[Originally published at The New Ledger, May 2010; edited for brevity in October 2017]
Within the next 48 hours, South Korea is expected to announce that North Korea torpedoed and sank the warship Cheonan and killed 46 of her crew. Among the evidence the multinational investigation will cite will be the North Korean serial number on the torpedo’s propeller, recovered from the ocean floor. The sinking of the Cheonan may be the most serious North Korean provocation since 1968 — unless you think its recent nuclear proliferation to Syria still is — and yet the conventional wisdom is at a loss for how to respond and deter the next provocation.
The sinking of the Cheonan and North Korea’s recent attempt to assassinate a high-ranking defector inside South Korea suggest that we’ve entered a dangerous new phase of the dormant Korean War. This unstable dormancy began with a 1953 cease-fire, which North Korea unilaterally renounced last year. North Korea appears to have chosen a strategy of provocation like the one it pursued in the late 196o’s, when it seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, killed several American soldiers and dozens of South Koreans in cross-DMZ raids, sent a team of commandos to Seoul kill the President of South Korea, and shot down an American surveillance aircraft, killing all 31 members of its crew.
This precedent suggests that Presidents Lee and Obama will soon face greater tests. The question of how to respond to the sinking of the Cheonan may be only the first of these. The last-minute cancellation of U.S. Forces Korea’s annual Noncombatant Evacuation Operation exercise, ostensibly to avoid the appearance of panic, suggest that both governments understand the gravity of the danger. No one wants the people of Korea to hear “White Christmas” in May.
I’ve already explained why a direct military response would create an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic war and, most likely, would be precisely what Kim Jong Il needs to reconsolidate his rule and bequeath it to his unaccomplished son, Kim Jong-un, at a time of rising discontent. Just about everyone agrees that a military response would be a bad idea. Furthermore, Kim Jong Il is a democidal despot and with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Kim Jong Il’s health is visibly declining, and this is forcing him to transfer power to a son with no military accomplishments to legitimize his rule. Generous and unconditional aid from previous leftist South Korean administrations helped compensate for the continuing decline of North Korea’s official economy, but now, South Korea’s left is out of power and President Lee has put sensible conditions on aid that North Korea refused to meet.
Most significantly, and as I will explain in greater detail in the next installments of this essay, North Korea’s political and economic systems are disintegrating from the bottom up. This means that Kim Jong Il needs conflict to divert the attention of his people toward foreign enemies, to give his son the legitimacy of wartime leadership, and to extract more extortion from his neighbors. The Kims desperately need to show their people that only they possess the brazenness to deliver extortion from foreign enemies. Clearly, what is needed now is the restoration of deterrence, not escalation, not panic, and not more incentives for extortion.
Yet what we have done in recent decades meets Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For decades, America and South Korea spent billions of dollars in aid and investment in North Korea in a futile effort to build cultural and economic links to its society. The problem with this idea, best exemplified by South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, is that the North Korean regime would never tolerate significant outside contact or influence. Consequently, South Korea has nothing to show for this gargantuan expenditure today but the graves of its dead and the red ink on its investors‘ balance sheets. North Korea always kept South Korea’s investments hermetically sealed from all but its most loyal subjects, and is now well into the process of confiscating what remains of them. South Korea’s money hasn’t made North Korea any less isolated, brutal, or dangerous. It merely extended Kim Jong Il’s misrule for another decade or two.
America’s “management” of North Korea has been an even more consequential failure. Two agreed frameworks, both of them backed by the collective naivete of much of our foreign policy brain trust, accomplished little more than confirming to Iran that it, too, could get away with going nuclear. During the second of these agreed frameworks, extracted from a beaten-down second-term President Bush, our diplomats plowed blithely along as North Korea obfuscated its way out of every element of meaningful disarmament, and even as it was caught red-handed selling a nuclear reactor to Syria. (Israel, thankfully, was less indulgent.)
Since President Obama’s inauguration, North Korea has tested an ICBM and a nuclear weapon, has frequently used its official state media to threaten the cities and airliners of its neighbors, and has repeatedly been caught selling arms to Iran, for the probable use of its terrorist clients. In response, President Obama declined to restore North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Even those of us who disagree with the current structure of America’s forces in South Korea cannot deny that North Korea’s proliferation represents a threat to the United States itself, and that this is a dangerous time to show weakness. Proliferation must have consequences, and so must outrages like the sinking of the Cheonan. As Christian Whiton argues in The Wall Street Journal, to do nothing invites more of the same provocations that, when sufficiently escalated, have always paid off for Kim Jong Il.
In the immediate term, we need a deterrent against the next escalation, a deterrent that is at once restrained and credible. The answer is not to let ourselves be extorted again or be baited into escalating a direct military conflict. It is to take decisive and patient action to exploit the economic and political weaknesses of Kim Jong Il’s regime, action that restores short-term deterrence and offers a long-term solution to the proliferation threat North Korea represents. Tomorrow, I will begin to propose another approach to North Korea that serves both of these objectives.
Since I published the first installment in this series yesterday, the South Korean government has released a multinational report of investigation, concluding that the ROKS Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean Yeono-class submarine firing a CHT-02D acoustic homing torpedo. The White House has issued a statement supporting the findings of the investigation and condemning North Korea for the attack. South Korea’s President is vowing to retaliate. North Korea, which denies the allegations, says any retaliation or sanctions will mean war.
