~ 1 ~
One day, either this President or the next one will awaken to the realization that the regime in Pyongyang is collapsing, and that he has just inherited the costliest, messiest, and riskiest nation-building project since the Marshall Plan. The collapse of North Korea will present South Korea — and by extension, its principal treaty ally, the United States — with a nation-building challenge unlike any in recent history. After all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria all had some independent institutions — tribes, sects, mosques, and churches — that predated and outlived the old order. None of these things exists in North Korea. A collapse of the regime will reduce the entire society from the closest thing on Earth to panopticon totalitarianism to complete anarchy.
North Korea’s extraordinary secrecy means this will be harder to predict than the collapses of ostensibly “stable” regimes in Libya and Syria, but Kim Jong Un’s rule so far suggests an ineptitude at two survival skills — the proper cultivation of a personality cult, and the maintenance of good relations with the military. Pyongyang’s ongoing purges may or may not be signs of instability, but they suggest the existence of fear and distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military. Another destabilizing trend is North Korea’s obscene and widening gap between rich and poor.
These things might not have mattered in the 1990s, but today, technology is allowing more of North Korea’s have-nots to see how the elites live. Of course, inequality isn’t new to North Korea, but the new inequality is a more destabilizing kind. Contrary to the misjudgment of generations of American policymakers, North Korea’s hunger is not destabilizing, but an effective tool for weakening, exhausting, and controlling the oppressed. Today, North Korea’s poor are still very poor, but there is no wide-scale famine. Meanwhile, the elites have grown obscenely rich. It is inequality, not poverty, that topples tyrants. And ever since the coronation of Kim Jong Un, a porcine portrait of inequality has glared down on every North Korean citizen in every home, office, and classroom.
In his inaugural address in 2009, President Obama offered an open hand to Kim Jong Il, if he would unclench his fist. Within five months, Kim Jong Il answered with a nuclear test, and Kim Jong Un has repeatedly reaffirmed his insistence on pursuing a nuclear arsenal.
Recently, the Obama Administration has been hinting at both talks with and sanctions against Pyongyang, but the reality is that the North Korea policy debate has already entered the post-Obama era. It’s a very different debate from the one we had seven years ago. In 2008, most Korea watchers still believed that “engagement” with Pyongyang would catalyze political reforms, but Kim Jong Un’s bloody purges, and his harsh crackdowns on refugees and information, have discredited this theory. Korea watchers still hope for a peaceful opening of North Korea, but if you ask them directly, very few of them really believe in one in the foreseeable future. In 2008, most Korea watchers still hoped that diplomacy might end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To the extent this hope survived the collapse of President Bush’s Agreed Framework of 2007, it faded away with the collapse of President Obama’s Leap Day Agreement of 2012, a less ambitious freeze agreement. A few Korea watchers still cling to the idea of a freeze agreement, but I can’t name a single Korea-watcher of consequence who still believes in a negotiated disarmament of North Korea today.
Today, many Korea-watchers are resigned to an unreformed, nuclear North Korea. Most are weary, disillusioned, uncertain, and at a loss. More of them know what we shouldn’t do than what we should do. There are important exceptions. Former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, writing in Foreign Affairs, advocates the overthrow of the regime by seeking a diplomatic consensus with China and other neighbors to cut off Pyongyang’s financial support. In a war-weary, post-Iraq Washington, this might have been a fringe view, but in the age of ISIS, Terry is joined in it, somewhat conditionally, by Richard Haass and Winston Lord, influential moderates who are usually associated with the “realist” school of foreign policy that places a high premium on stability. Leaving aside whether China would agree to this for the present, there are good counter-arguments to seeking regime collapse. One need only read Bruce Bennett’s description of the cost, chaos, and conflict a sudden collapse of North Korea’s sole social and political institution could bring to understand them. (Terry also acknowledges them.) But as much as Americans hate the cost of nation-building, they must understand that the alternative can be much costlier. Try to calculate the cost of anarchy Afghanistan in 1989, or Syria and Libya in 2011.
