s minions to trade and smuggle to sustain their standard of living, and by shifting the regime’s profit-risk calculations to support more exchanges. Furthermore, with the Obama Administration now pressing the financial constriction of the regime through UNSCR 1874, wouldn’t supporting “exchanges” from which the regime profits financially undermine that policy? Frankly, if I were driving Treasury’s sanctions, I’d sic the dogs on the assets of Koryo Tours and the Korean Friendship Association, both of which funnel money to the regime and enable its profiteering from mass child abuse which contributes nothing to our understanding of North Korea, or to North Korea’s understanding of us.

Because of the regime’s success at controlling them, cultural exchanges are responsible for a tiny percentage of what North Koreans see about the outside world. On the other hand, Andrei makes a great deal of sense when he begins to speak of non-permissive engagement, the kind that appears to be responsible for the vast majority of subversive information that passes before the eyes of North Koreans today:

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. 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, 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 can take part in cultivating a political opposition and alternative elite that could one day replace the current regime. Due to many factors, 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. This approach, however, might be a hard sell to most Americans. It is likely to bring about only incremental change — at least until the situation reaches a breaking point, which could be years away.

He is also right that it will take years for this strategy to work. Fortunately, the process of infiltrating North Korea with South Korean DVD’s and other media is fairly advanced. But DVD’s alone won’t present North Koreans with a well-formed idea of what a better government would look like, nor will any challenge to the regime be effective as long as North Korea is a political ice cube tray, with each mind, village, and town isolated from the others.


  1. I don’t know if anyone has seen this but you might like to comment on it:

    Did somebody say minced beef?
    Bernice Han, Agence France-Presse
    Published: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    You want more fries with that, Mr. Kim? How about a hot dog, Miss Park?

    Once condemned as evil “U. S. imperialist” fare, Western-style fast food is now available in North Korea thanks to a Singaporean entrepreneur who is already drawing up expansion plans just months after opening his first outlet.

    See here.

    Sorry to be off-tangent.


  2. It’s not completely O/T, but it says nothing whatsoever about North Korea changing. North Korea comes up with these displays on occasion to throw a bone to people who say that there are closet reformers waiting in the wings, if only we’d give the regime enough goodies to empower them.

    Try ordering a hamburger in Chongjin or Hungnam. You won’t find one. This is for external consumption.


  3. Anything we do to elevate the status of, prolong the existence of, or sustain the current North Korean regime is unforgivably evil.

    Just as the millions of starvation victims in Central Africa are the direct result of the UN and Jimmy Carter forcing Zimbabwe to accept Robert Mugabe, the deaths caused by the Norks are the direct result of those who supply them with money, food, and oil…

    Even the so-called “Six-Party Talks” caused pointless deaths.

    Let them be ostracized and fail. The Russians and Chinese laugh at us for our continued appeasement of the only fat guy in Korea north of the DMZ…


  4. If one is serious about isolating Pyongyang, one should at least view the Singaporean fast food venture with some concern. One reason one wants economic exchanges is for the North Koreans to learn how to run an globalized economy. But, in a country where the military is constitutionally preeminent, any knowledge would benefit the armed forces. I doubt the North Koreans can run and maintain a modern food system that these restaurants need. Even if the military can do it, I doubt the food is safe by any standard. The news also shows what corporations, which back these publications, want – more openness, not isolation. An isolated country isn’t good for news.


  5. Lankov had it right, Stanton (once again, not surprisingly) had it wrong. Since when did “financial pressure” and sanctions ever work? Cuba, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and countless other examples have all proven that sanctions don’t work. The poor North Korean people will end up getting the brunt of it while the DPRK government will continue to survive and thrive. Actually sanctions give the DPRK authorities the perfect excuse to tell the North Korean people that the hardship they are experiencing is caused completely by the nasty Americans and their pesky allies, the Dear Leader has no part in it.

    Stanton, unless you favor sending an invasion army to Pyongyang (and getting screwed along the way), I’d say you’d better listen to your “dear friend” Lankov on this one.


  6. Juche, Exactly what fact or event proves the point you’re attempting to make? I’ve always said sanctions would take time to work, but they are already showing some signs of working. The more we impose sanctions, the more conciliatory the North Koreans seem. Admittedly, that’s only going to work to a point if North Korea isn’t willing to disarm (it isn’t) but hopefully, we’ll intensify them enough to slow the regime’s WMD development and destabilize the regime. No doubt you suggest going back to financing North Korea’s WMD programs, which suits China’s interests just fine, but which had absolutely no success at disarming North Korea.

    Incidentally, I’ve always opposed direct military action, but you’d have to have actually read my views to know that.