If the obvious implication of North Korea’s October 2006 and May 2009 nuclear tests was the failure of diplomacy, the obvious implication of the sinking of the Cheonan is the failure of deterrence. If Kim Jong Il really feared a U.S. or South Korean military response, he would not have ordered this attack. (It is both useless and groundless to speculate that some “rogue element” ordered an operation that would have required months of detailed planning.) Conventional deterrence is failing because Kim Jong Il knows our low tolerance for risk and loss of life, limitations that he does not share. The sine qua non of deterrence is a credible threat. But Kim Jong Il no longer fears the U.S. Air Force; he only fears the people of North Korea. Specifically, he fears that they’ll do to him what the Romanians did to Nicolae Ceausescu.
Restoring deterrence still won’t disarm Kim Jong Il or prevent him from continuing to proliferate nuclear materials and technology. The only way to do that is to bring his misrule to an end at the lowest possible cost in human lives. Our challenge here is to deny Kim Jong Il the resources, the means, and the time to miniaturize, export, or launch a nuclear weapon.
To achieve this requires us to contain, constrict, and collapse Kim Jong Il’s regime through a combination of economic strangulation and political subversion.
First, contain: Allied military forces must be sufficient to deter further North Korean escalation, and to intercept the proliferation of weapons and technologies banned by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.
Second, constrict: President Obama should build on his initial successes at constricting the flow of finance for Kim Jong Il’s regime, with the specific objective of denying him the means to pay his party officials and security forces. As I have noted, there is much more that President Obama could do to increase this pressure.
Third, collapse: The available evidence suggests that the North Korean people are deeply discontented with the regime, but have no means to organize against it. We assume this regime to be invincible to the will of its people, but last year, we learned that it isn’t. At last, an institution has risen that not even Kim Jong Il can destroy: the free market. His recent failure to suppress North Korea’s underground market economy shows us how much control he has lost over the distribution of goods and ideas. The North Korean people have shown us how to solve the most difficult problem, the logistics of contraband in the world’s most closed society. A coordinated and well-funded program of broadcasting, smuggling, and support for a political underground could quickly overload the regime’s capacity to suppress dissent, and thus create the conditions for an opposition movement to challenge it — initially in small ways, but later, for the control of villages, factories, towns, and regions.
Of these three “C’s,” the first and the second are largely questions of will. The tools needed to constrict and contain are mostly in place now. But to collapse the Kim Dynasty will require a fundamental shift in how we view a crisis that can’t be managed away. It will require new thinking from a foreign policy establishment trapped in a loveless marriage with diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake, and a weary political establishment that sees the deployment of mechanized infantry as the only alternative. Instead, America must embrace its lost love of beneficent anarchy and learn to see the subjects of totalitarianism as friends we’ve overlooked for too long.
To deter and dethrone Kim Jong Il without instigating war, our subversion must be gradual and incremental. It must always leave open the offer of a negotiable exit. Even as Kim Jong Il’s grip on North Korea weakens, at each moment, he must see it as less risky to try to ride out the storm or accept a standing offer of safe passage to China than to provoke all-out war. That is why good diplomacy still matters.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Daniel Blumenthal and Leslie Forgach entitled, “Let the Kim Regime Collapse.” Abstinence from error is always a good beginning, but “let” implies passivity and beseeches the deities of maktoub to take the place of the influence it abdicates. This could be the epitaph for a generation of American policy. For the last 20 years, we have wandered in a desert between two endlessly receding horizons. One is the Agreed Framework that North Korea never quite keeps, and the other is the spontaneous regime collapse that never quite happens. Wendy Sherman, a dovish ex-adviser to President Clinton, was waiting for this collapse in 1994, two agreed frameworks and two million dead ago: “Everyone was so overwhelmed that a million or two million people were dying of starvation…. We just thought all that would bring about the collapse of the North Korean government within two or three years.” Sure, the army has guns and might eventually pull off a coup, but waiting for the unknowable isn’t a policy, and you don’t have to be a meteorologist to talk about the weather.
I do not mean to condescend to my betters here. For years after I volunteered to serve in South Korea as a young Army officer in 1997, I also subscribed to the capitalist crisis theory that the North Korean system would collapse under the weight of its inherent contradictions. At the time, North Korea was then at the height of The Great Famine. (For those who want to gain a better understanding of this time, Barbara Demick’s new book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a must-read.) While Kim Jong Il allowed somewhere between 600,000 and 2.5 million North Koreans to die, he squandered resources on his military and gorged himself to corpulence on pizza and sushi prepared by personal chefs flown in from Italy and Japan. For a nominally socialist state that held a monopoly on the supply of food, this was more than obscene inequality; it was, at best, a state policy of selective malign neglect. And yet, in defiance of many predictions, hunger did not destabilize Kim Jong Il’s regime, nor will it.
In fact, as I will explain shortly, I believe the exact opposite to be true.
Consequently, there isn’t going to be an Orange Revolution in North Korea anytime soon — at least not a successful one. Neither Kim Jong Il nor his security forces would hesitate to open fire on any protest, and the people know it. North Korea isn’t Czechoslovakia, where the authorities doubted that their troops would shoot; it’s like Burma, where the regime has no such doubts and the troops obey. Instead, it should surprise us that there was any resistance at all during North Korea’s leanest years. I’ve chronicled a brief history of it here. Read it and you’ll notice that most of it was too fragmentary and isolated to represent a threat to this regime. Perhaps we mislead ourselves by remembering 1989 as a year of spontaneous events. But crowds did not cut holes in their flags and flood the streets spontaneously. Their dissent had developed over decades of watching the suppression of Solidarity and Charter 77, of crushed uprisings, of Radio Free Europe broadcasts, and of tacit opposition to communism by deeply rooted churches that the regimes of Eastern Europe did not dare to suppress. In the Soviet Union, there was samizdat written by dissidents and intellectuals who were famous worldwide. The security forces shared in those regimes’ advanced state of decay. They were no longer capable of the ruthless methods of Kim Jong Il.