In the long term, Terry (and Park Geun Hye) are almost certainly correct that North Korea’s untapped human and material potential would make a unified Korea a wealthy, powerful, and prosperous nation. In the short term, however, a post-collapse North Korea will be a money pit. It will be a source of social unrest, illicit drugs, crime, corruption, disease, and potentially, conflict. Its infrastructure, civil society, and public health would take years, if not decades, to rebuild to first-world standards, and all of them will continue to decay as long as the regime can suppress the coalescence of alternative political, social, and economic institutions. With each year that this decay progresses, the cost of repairing it will continue to rise. Even with the best planning and preparation, it will be one of the greatest security crises of our age. And it will happen regardless of whether we want it to or not.
Even so, this is still a far better outcome than one in which North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other end-users of North Korea’s WMD technology acquire the means to destroy U.S., South Korea, Japanese, and other allied cities. As Korea watchers will tell you, all of the good options vanished long ago.
~ 2 ~
In moments of exasperation, proponents of regime-focused engagement sometimes ask their critics how they would beneficially transform North Korean society. It’s a fair question. The critics are fond of pointing out that South Korea spent nearly a decade and billions of dollars trying to transform North Korea through the Sunshine Policy, yet the results speak for themselves. As one of these critics, I’ve long challenged proponents of Sunshine-like policies to point to any significant positive changes their policies have achieved, but no one has ever taken me up on this.
The question isn’t really whether Sunshine failed, but why. The simple answer is that it’s in the regime’s interest to protect the status quo, accepting only so much trade and commerce as are necessary to sustain its military, security, and material priorities. Any positive change for which a foreign or alternative institution can take credit is a threat to the regime’s legitimacy. This goes far to explain the failure of U.N. food aid programs, which Pyongyang has hobbled with obstructionism, corruption, and outright diversion, and (as we’ve recently learned) infiltration by its spies.
Even so, and no matter how demonstrably regime engagement has failed to transform North Korea, its defenders raise a fair point when they say that isolation alone won’t change North Korea for the better.
What policymakers urgently require, then, is some way to weaken the North Korean government while rebuilding North Korean society — a way to begin nation building now by connecting the wider world with those North Koreans with an interest in transforming their society into a peaceful, prosperous, and humane one. What policymakers require is a strategy for guerrilla engagement, to empower the rise of independent, sometimes clandestine, institutions at the farm, village, factory, and town level, to fill the voids in North Korea’s governance, with the ultimate objective of regime replacement rather than mere regime collapse.
This leads us to a short but very important policy paper, by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, about “separative engagement.” Separative engagement is premised on the conclusion that regime-focused engagement has not worked, and cannot work:
After over a decade of practice, and in light of the findings of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, if critical engagement has been measurably effective in improving human rights in North Korea and if it has effectively influenced the DPRK’s decision-makers, can we point to any tangible effects?
The short answer must be: No. Despite European successes in the Track One approach — namely, the UN resolutions on North Korean human rights in 2014 — Track Two engagement has been unable to identify those in the North Korean leadership to influence or target, whilst DPRK officials continue to exterminate, enslave, torture, imprison, rape, starve, and persecute their citizenry on an unimaginable scale.
Put simply: critical engagement has not been, and cannot be, effective.
Engaging the DPRK through approaches proposed, crafted, or condoned by the DPRK regime, or through projects that have minor results relative to the immense scale of human rights violations, should not continue. In order to pursue effective and principled engagement, a bold shift in policy is required. [EAHRNK]
Instead, EAHRNK collaborates with North Korean defector and intellectual Jang Jin Sung to propose a new, people-focused model of engagement:
In its approach, the objective of separative engagement is very clear: For all engagement to be guided on the principle of North Korean people being given space to separate themselves, both psychologically and physically, from the North Korean state.
Separative engagement does not offer quick solutions to the North Korean human crisis. Rather, its framework and principles — which are based upon first-hand knowledge of how the DPRK state functions domestically and how it interacts with the international community — allows states to commit to a policy framework that is premised on respecting and restoring the human rights of the North Korean people.
This principle is fundamental to those who advocate for separative engagement. If engagement is to contribute to ending the unparalleled abuses of the North Korean people, the people must be conceptually and tangibly separated from the ideological and physical institutions that strengthen the regime’s control.
1. Imposing Separative Conditions within the DPRK — for example, ensuring that all training projects implemented by the international community seek to strengthen institutions that support the people’s economy, as opposed to the compartmentalised military or elite economies.
