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 Ã©migrÃ©s 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.