Without pretending to offer a complete list, allow me to specify what those methods are:
Isolation. We all know that North Korea blocks foreign broadcasts and publications. The regime also prevents information from leaking out of North Korea that could impede its access to needed foreign aid and capital. More importantly, it isolates North Koreans from each other. Most of North Korea is a rugged stitchwork of bleak towns and cities strewn along mountain valleys or rocky coastlines. News and ideas do not travel easily there. There is no domestic air service; travel between counties is slow, dangerous, and requires a pass from the authorities; mail is also slow, irregular, and censored; telephones are scarce and monitored; cell phones are banned (though increasingly available); and radios are (supposed to be) fixed to receive official broadcasts only. Aside from a few sham churches for foreign visitors, religion does not exist. Dissenters can live only in secret, or before a firing squad. Thoughtcrime cannot propagate in a society where the slightest hint of it might mean death in a prison camp for the dissenter, and for his wife, his parents, and his children. North Koreans can barely talk to each other, much less organize an opposition.
Class Warfare. The common perception of North Korea as a purely socialist society is belied by its detailed system of political castes called songbun. Within the songbun system are 51 hereditary political classifications that often burden the children and grandchildren of class enemies as presumptively disloyal to the state. More broadly, these 51 classifications fit within three broad categories: core, wavering, and hostile. In North Korea, your songbun is your destiny. Songbun is not discussed openly in North Korea, but local party authorities consider it in all of the most important decisions that control a person’s fate. With good songbun, the incompetent can enter the best schools and get the best jobs. Bad songbun relegates talented individuals to lives of hard labor at best, and starvation at worst. Although there is some social mobility in North Korea, promotion in the songbun system is still exceedingly rare. North Koreans do not dare to show signs of disloyalty to the state because they do not want to harm the prospects of their children and grandchildren to succeed and survive.
Food as a Weapon. Since the Great Famine, North Koreans in the lower political castes have been the last to get rations and the first to starve. International aid workers noted the class disparity in the health of North Korean children as they fought in vain to ensure that their aid was going to the hungriest recipients. Americans often wonder why North Korea constrains international aid workers, rejects U.S. government food aid, and makes food such a low priority for its many hard currency purchases. But as Stalin knew, starvation can be an effective tool of repression. Conversely, the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual notes, “Sometimes societies are most prone to unrest not when conditions are the worst, but when the situation begins to improve and people’s expectations rise.” Like the North Korean famine, the Scottish land clearances and the Irish potato famine resulted in much more emigration than rebellion. The starving have neither the time, the energy, nor the will to pursue anything but their next meal.
I see no explanation for the unnecessary suffering of the North Korean people that is consistent with the state possessing a sincere interest in increasing the aggregate supply of food available to them. My suspicion — one that I admittedly can’t prove — is that there is more than ruthless apathy and obscene inequality behind a state that prizes stability over everything else, yet which always seems to have enough cash laying around in European banks to spend on yachts, cars, fancy booze, weapons, and most recently, two baby African elephants for $10,000 each, and which may not even survive the trip from Zimbabwe to Pyongyang (the reports do not specify whether the elephants are white). If Kim Jong Il really wants all of his subjects to eat well, why has he gone to such trouble to ensure that they can’t?
Exhaustion. Even when a theocracy’s cultish indoctrination loses most of its power to mesmerize, it is still exhausting to bear it as much of it as North Koreans must. Workers must rise early to hear political harangues. There are more harangues in the middle of the workday, and late into the evenings. On the weekends, citizens are mobilized for “voluntary” labor, such as trash collection and agricultural work. Then there are the mobilizations — the hundred-day and 150-day “battles” and “campaigns” when workers are sent to the countryside for more agricultural labor, or to build irrigation canals. These methods are so inefficient and labor-intensive as to suggest a design to keep North Korean citizens too busy, underfed, and exhausted to associate freely with others of like mind.
Terror. Satellite photography has revealed the vast size of North Korea’s largest prison camps, and witnesses have escaped to describe the horrors within. The National Security Agency, commonly known as the Bowibu, runs most of the camps. Others are operated by the Inmin Pohan Seong, the Peoples’ Security Agency, commonly known as the Anjeonbu. These dreaded security forces also have agents spread out throughout North Korea’s cities and towns maintaining control through terror, increasingly by executing political and economic criminals before public firing squads, with their neighbors required to observe. The security forces have also built many smaller prison camps, largely for economic criminals. They have created a culture of extortion by Anjeonbu and Bowibu officers who shake down merchants and citizens for cash.
For all of these reasons, North Korea could not and still cannot develop the kind of dissident infrastructure that grew in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But within this bleak picture, one institution has finally emerged that the state cannot crush: the free market. Markets now provide most of the food that North Koreans eat, and increasingly, they also deliver cell phones, radios, DVD players, and South Korean consumer goods, junk food, movies, and TV programs:
[W]ithout people intending or even realizing the implications, some activities motivated by profit have led to more access to information: the roaring trade in imported CDs and DVDs of South Korean soap operas and movies, for instance. Since many North Koreans still don’t have enough to eat, it may seem odd that people would spend money on entertainment, but the fact is that North Koreans are hungry not only for food but also for diversion. “I would trade a meal for a South Korean movie,” said one North Korean teenager. “Food is not all you need to survive.”
The regime’s monopoly on information is breaking down, but until now, U.S. and South Korean government policies have done more to help the North Korean regime sustain its capacity to repress than we’ve done to help the North Korean people sow this bloom of subversive capitalism. That subversive power and its greater latent potential will be the subject of tomorrow’s installment.