2. Increasing Separation-inducing Pursuits towards the DPRK — for example, increasing inward flows of information, such as the BBC World Service, which offer alternative information to DPRK state propaganda.
3. Fostering Separative Leverage over the DPRK — for example, providing support and training for North Korean escapees, or aiding and engaging a North Korean government-in-exile who can offer a more credible and legitimate voice for the North Korean people.
“Guerrilla engagement” begins with these same principles, but extends them in more subversive directions, and combines them with other non-military instruments of national power, as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve change. The sine qua non of guerrilla engagement is the deployment of technology to allow direct communication and engagement with the North Korean people — not minders or bureaucrats in Pyongyang, or officials working for state trading companies in Dandong — but farmers, teachers, journalists, smugglers, merchants, midwives, doctors, and mechanics in Hoeryong, Sinuiju, Chongjin, and Hamhung, and in a thousand villages and factory towns scattered between them. For their own protection, most of these people will not know the identities of other members of the underground. Initially, few of them even realize that their work has political implications at all. They will simply be skirting the state’s rules to provide valuable goods and services to their fellow citizens, just like many North Koreans are already doing today.
The challenges to this are obvious. Since Kim Jong Un’s dynastic succession in 2011, he has prioritized sealing the cracks in North Korea’s information blockade. That crackdown has cut the flow of refugees in half, and has throttled the flow of contraband information and consumer goods across North Korea’s borders. Once-hopeful trends in information penetration — trends that had given many of us long-term hope for North Korea — are slowing, and may yet come to a full stop. Writing at NK News, Chad O’Carroll has proposed one possible way to break the blockade again. I can think of others, but people in Pyongyang read this site, so I’ll keep them to myself. [Update:]
For now, consider the possibilities once the U.S. and its allies give the North Korean people the gift of free speech. Shatter this blockade and the possibilities are limitless.
~ 3 ~
Once the North Korean people have access to communications, guerrilla engagement can take its first important step: shifting the balance of economic power away from the regime and toward the people. This will require two parallel initiatives: first, using financial sanctions to de-fund the palace economy; and second, establishing an independent financial system to unleash the peoples’ economy, and with it, the production and transportation of food, consumer goods, and information.
To do this, South Korea (or Japan, which is seeking ways to influence events inside North Korea) should leverage electronic communications to build a virtual electronic banking network for North Korea’s underprivileged classes. This network would allow North Korean merchants to make electronic payments and transactions using dollar accounts in banks based in New York, Tokyo, or Seoul. The use of dollar accounts would not only protect this underground economy from reactions by the North Korean and Chinese central banks, it would also allow the U.S. Treasury Department a greater measure of control over regime-connected figures who would invariably tap into it. It would also give the U.S. and South Korean governments (and the local networks they empower) a credible threat to wield against officials that cracked down on the people. For the regime, it would be tantamount to financial receivership.
The establishment of a virtual dollar economy would open North Korea’s borders, not only to remittances by refugees to their relatives, but to charitable donations by church groups to local agents operating humanitarian organizations inside North Korea itself. These groups would feed North Korea’s dispossessed — the starving orphans that haunt North Korea’s markets, those languishing in state institutions, those at the bottom of the songbun scale, and perhaps even prisoners, if guards could be bribed into permitting it.
With money and information flowing through the people’s economy and frozen in the palace economy, many officials, soldiers, and border guards would have nowhere to turn for their paychecks but the merchants, traders, and NGOs that harnessed this new financial system. Corruption would take its toll, smuggling would rebound, and more fertilizer, high-yield seed, medicine, and dollars could enter the country. Humanitarian NGOs could then purchase food smuggled in from China, pilfered from state stocks, and grown on private-plot farms called sotoji, one of the least talked-about and most important new sources of food for many North Koreans. NGOs could focus on promoting sotoji farms as a humanitarian strategy, supplying them with better seed, fertilizer, agricultural advice, and bribe money to secure the tolerance of officials. At the same time, those who continue to rely on meager state rations or salaries paid in North Korean won would be priced out of the market. In time, they, too, would come to depend on the virtual dollar economy, and might seek to join clandestine unions that would supplement their wages and rations. In the dollar markets, prices for food and consumer goods would fall, as more and higher-quality food were drawn into the markets from sotoji farms, and from across the borders.