    You had one other comment that went into the moderation cue. It was stupid, so I deleted it. Reread the house rules, especially the part about my unwillingness to allow stupid comments to drive out intelligent comments. I don’t have to put up with a lot of ChiBot comment spam from someone who can’t even cite facts, make coherent arguments, or make his arguments civilly. Go do that on Sina or better yet, start your own blog. You’re in permanent moderation, meaning if you actually say something rational or cited by credible authority, I’ll approve your comment.


  7. Actually sanctions give the DPRK authorities the perfect excuse to tell the North Korean people that the hardship they are experiencing is caused completely by the [imperialist] Americans and their [running dog] allies, the Dear Leader has no part in it.

    With apologies for the corrections to Juche C.M.’s prose to render it more idiomatic to the North Korean milieu (although it would be better if I could recall the Korean phrase for “running dog” — “sadae-ist” perhaps?) — the above point would appear to be a central contradiction between the two of you which I would love to see worked out myself.

    I suppose J.C.M.’s point is almost impossible to _prove_ — and defectors outside the system are unlikely to provide him with supporting evidence. But for the masses inside North Korea, I wonder if the story is different. Having just emerged from a couple days of reading U.S./ROK leaflets dropped on the North (along with megatons of bombs) during the Korean War, I suppose I can see how the “blame it on the imperialists” framework could still work to a degree for the Kim regime.

    It’s an important question insofar as you are going to have a population of very disaffected individuals if/when North Korea cracks open, and axiomatic anti-US sentiment should, to the extent possible, be avoided. At the same time, maybe it doesn’t matter at all — Pyongyang is going to do whatever it wants to its population while redircting the blame elsewhere.

    But having gone back to your original post, I can see you’ve put together a logic on the cultural exchange front that is worth mulling over. Perhaps this is the logic to which Obama administration is also committed?

    In that sense, I’m surprised that Andrei doesn’t see how financial pressure supports the goal of opening North Korea by weakening the regime’s capacities to repress and isolate, forcing more of the regime’s minions to trade and smuggle to sustain their standard of living, and by shifting the regime’s profit-risk calculations to support more exchanges.

    In conclusion, in spite of his impertinence I hope comrade Juchechosunmansei will be allowed to ply his gadfly perspectives here every so often. He brought some solid data to the table on the forest fire thing, and at the very least he got me back to your original argument on Lankov, which is valuable in my book. Maybe you think he just needs more citations?


  8. Stanton, let’s have some common sense here, shall we?

    [OFK: So let me see if I understand this: a guy with a screen handle praising juche claims to speak as an authority on common sense?]

    Show me just one, just one example where sanctions actually worked.

    [If you’re not aware of this example, you’re either filibustering or you don’t know anything about this topic. Here are one, two, three more examples. It will take time, of course, even if sanctions are sustained and comprehensive. It took about a year before we realized how effective the BDA sanctions were.

    U.S. Treasury sanctions were devastating to the North Korean regime, and nearly everyone who knows anything about the subject agrees. Most experts also agree that the last round of UN sanctions didn’t work because of Chinese duplicity. This is where we Americans say, “Don’t piss on me and tell me it’s raining.” After the UN passed sanctions on North Korea in 2006, China, which voted for the sanctions, undermined them. This study by the economist Marcus Noland explains how. China is doing the same thing today, as I’ve chronicled here extensively (find the links yourself).

    Oh, and please don’t try to deny whose water you’re carrying here, Juche. You’re one of those with nothing better to do than engage in pedantic historical debates about why Koguryo is really Chinese and the Uygurs are interlopers in their own land.]

    They certainly didn’t work in Cuba, Iraq (pre-US invasion), Libya and Myanmar.

    [Right. Those are some true models of prosperity. I fly to Cuba on weekends to stock up at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.]

    “Showing some signs of working”? What signs Stanton?

    [Here. That one might even be officially approved for you. Now it’s your turn. Please explain how all that Chinese and South Korean aid and “engagement” brought us any closer to a nuclear-free Korea. Do tell.]

    To me the DPRK is as defiant as ever and there are no signs showing that they will denuclearize at all. The only positive sign, which is the Dear Leader telling the Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao that the DPRK would consider coming back to the 6-party talks IF the outcome between the DPRK-US talk is positive enough, was secured by China bribing the Dear Leader to make it happen. Nevertheless it IS a step forward.

    [No, it’s a meaningless gesture that put us no closer to disarmament but does show at the very least that sanctions do no harm to diplomacy, and may suggest that Kim Jong Il is feeling the pressure. But in a limited sense, I agree with you. Sanctions will not persuade North Korea to agree to disarm. Nothing will. The role of sanctions — along with subversion through information — should be to destabilize the regime.]