The invisible hand of capitalism is slowly strangling the world’s most totalitarian regime, and Kim Jong Il knows it. Most of Kim Jong Il’s machinery of repression survived The Great Famine, but his monopoly on the food supply did not. The state’s Public Distribution System is only a vestige of what it was in 1990. By 2009, the markets, known in Korean as jangmadang, were the main food source for perhaps 80 percent of North Koreans. Some of the food sold in them was grown in small private plots, or stolen from collectives or state warehouses. Some of it is international food aid that the regime or its corrupt officials sell in the jangmadang to raise cash. Increasingly, much of it is also imported or smuggled in from across the Chinese border.
Although there’s plenty of contraband sold in the jangmadang, it is not entirely accurate to call them black markets. The shiny metal roofs over the long rows of stalls are visible in most North Korean cities on Google Earth. The authorities know where they are, and the security forces spend plenty of time there hassling pitiful kkotjaebi (homeless orphans) or shaking down merchants for violating any of the many arbitrary rules that are often promulgated and sometimes enforced. There are rules about what can be sold, and for how much. There are restrictions on the age and gender of who can sell there. Occasionally, the authorities try to shut down the markets entirely. Yet the markets have proven exceedingly persistent.
Markets first came into the open during the Great Famine. Initially, the regime tolerated them. Between 2002 and 2004, advocates of “engagement” with Kim Jong Il’s regime were fond of characterizing this as “reform,” but in fact, what they were seeing was a reluctant economic insurrection by desperate, expendable people with no other way to survive. Similarly, not all of the up to 300,000 North Koreans who illegally crossed into China during the famine years intended to defect. Most probably crossed temporarily to find food for their families, or to survive. Government officials were hungry, too, and many turned to corruption:
A woman in her 40s from Hoeryong, North Korea, described how about a third of her income from markets was taken by various officials. “The housing official, the electricity official, the water official … as soon as they smell your money, they are on you,” she told me. “They will find some excuse, some violation you have committed. You have to pay up. There is no avoiding them.”
Border guards were no exception. As cross-border trade became more lucrative, so did the acceptance of bribes to overlook it. The corruption of the border guards became so brazen that they have been photographed while smuggling in broad daylight. Even field-grade officers, and most strikingly, members of North Korea’s intelligence services, went into the smuggling business:
The restriction of movement, with which North Korea controlled its population, began to break down. “I began spending my days not watching people but trying to find food for my family. The rations I received were not enough. We were desperate,” a former intelligence official from North Korea described the hunger that even he, a member of the elite, could not escape.
Together, these three developments — the mainstreaming of the black market, border crossing, and corruption — broke the state’s monopolies over food and information. North Koreans were influenced by their exposure to South Korean culture, but the state-to-state engagement of the Sunshine Policy had almost nothing to do with it. Instead, the engine of change was smuggling across the Chinese border, in spite of the regime’s best efforts to seal it. The available evidence suggests that what North Koreans have learned from smuggled information has changed how they think. Refugees report that most North Koreans know that South Koreans live better than they do. Almost no one still believes the official propaganda, which still insists that most South Koreans are starving beggars. And unlike some left-wing academics in America, North Koreans blame their own leaders for their misery. In one telling anecdote, a party official in the border town of Hyesan found that a harangue to this effect was the best laugh his audience had had for quite a while:
The speaker reportedly responded through his own laughter, “You know the lecture material always reads like this. You can well understand the situation and know what I am saying, right?” The source said that “his comment sent people rolling in the aisles,” and pointed out, “The situation showed how absurd the propaganda released by the authorities is.”
Kim Jong Il’s minions did not stand by passively for long as capitalism grew from the barren soil under their boots. In 2004, they tried to force people back to their work units, often at factories that were still idle. In 2005, the regime tried to reconstitute the Public Distribution System and restrict market activity with confiscatory taxes. The efforts failed; the system still could not feed the people. Unable to close the markets entirely, local officials tried to slow their growth by placing new restrictions on them. In some cases, these restrictions caused mass demonstrations — something that had been almost unthinkable in North Korea since the 1950’s.
By 2009, North Korean socialism had become a facade. Husbands continued to report to their work units in factories and mines that often barely functioned, in exchange for meager and irregular pay and rations. Others simply bribed their bosses into letting them miss work to pursue more profitable occupations. Often, it was their wives who supported their families by trading in the markets and saving what they could to survive through the lean months of the winter and spring. To most North Korean families, the state had ceased to be a provider and had become an impediment to survival. People who were liberated from their work units were also liberated from political indoctrination and were harder to keep an eye on.
The regime, recognizing this trend as an existential threat, decided to act decisively to reestablish its control over the economy and the food supply. Its response was a series of economic measures designed to paralyze trade, destroy private savings, and shut down markets — measures that I collectively call The Great Confiscation. The first signs came in the summer of 2009, when the regime began to remove Chinese and other foreign consumer goods and food from the jangmadang. In September, North Korea closed the country’s largest unofficial market, on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Then, in late November, North Korea summarily canceled and replaced its currency, instantly extinguishing the savings of millions of people. The state ordered citizens to turn in any savings exceeding a small ceiling — initially, the equivalent of $20. The new currency was also redenominated, with two zeros dropped from the official exchange rates. To maintain secrecy, the regime made no plans to reprice the goods in the official shops, which remained closed for weeks while bureaucrats haggled over what the prices should be. To ensure that the people did not merely shift to dollars and Chinese yuan, foreign currency transactions were banned. This meant in practice that for once, the elite shared the pain, for many of them had begun to keep savings in foreign currency.