In time, independent small-scale manufacturing would also become possible. Smuggled materials could supply underground or gray-market workshops and factories, using local labor earning steady wages, to make goods that the people want.
A virtual dollar economy would have to contend with official resistance, of course, but today, corruption is so endemic that North Koreans with money consider greasing the palms of regime officials to be just another cost of doing business. Here, sanctions would play an important complementary role. Those officials would have to look the other way if the Treasury Department unleashed a parallel crackdown on the regime’s funds and accounts based in China and elsewhere. If merchants suddenly had a greater capacity to pay regime officials than the regime itself did, Pyongyang’s control would begin to break down. Gradually, the balance of power would shift. Regime officials would be coopted, unwittingly, by an alliance of external and internal forces. In time, the influence of clandestine NGOs would spread to military units, whose soldiers are often sick or underfed. And in a society where force is law, it can be a useful thing to have friends within the security forces. Soldiers might even be paid and fed to provide security to markets, freight, goods, and people during their off-hours, including North Korea’s vulnerable women. This could be a first step in fracturing the cohesion of the security forces.
A free communications network could have other transformative effects. It could augment and replace North Korea’s broken public health system with tele-medicine, staffed by volunteer foreign doctors and local nurses, to treat the sick with smuggled medicines. Volunteer teachers in South Korea could teach virtual classes to orphans, to low-songbun students seeking valuable life skills like auto mechanics, engineering, or medicine. As the people’s economy developed, communities could gain independence in other important ways. Imported solar panels, which are increasingly available inside North Korea, would give the people independent sources of electricity. With independent sources of food, electricity, and other items the market could supply, rural areas, and eventually, entire regions, could gain economic and ideological independence from Pyongyang. But even this is only a beginning.
In time, as the security forces became overwhelmed by the volume of unregulated expression and commerce, guerrilla engagement would allow for more subversive activities to take place. The South Korean Unification Ministry could create a national clearinghouse for virtual family reunions. South Korean churches could live-cast services across North Korea, and no North Korean parishioner would know the name of any other parishioner. International activists could teach North Korean factory workers to organize clandestinely to demand better working conditions and better pay, and how to conduct work stoppages and slowdowns.
A network of guerrilla journalists could tell the world about these acts of resistance from inside North Korea, and publish news reports from around the world for North Koreans to read on their devices. In time, clandestine NGOs and churches (led by ministers based in South Korea) could begin feeding starving low-ranking soldiers, treating their medical conditions, and quietly introducing them to subversive ideas about spirituality and governance. In theory, it might even be possible for North Koreans to register remotely as voters, vote in referenda on policies that affect them, and elect a government in exile. If labor organizations become established, they could eventually coordinate a nationwide general strike, with the knowledge that any overreaction would be reported, photographed, filmed, and covered worldwide.
Even this regime knows that it can’t kill and imprison everyone.
~ 4 ~
Sir Robert Thompson, the great theorist of insurgency and counter-insurgency, is generally credited with the strategy that defeated the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. What impressed me so deeply about Thompson’s memoir of the Malayan insurgency was how little it said about military tactics, and how much it said about law, journalism, governance, policing, and intelligence. In a society ruled by violence and terror, like today’s North Korea, these things all support the reestablishment of a functioning civil society, or an objective that could be restated in a single word: legitimacy. The allegiance of a people will inevitably migrate toward the side that establishes legitimate governance, and the side that establishes legitimate governance is the one that provides for the needs of the people. The side that provides for the needs of the people — and in North Korea, there is no question that the people have many unmet needs — is the side that is responsive and accountable to them.
I am speaking of domestic legitimacy here, but international legitimacy is the focus of Grace Kang, a lawyer and former Foreign Service Officer. In a paper published here, in the Georgetown Security Studies Review, Kang calls for our North Korea policy to shift its focus toward “legitimate governance,” which she defines as “governance for the well-being of all Koreans,” to address “the root cause of the security threat.” After reviewing the history of how regime-focused engagement has failed to alter Pyongyang’s conduct for the better, Kang comes to the heart of her proposal:
The well-being of the Korean people is the correct measure for what constitutes legitimate governance by both Eastern and Western standards. The Chinese concept known as the Mandate of Heaven requires a leader to be just and can be withdrawn from a ruler when his people deem his actions excessively abusive. Western notions of the social contract also espouse the people as the source of a government’s legitimacy; extreme abuse by a government renders it illegitimate. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other UN treaties are grounded in the rights of each human being. So also is the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) doctrine, which assumes that the government has a responsibility to protect its own people from atrocities and if it fails to do so, other states should intervene to provide that protection.