    I don’t see what the Americans can achieve by simply playing tough. The Americans have been playing tough for decades. Clinton didn’t get the DPRK to sign the Agreed Framework in 1994 by only playing tough.

    [Thank goodness for the Agreed Framework. Why, we haven’t had to talk about North Korean nukes ever since, have we?]

    That’s why I was saying Obama doesn’t really have a North Korea policy. If he does, it is apparently not working.

    Tell me again Stanton, exactly how do you “slow the regime’s WMD development and destabilize the regime”? By imposing sanctions again?

    [By intensifying them. Even the Banco Delta sanctions caused Kim Jong Il to fear for the survival of his regime. From the Chosun Ilbo, Feb. 12, 2006: “North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is worried that prolonged U.S. financial sanctions on the Stalinist country could lead to the regime’s collapse, Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported on Saturday. It said Kim expressed his concern during his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing last month.”]

    FYI the DPRK has been under sanctions for more than a decade and it has not budged.

    [You’re in over your head, Juche. North Korea has been under U.S. trade sanctions for decades, but U.N. sanctions were first imposed in 2006. Of course, none of that stopped the Chinese and the South Koreans from continuing to prop up Kim Jong Il and stabbing us in the back. The lives of all the North Koreans who died under Kim Jong Il’s boot are on the souls of the ChiComs and the South Korean left.]

    I certainly understand why you want to destablize the DPRK government, however don’t expect the Chinese and even the South Koreans to come on board.

    [Who said I did? I want to destablize North Korea — by supplying arms, if necessary — for the very reason that China has never acted in good faith to disarm North Korea peacefully and diplomatically. As for South Korea, it is going to play a passive role no matter what happens in North Korea.]

    It is easy for you Americans to do stuff to destablize country A and country B in regions far away, the neighbors will have to suffer the direct consequences of a country getting destablized. Neither China nor South Korea wants the DPRK to destablize and collapse all of sudden.

    [How many times can I tell you how little I care? I care even less about China’s “wants” than China cares about the lives of the North Korean men, women, and kids it sends back to the North Korean gulag. I care less about China’s interests than Chinese guys care about the North Korean comfort women they’re screwing in the karaoke bars in Shenyang. I care less about killing a few asshole Chinese cops than China cares about a few million Americans killed by a nuke made in North Korea. Just so we’re clear.]

    And for the Nth time Stanton, explain to me (and with some facts and sources) why it is in China’s interest to have a nuclear DPRK.

    [I don’t have to. Shen Dingli already did.]

    Explain to me why China has been eager to re-start the 6-party talks. Explain to me why China is trying to persuade the US and the DPRK to come together and have an one-on-one. Why is China doing all of these if China simply wants to go ahead and allow the DPRK to stay nuclear?

    [Simple. Because China is mendacious and insincere, and six-party talks are a terrific way to string gullible Americans along for years.]

    It is funny that you accused me of not “citing facts, making coherent arguments, or making arguments civilly”. What facts have you cited to show that there are signs of the sanctions working? What facts have you cited to show that China not only tolerates but actually wants a nuclear DPRK?

    [Are you ready to quit yet? Someone at Naver is saying that Koguryo is Korean.]

    And if what I wrote yesterday was too much for you, too bad Stanton. I was merely trying to make the point that (1) the US should sit down with the DPRK to have an one-on-one and (2) don’t be so hypocritical to accuse China of violating a UN resolution while overlooking the fact that US has done it too, many times.

    I didn’t know that your blog doesn’t allow different opinions.

    [Different opinions are allowed. Addlebrained invective and name-calling aren’t. Want to comment at my site? Then don’t be stupid, and don’t screw up my comment section with inane, uninformed ChiCom propaganda and two-yuan insults.]

    In a way you are like the Chinese President who just wants a harmonious place.

    [Right. Except the ChiCom “President” won’t debate you, and he sure as hell won’t invite you to post opinions he doesn’t value elsewhere.]


  9. I agree with J.C.M. that the US should sit down with the DPRK to have a one-on-one — the exact nature of this one-on-one is key, however, to destabilzing the present regime. Let’s be smart instead of gullible – focus on the vilest aspect of the present regime: the concentration camps – know that this is their achille’s heel – use the technology that we have to finally expose them – this is what they fear most. Appeal to the conscience of the international community to do something more than what has been done with respect to providing safe havens and an ultimate high tech “underground raliroad” for the hapless victims that have been crying for our help in securing their freedom for too long.
    I still can’t believe we’re not doing this – if the technology is classified, just use it to do something soon!