I suggested then that currency replacement might cause a popular backlash. Subsequent events bore this out. Riots and protests were reported to have broken out in several North Korean cities, and many North Koreans are said to have burned piles of the now-worthless currency — a serious political offense, given that the notes bear the image of Kim Il Sung. As before, these disturbances were isolated enough for the regime to crush them quickly, but public anger at the Great Confiscation was so universal and so bitter that it pushed back the social barriers that held back the open expression of discontent.
Not everyone was angry at first, because in theory, state workers would get the same wages as before, representing a hundred-fold pay raise in the new redenominated currency. Soon, however, runaway inflation eroded the buying power of the new money. For the first time in years, both state stores and the jangmadang were closed. Trade was paralyzed; buses didn’t run, and even foreign embassy workers couldn’t buy food. There were fears of another famine. The popular rage reached such a level that the regime was forced to do something unprecedented: apologize to the people. Reports circulated that the official whose idea this had been was sent to a firing squad, although those reports were called into question later. The regime partially relented in its invalidation of the old currency by raising the exchange limits, slightly. But neither the regime’s crackdown on dissent, nor its climbdown in the face of it, was enough to restore popular obedience. So many North Koreans now complain about their government’s incompetence that the regime cannot silence all of them. The system of terror that holds the regime together is becoming overloaded. In February, there were even reports that angry North Koreans had attacked and killed members of the dreaded security police.
Inevitably for a society as closed as North Korea, these reports are anecdotal hearsay and only begin to acquire the ring of authenticity in quantity. But some statistical data suggest that discontent was already rising before The Great Confiscation. The economist Marcus Noland, the political scientist Stephan Haggard, and the researcher Yoonok Chang have recently published a stream of new research about what North Koreans really think of their government. In 2005, Chang interviewed more than 1,000 North Koreans in China, a remarkable accomplishment given that her subjects were constantly on the run from Chinese police trying to send them back to die in North Korean gulags. Admittedly, predicting North Korean opinion based on surveying refugees and migrants might well be like trying to guess the next governor of Kansas by polling every Kansan in Greenwich Village. The authors readily admit this, though they take pains to at least match the demographics of their survey population to estimates of North Korea’s own demographics. Even so, the data, collected between 2005 and 2009, show us some interesting trends. Within the refugee/migrant population itself, North Koreans are increasingly negative about their government, skeptical of what it tells them, and both willing and able to access foreign broadcasts at great personal risk. Here is Noland and Haggard’s ultimate conclusion:
The surveys’ results suggest that the regime’s discomfort might be well founded. Countries such as North Korea, where people routinely hide their true opinions, are prone to sudden, explosive political mobilizations like the ones that swept Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s. Those mobilizations happen when nascent expressions of discontent cascade — each person who sticks their head above the parapet encourages another to do the same. And in North Korea, the market appears to be just such a semiautonomous zone of social communication (and potentially political organizing) beyond the state’s reach.
Are the North Korean people only now becoming disgruntled, or does the decay of Kim Jong Il’s information blockade just mean we’re learning more about how disgruntled North Koreans really are? It’s probably a bit of both. My best guess is that public anger at the regime first became widespread during the Great Famine, and subsided as the markets restored the food crisis to a state of marginal equilibrium, where it more-or-less stayed until the end of 2009. After the Great Confiscation, discontent appears to have raged even more than it did during The Great Famine, a humanitarian catastrophe on an infinitely greater scale.
The markets have proven far more resilient than confidence in the regime. After the market disruptions of the Great Confiscation, there was a rise in large-scale food smuggling, with hundreds of tons of food brought across the frozen Yalu River by the truckload. The intelligence and security services overlooked the smuggling, presumably because they were either involved or getting a cut of the profits. Some reports suggest that today, just six months later, the jangmadang in some cities have already recovered completely.
The first news source to inform the world of The Great Confiscation — and to do so within a day — was neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post, but Open News for North Korea, founded by Ha Tae Kyoung, an enigmatic South Korean ex-leftist and political prisoner and acquaintance of mine. Ha, who goes by the name Young Howard in the English-language press, broadcasts into North Korea on medium-wave frequencies from transmitters in locations he prefers not to discuss. Just as importantly, his service also broadcasts news from North Korea to the outside world, using a network of clandestine correspondents. This, too, would have been unthinkable three years ago, when news from North Korea took months to emerge, if at all. Any North Korean caught informing to Open News can expect to face a firing squad for espionage. Yet North Koreans still choose to take that risk.
Open News is not the only guerrilla news service operating inside North Korea. Radio Free North Korea, The Daily NK, Rimjingang, PSCORE and other organizations also report from North Korea, as does the liberal South Korean Buddhist charity Good Friends. Today, thanks to legislation sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Ed Royce — and stalled for years by Condoleezza Rice’s State Department — many of the guerrilla news services receive funding from the National Endowment for Democracy. The European Union and NGO’s like Reporters Without Borders provide more funding. Collectively, these services are breaking the North Korean regime’s information blockade.
“Technology made this possible,” said Sohn Kwang-joo, the chief editor of Daily NK. “We infiltrate the wall of North Korea with cellphones.” [….]
Mr. Sohn […] has South Korean “correspondents” near the China-North Korea border. These volunteers, many of them pro-democracy advocates during their student years, secretly meet North Koreans traveling across the border and recruit underground stringers. The volunteers use business visas, or sometimes pretend to be students or tourists. “It’s dangerous work, and it takes one or two years to recruit one,” Mr. Sohn said.
The clandestine services also claim to be recruiting more North Korean officials as sources:
“These officials provide news because they feel uncertain about the future of their regime and want to have a link with the outside world, or because of their friendship with the defectors working for us, or because of money,” said Mr. Ha, who also goes by his English name, Young Howard.