The 2014 landmark report by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) makes clear the DPRK regime has failed to meet such obligations. Instead, the DPRK is committing crimes against humanity and other systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations that have produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and are fundamental to the DPRK political system. The report describes the DPRK as totalitarian in seeking to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorize them through constant surveillance. In addition, the COI recommended the UN Security Council refer the DPRK situation to the ICC and adopt targeted sanctions against those most responsible for crimes against humanity.
Given the centuries-old norm that legitimate governance is contingent upon the treatment of citizens, the international community must question the legitimacy of the DPRK.
Kang then describes a series of ways to challenge North Korea’s legitimacy in the U.N., ultimately aimed at “wide international agreement that DPRK is not legitimate.” In doing so, Kang makes a comparison of which I’ve become fond, to Apartheid-era South Africa, whose global isolation was an important factor in changing its system of government. Kang contemplates a campaign of diplomatic action to be waged in New York, Geneva, and perhaps Seoul, which slowly challenges the Pyongyang regime’s legitimacy based on its failure to provide for the needs of its people. It builds on the “responsibility to protect” theory pioneered by Jared Genser in “Failure to Protect,” his ground-breaking report years ago.
These ideas are meritorious and important — too important to limit to New York, Geneva, and Seoul. If providing for the people is the prerequisite of a government’s legitimacy, then there is no better way for the South Korean government to be a legitimate government for its citizens in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung than by providing for their needs, too, if indirectly and clandestinely at first. For now, from the standpoint of domestic South Korean politics, this is unlikely. But once guerrilla engagement established local shadow governments, amenable to influence from Seoul, the South Korean government could play an important role in funding and organizing them as instruments of information operations, humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and the extension of Seoul’s legitimacy to North Korea itself. The work of underground schools, journalists, and unions could become more subversive, eventually challenging the state through strikes, demonstrations, barricades, and acts of non-violent sabotage to disrupt the oppressive work of the state’s security forces.
Guerrilla journalists could also broadcast an increasingly subversive message to the North Korean people, vividly portraying the state’s corruption, class divisions, culpable waste of national resources, and failure to provide for the needs of the people. Reporting on Chinese influence over Kim Jong Un’s regime would undercut the regime’s message of nationalist independence. Reporting on Chinese abuses of North Korean refugees, particularly women, would mobilize anti-Chinese sentiment, and deter any temptation by China to intervene militarily. Guerrilla journalism could also criticize Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle, legitimacy, and competence to rule.
Eventually, trade networks and labor organizations could organize clandestine security guards and police to protect the population from violence by soldiers and members of the security forces. Initially, paid, masked security guards and guerrilla policing organizations could patrol high-crime areas, where marauding bands of soldiers rape vulnerable women, bully traders, and rob farmers. Some of the police might be recruited from deserting soldiers, who might otherwise die from lack of food and medical care.
Because the North Korean military tightly restricts the distribution of ammunition, soldiers who commit crimes against the civilian population often wander unarmed; thus, in many cases, armed police could be effective without the use of lethal force. To prevent wanton violence and revenge killings, and to protect the people against arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial execution by the security forces, communities could organize local courts, perhaps with remote electronic training, support, and appellate review from outside North Korea. Guerrilla courts would have the exclusive authority to permit or order the use of deadly force against military officers or members of the security forces responsible for criminal acts. Any violent act not sanctioned by the courts, regardless of the affiliation of the person responsible, should be treated like a crime. Like all legal systems, a court empowered to punish violent crime would help to deter future violent crime, including by a regime that does not necessarily explicitly authorize crimes committed by corrupt officers or undisciplined soldiers. To the extent deadly force was necessary to protect journalists, trade unionists, and NGO workers, guerrilla police forces could obtain arms and ammunition from soldiers motivated by hunger, disease, drug addiction, or grievances against their officers. Guerrilla organizations that engaged in extrajudicial violence should be denied financial support, and when appropriate, punished criminally.