All these news outlets pay their informants. Mr. Ha pays a bonus for significant scoops. Daily NK and Open Radio each have 15 staff members, some of them defectors, and receive U.S. congressional funding through the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as support from other public and private sources. Recently, they have been receiving tips from North Koreans about corrupt officials.
North Koreans could not have played such an important role in telling their story just a few years ago, yet we have hardly begun to pry at these cracks in the state’s information blockade. With more funding and training, guerrilla correspondents could broadcast reports from inside North Korea, and even provide international coverage of resistance activities. The implications of guerrilla journalism go well beyond reporting the news. If it is now possible to establish durable links between clandestine journalists inside North Korea and newspapers on the outside, a political underground inside North Korea can be linked to a base of support in South Korea, something I’ll discuss in more detail in tomorrow’s installment.
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Information is crossing North Korea’s borders in both directions. Today, all the kids in Pyongyang want portable MP4 players to share music and movies. The security forces have orders to confiscate them, but they’re still widely available in the jangmadang. No wonder, given their obvious subversive potential. North Koreans must have a great hunger for frivolous entertainment, including music, movies, and literature. Other messages could be more explicitly subversive — news, religious sermons, and documentaries that would explain the true origins of the Korean War, Kim Jong Il’s culinary and sexual gluttony, and the causes of the Great Famine. To expose Kim Jong Il as a dependent and puppet of China, where North Korean women are sold by traffickers and often raped by the police, would be particularly devastating to a regime that prides itself on independence and cultivates extreme nationalism. At the same time, South Korea’s economic, technological, and cultural example would show the people how much better their future could be without Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun. (I credit my good friend Professor Andrei Lankov for many of these ideas, but only the good ones.)
It often takes days for an ordinary North Korean to send a censored letter to a friend or relative in another city, but within a year, smugglers could flood the jangmadang with tens of thousands of cheap cell phones that could call or text internationally or domestically. A portable base station like this one, raised to an altitude of 1,000 meters just south of the DMZ, could theoretically provide cell phone service to North Koreans as far north as Pyongyang. This would effectively end the regime’s isolation of its population. For the first time, North Koreans could talk to their relatives in the South, spread news from city to city, facilitate trade all over the country, and even organize politically. The operators of the network could also send text messages to every North Korean user. If cheap cell phones appeared in quantity in Chinese border cities like Dandong, smugglers would do the rest (though a little bribe money would do wonders). The regime could not possibly monitor such a sudden explosion of information. For areas out of reach of the signal, new satellite phones are now available for $235 retail. The machinery of repression would be overloaded, and once the regime loses its capacity to control ideas, speech, and thought, the precise manner of its extinction will come into focus.
Coincident with this flood of subversive information, completely non-violent methods could take a heavy toll on the morale and readiness of North Korea’s security forces, keep them off-balance, and even force them to redeploy to remote parts of the country. Today, for example, a group of defectors called Fighters for Free North Korea floats radios, DVD’s, money, and leaflets across to North Korea with large helium balloons. If it weren’t for the regime’s obsession with the control of information, this would be nothing more than good media theater. How much harm could a few balloons possibly do? Plenty, apparently, because the regime mobilizes army units to gather up every item that falls from them. One way to raise the strain on the security forces’ morale, maintenance, and fuel supply would be to expand this leafleting campaign. Another would be for South Korea to remove the anti-personnel mines from less strategic sections of the DMZ, leaving the anti-tank mines and barriers intact, and setting up refugee reception centers at a safe distance south of the line. The regime could prevent mass defections of refugees, but only by redeploying a part of its thinly stretched border guards to its southern border.
In time, the modest network of smuggler’s ratlines across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers and the mountainous region between them could be the Lee Myung Bak Trail of this decade. If all of the resources of the United States cannot stop the flow of people, money, weapons, and drugs across the Mexican border and the Caribbean, a North Korean regime under the pressure of tighter economic sanctions cannot be sufficient to stop the flow of food, money, medicine, or information across its borders. There are hundreds of villages and thousands of small boats along North Korea’s two long coastlines. If Somali pirates can hijack container ships and tankers in broad daylight, on seas patrolled by the world’s greatest navies, determined North Korean smugglers could also move goods from offshore drop-sites to the rugged coastlines of their homeland. Obviously, corruption and disillusionment within the security forces would play important roles in this plan, but sheer attrition on the regime’s security forces could sap much of their strength before the first round of return fire.
South Korea, with America’s backing, can help the North Korean resistance deliver a message that the people of North Korea are prepared to accept — a message of free markets, accountable government, and reunification. This process will continue to progress even without the assistance of interested governments, but it might progress much more quickly with enough cell phones, MP4 players, fast boats, and bribe money.
What I have not explained yet is how opening North Korea’s borders can force Kim Jong Il, who is protected by one of the world’s largest standing armies, from power. That will be the topic of Monday’s discussion.
Before the Great Famine, the North Koreans had Thanksgiving, too. The Korean harvest holiday is called chuseok, and in South Korea, it means that millions of cars clog the highways carrying people to visit and feast with their relatives. In North Korea, there are no traffic jams, no traffic, few travel passes, and for most of the people, there’s little to feast on, so Chuseok has become a modest celebration. Still, the idea of inviting a North Korean family to Thanksgiving may have caused me a greater sense of irony than it did my guests, Kim Kwang Jin and his family. Before he and his family defected in 2003, Kim had been a trusted member of North Korea’s Inner Party: a graduate of Kim Il Sung University who had studied English literature, married a general’s daughter, and obtained a prized job that allowed him to travel abroad. Kim Kwang Jin’s particular job was buying insurance — specifically, reinsurance policies from large international insurance companies — and then collecting payouts after catastrophic “accidents” that only North Korean authorities would be allowed to investigate. The policies later became the subject of much litigation, and Mr. Kim has since revealed to The Washington Post that they were actually a global insurance fraud scheme. This was just one of many ways Kim Jong Il sustained his regime with foreign currency.
Dulled by tryptophan and ginseng rice wine, we spoke of Mr. Kim’s homeland. I asked Mr. Kim if his former colleagues in Pyongyang still believed in the system. He said they did not. But how did he know? As it turns out, North Koreans have found their own ways to express ideas without convicting themselves. They tell jokes with close friends, but mostly, they use inflections. What do the North Korean people want? Mr. Kim paused for a long time and thought carefully.
“They want to get rid of Kim Jong Il.”
“But surely they don’t say this.”
“No, of course they can’t say that.”
“So, how do you know?”
“They say that they want a war.”
He meant Götterdämmerung, known locally as OPLAN 5027. This was North Korean code-talk for the end of the system, a war that was worth the risk because the survivors would live with hope and ChocoPies, and without rising before dawn to attend criticism sessions. This is difficult stuff for Americans to comprehend, but it was not the first time I had read of similar sentiments by North Koreans — prayers to a forbidden God for the twilight of the living ones. In North Korea, there are people who pray for Götterdämmerung, but I would rather they simply had chuseok back.
Götterdämmerung will have to come first, but it is coming, regardless of whether we decide to hasten and shape the form that it will take. If Kim Jong Il believed he had more than a few years to live, it’s hard to believe that he’d already be deifying his 27 year-old son, Kim Jong-Un, to succeed him. In a theocracy like North Korea, the succession between gods requires many more levels of indoctrination and rewiring of devotions than exclusively political transfers of power. It is questionable that the Kim Dynasty will accomplish this in the time Kim Jong Il appears to have left on this earth, or that Jong-Un will be able to command the unquestioning loyalty of septuagenarian generals who have survived decades of purges. Once Kim Jong Il becomes incapacitated, North Korea is going to confront a severe — and probably terminal — crisis of confidence. Sooner or later, a state of severe economic or political distress will cause factions within the regime to compete for limited resources, and the North Korean state will begin to fail. Our decisions now will influence whether North Korea will be a nuked-up Somalia or a state that can be reintegrated into South Korea without a major conflict.
If recent reporting is to be believed, the crisis of confidence has already begun among the North Korean people. Talk of the succession of Kim Jong-Un has caused intense despair among most North Koreans, many of whom hold him responsible for the Great Confiscation or exhausting labor mobilizations. Some call him “an immature little bastard” who is “more savage than his father,” or decry his dynastic succession in an ostensibly socialist society. Above all else, the succession of a young tyrant represents the extension of this regime for more years than they have left on this Earth. His succession means that Götterdämmerung is many North Koreans’ last hope for a better future.
I have proposed in this series that South Korea and its allies, including the United States, join forces to flood North Korea with subversive ideas and smuggled goods; support its infiltration by an underground opposition; and empower it to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and catalyze the formation of a shadow government that provides them with their essential needs, including hope. It is unlikely that anyone but profoundly desperate or devoted people would undertake tasks like these. Indeed, almost all of the most intrepid, cohesive, and effective organizations smuggling North Koreans through China have been Christian missionaries. Few of the more dispassionate experts on the diplomatic, economic, or military aspects of North Korea are likely to agree that the North Korean system has weakened enough to be undermined by such an ambitious effort today, and for the record, neither do I. Collapse has to follow contain and constrict. Creating more favorable conditions will require a combination of information operations and targeted sanctions to strain, and eventually overload, the security forces.
Other stars may also have to align in how the regime (mis)manages the succession issue. Preventing China from undermining such a strategy will require us to raise the cost of its support to Kim Jong Il, such as by sanctioning Chinese companies investing in North Korea, or raising the stakes with our supply of arms to Taiwan. On the other hand, the conventional military, economic, and diplomatic wisdom has a poor track record at foreseeing the most consequential social shifts in repressive states. No one can really claim to have a complete understanding of what’s happening in North Korea today. But if the right conditions do not exist for the subversion of North Korea today, there is much we can do to help catalyze them.
But does any of this matter if the security forces have all the guns? Yes, to a degree. The expert consensus is that most of North Korea’s political and military units will probably hold together as long as Kim Jong Il lives and controls the key levers of power, though anything is possible after he dies. As long as the military and the security forces remain loyal to the center, clearly, they will be able to crush any underground they ferret out. This means that as conditions are now, no opposition can challenge the state directly. Absent a military mutiny, there will be no march on Pyongyang. For now, an underground can only survive clandestinely, if it can survive at all. But the capacity to deliver food and essential services is the power to influence and organize people, often without most of the participants even knowing who they’re working with. If an underground can take root and spread by delivering necessities and information to the people, it can build strength, seek out and coopt neglected and dysfunctional elements of the state’s infrastructure, and link up with its leaders in exile in South Korea. It would take years, but one day, neglected clinics could be supplied with medicine and money to treat resistance cells; mechanics could be given tools to repair resistance vehicles; informers could be paid or bribed to report on other informers; and if the financial pressure works well enough, elements of the security forces could be paid to look the other way. As it quietly takes root, this movement would wait for the crisis of confidence to create division and disarray within the security force, and then take advantage of a moment of opportunity.