Of course, the regime would react violently to this, to the extent it could identify those responsible, to the extent this dispersed network of dissent did not overwhelm the state’s capacity to suppress it, and to the extent its local officials had not been coopted by the resistance. But the longer these groups could delay a broader, violent confrontation with the regime, the more widely this clandestine organization could penetrate North Korea’s society, government, and security forces, and the more likely it would be to survive and prevail once that confrontation comes. In that confrontation, citizen journalists with hidden cameras would be critical to deterring a violent reaction by the state, and to publicizing any such reaction both inside North Korea and globally. This, in turn, would spur diplomatic and political action to deprive North Korea of foreign investment, finance, diplomatic support, and international legitimacy. It might eventually spur South Korea toward accepting its responsibilities for the welfare of the North Korean people, as their legitimate government.
~ 5 ~
In February of 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” This status quo is not peace. It is not quite the absence of war. It is a lurid kaleidoscope of violent crime, waged by a few armed men against a defenseless majority. With its political competence in decline, it can’t last. Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post, and said this:
Since [Kim Jong Un] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….
Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.
Over the weekend, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ. The North Korean army is now said to be laying mines along the DMZ to prevent more defections. Last week, a North Korean, who may or may not have been the latest in a series of armed soldiers to desert his post, was shot and killed by Chinese police. (Update: he was a civilian.)
But this essay is not about predicting the direction of history; it is about finding ways to influence it. In such desperate, violent circumstances, completely non-violent change may be an unrealistic ideal. But it is always realistic, and compelled by both morality and our national interests, to seek a strategy to deter and prevent as much suffering and loss of life as is still possible. With Kim Jong Un’s rejecting political reforms and pursuing policies of war and violence, a controlled demolition of the regime may be the only way to save the Korean people from an anarchic collapse (on one hand) and the horrific status quo (on the other).
When totalitarian states collapse, they tend to collapse suddenly, violently, and chaotically, in the way that Romania, Syria, and Libya all did. There have been exceptions, like the fall of Enver Hoxha’s rule in Albania, but if the violence of any Götterdämmerung is proportional to a system’s totalitarianism, then North Korea’s collapse is likely to be more violent than any of these examples. If Götterdämmerung isn’t already imminent, the North Korean people will need whatever time they have to begin weaving the fabric of a civil society, while unraveling the discipline and unity of command the state will need to wage a civil war against them.
First, guerrilla engagement would overwhelm the state’s machinery of censorship with millions of isolated words and acts of micro-subversion, as described in Part 3. It would equip North Koreans to secede from and resist the state with money and information. In this phase, underground organizations would avoid, or delay for as long as possible, a direct confrontation that would provoke a violent reaction by the regime, to allow peaceful infiltration and evolution to advance as far as possible. The principal objective of this phase would be to establish the roots of a legitimate shadow government — a broad coalition of commercial and humanitarian networks to provide the population with food, medical care, education, electricity, consumer goods, information, and in some areas, a small measure of security from lawlessness and crimes against humanity.
Second, guerrilla engagement would coalesce a critical mass of these isolated shadow networks into a broad-based, loosely-connected political organization with a common vision of reunification under a liberal, humane, free-market, and representative system of government. No resistance movement has ever challenged a determined government successfully without such a galvanizing vision, and without a broad-based political infrastructure to supply it with intelligence, food, shelter, money, recruits, and the incalculable psychological empowerment of knowing that others share their aspirations. Very few states have survived while opposed by such a political infrastructure. As Mao Tse-Tung said,“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Guerrilla engagement would seek to build this political base, while delaying (and later, deterring) a violent reaction by the state. At this stage, the shadow government would begin to wage aggressive information operations against the regime and its foreign backers. Information operations should have a strongly nationalist orientation, to help deter a Chinese intervention.
Third, guerrilla engagement would attempt to demoralize, coopt, and recruit as many members of the military and the security forces as possible, to divide them and disrupt their readiness, discipline, and unity of command. Sanctions would be essential in this process, to disrupt the military’s pay, supply, and commissary systems, and to draw soldiers into economic dependence on the shadow government.
[Starving North Korean soldiers. Image from Rimjin-gang.]
On an individual and small unit level, resistance networks would recruit hungry and disgruntled soldiers, such as those who have increasingly turned to violence against their own commanders, the civilian population, or Chinese civilians. Once recruited, these soldiers could pilfer fuel and critical supplies, sabotage and steal weapons, spread subversive information, and encourage the disobedience of orders harmful to the population. A contemporary example is the practice of regime soldiers stealing fuel from trucks and ships, and replacing it with corrosive salt water. Eventually, corrupt officers could also be coopted into resisting orders to suppress dissent. The objective would be to dilute the security forces’ readiness, discipline, and unity of command, and render as many units as possible unwilling or unable to execute a violent crackdown, or to actively oppose one.
At the same time, local leaders of the shadow government could secretly connect South Korean military officers with key regional commanders in the North Korean military. The objective of these contacts would be to persuade key North Korean officers that the consequence of a violent crackdown against an organized (and potentially, armed) population would be civil war — a war that would be unwinnable in the face of crippling financial sanctions, widespread internal dissent, and diplomatic isolation. If vast areas of North Korea’s mountainous interior slipped out of the regime’s control, they would be difficult and costly for a mechanized, road-bound army with few helicopters to regain. The regime could not hope to seal two land borders and two long coastlines. On the other hand, officers who refuse orders that violate the laws of armed conflict should be offered immunity from prosecution. Those who oppose them should also be offered foreign backing, and a meaningful role in the reconstruction of a united Korea.
Fourth, and only after the decay of the security forces reaches a critical stage, the resistance could challenge the state openly through a coordinated, nationwide wave of work stoppages, acts of non-violent sabotage, strikes, and protests. This critical stage would arrive when the resistance coopts enough soldiers and units that, if ordered to carry out a violent crackdown, enough units would disobey or resist to render the order ineffective. Where the orders are carried out, guerrilla journalists must have a sufficient presence to ensure that any violent reaction is filmed, photographed, and reported both at home and abroad, catalyzing more internal resistance and foreign disinvestment and sanctions. In this way, guerrilla journalism could attach a prohibitive diplomatic and financial cost to a violent crackdown. By documenting any crimes against the population, guerrilla organizations could also credibly threaten regime commanders with accountability before local (or eventually, international) courts. Even by demonstrating a broad presence throughout North Korea, guerrilla journalism could help deter and restrain the regime’s excesses.
It is at this point, after the resistance demonstrates its capacity to disrupt the regime’s control, but before a violent reaction, that a diplomatic approach to Beijing may receive a more open-minded reception. Under these circumstances, Pyongyang may see agreement to reforms and disarmament as its best available option. If Pyongyang credibly agrees to halt its suppression of the resistance and implement reforms, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could compel the resistance to temporarily halt its campaign of defiance. Failing this, China may see an agreement to force a transition of power by cutting off support to the regime as a better option than an outbreak of chaos along its northeastern border. In exchange, the allies could offer the eventual removal of U.S. ground forces from the Korean Peninsula, to keep foreign forces south of the 38th Parallel in a reunified Korea, and to recognize the validity of Chinese investment contracts with the former regime. Deprived of external and internal support, the regime would have to choose between accepting reforms and fighting a war it could neither afford nor win.
If Kim Jong Un could not see this for himself, then surely his military commanders would.
With each passing year since 1994, a peaceful transition of North Korea has seemed less likely. None of our highest hopes for the evolution of North Korea into a humane and peaceful society has been plausible for a decade or more. There is a long history of North Koreans resisting the state spontaneously, although all of this resistance has been isolated and easily contained. If collapse does come unexpectedly, the South Korean government could partner with a clandestine political infrastructure to restore order and security, coordinate humanitarian relief, feed the hungry, heal the sick, address questions of transitional justice through the rule of law, and reestablish legitimacy. Today’s purges and indiscipline in the military may mean that North Korea is descending into chaos, and that we’ve run out of time for guerrilla engagement to restrain or mitigate the violence and anarchy it will entail. But it is urgent that the allies begin now, to restrain as much of this violence as we still can.