Or, that moment may not come. If an underground can establish itself inside North Korea, it will have to decide on the next step based on conditions that are unknowable now. That decision is at least three years into the future, and probably much longer. Without the support of a clandestine political or religious organization, no opposition will never have the logistical, intelligence, and personnel networks it will need to survive. Then, we are back to waiting for the unknowable, most likely the overthrow of one dangerous dictatorship by another, followed by an outbreak of factional civil war that draws in foreign intervention.
America, Japan, and South Korea must not merely watch for opportunities created by North Korea’s succession crisis; they must create their own opportunities by saturating North Korea with information to destabilize the regime and to seed the soil with a better alternative. Our information operations should seek to amplify North Koreans’ lack of confidence in the system, reformat years of indoctrination, and build durable connections between individual North Koreans and their relatives, friends, business partners, and collaborators in South Korea and beyond (which is why the establishment of a cell phone network may be the most important subversive option we have). At the same time, we should seek to build connections not only to discontented North Koreans, but also to key constituencies in the military and the government who may provide the firepower that defeating a tyranny always requires. When the North Korean state begins to fail, a few officials and officers could decide whether the center holds or fractures. The presence of a sympathetic organization among the North Korean people could also make the process of reunifying and reconstructing North Korea much easier.
It is too early to write the next installment of this series before we observe the effects of cracking North Korea’s information blockade and what happens when Kim Jong Il dies. It is almost certain that violence will follow. There’s probably nothing we can do to prevent that, although I’m one who believes that we can influence its scale and outcome. No one will win a Nobel Peace Prize for stopping North Korea’s public executions and shutting down its gulag, but since when has the Nobel Committee or any other international institution — particularly Ban Ki-Moon’s U.N. — done anything tangible for the people of North Korea? As Americans, we reserve to ourselves the right to use violence against terrorists to protect our civilian population.
Today, there is no North Korean resistance to arm; in any event, the North Korean people themselves will have to decide when and how to confront the security forces who terrorize, torture and murder them. That time is years away if it is to come at all, but the very possibility that an organization exists to challenge the state will give us influence within and over North Korea, and over China. I hope that if a North Korean opposition rises and decides to fight, that we’ll support them, but I’m under no illusions that our anemic political class would. The alternative may be to watch banditry and warlordism fill this vacuum instead. Even if the opposition does decide to acquire arms — perhaps from within North Korea itself or from a disgruntled regime faction — it will never be able to overthrow the state by force. But after several years of decay in the security forces’ resources, training, discipline, and morale, the knowledge that the resistance is armed may be enough to deter the state from using deadly force. It could also assist one regime faction over another at a crucial moment, facilitate an easier South Korean occupation, and deter a Chinese occupation.
It is a sure thing that if North Koreans decide to oppose this regime, people will die, but many people are already dying. Financial constriction and political subversion could also cause chaos near the Chinese border, but given China’s brutality toward North Korean refugees and all that it has done to support Kim Jong Il, this is not entirely a bad thing. Once China’s leaders conclude that the continuation of the Kim regime means more violence and chaos and only ends with Götterdämmerung, they would have new incentives to support an orderly disarmament and transition of power. A regime as politically and financially beleaguered as North Korea’s couldn’t hold out for long without Chinese money and intervention. If China does intervene, it would galvanize North Korea’s ferocious nationalism, and the Chinese army might find itself dodging convoy ambushes along the main road between Pyongyang and Dandong. That could threaten the stability of China’s own one-party rule. Because China probably knows this, I tend to doubt that it would intervene. (America should also take heed; North Koreans have been inculcated with nationalism and anti-Americanism for decades. Their discontent with their own government is not the same thing as affection for us. For obvious reasons, South Korea is the only country that can pacify North Korea, although the United States and Japan can play important supporting roles).
What end serves the common purposes of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and the North Korean people? Surely it goes far beyond nuclear disarmament to making North Korea a less dangerous place, something that requires North Korea to accept a fundamental transparency that is the antithesis of this regime’s pathology. It is at this stage that the Six-Party Talks could acquire a useful function by allowing the region’s powers to coordinate their support for a contained implosion of the North Korean regime and a phased transition to Korean reunification. As a price of its support, China may ask that no U.S. forces be stationed north of the present-day DMZ, but this demand should be acceptable, because the entanglement of an occupation of North Korea is not in America’s interests, either.
History may eventually record that overthrowing the Kim Dynasty was the easy part. Rebuilding North Korea will be one of the greatest humanitarian, financial, and political challenges the world will have faced since 1945. It will be painful, expensive, and lengthy under the best of circumstances. A 20o6 RAND Corporation study estimated that South Korea would need as many as 440,000 troops to stabilize North Korea after the collapse of the existing regime, but only if North Koreans resist a South Korean occupation. North Koreans will more easily accept a reconstruction effort led by Koreans — North Koreans with a base of indigenous support, returned North Korean exiles, and the South Korean government — than a foreign occupation.
There are now 18,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. Among these, several thousand could be trained to as judges, administrators, policemen, military officers, and technocrats to assume key positions in a post-Kim Jong Il North Korea, and to lead those North Koreans who will be prepared to accept and assist a new Korean government. If North Korea is to be a stable and functioning democracy ten years from now, it will need the combined support of these exiles, American and Japanese capital, South Korea’s ingenuity and drive, and the courage and vision that lies latent among the North Koreans themselves.
Mr. Jefferson argued that when a government becomes destructive of the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. His words are as compelling when applied to North Korea as they have ever been in any other place and time. I am not such an American exceptionalist that I would deny the North Korean people the right to alter or abolish a system that culls the expendable, murders the independent-minded, and wounds the survivors. And it so happens that the interests of the North Korean people undeniably align with our own.