South Korea’s loudspeaking needs a strategic objective

Barely four months ago, Park Geun-hye’s negotiating team exchanged high-fives and backslaps with its North Korean counterparts, and came home having secured either peace in our time, or (as I called it) an agreement to fight another day.

Today, South Korea says the North’s nuke test was “a grave violation” of the August agreement, the loudspeakers are blaring on both sides of the DMZ, and North Korea says the noise is pushing the two Koreas to “the brink of war.” What noise, you ask?

“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman would say in one of the messages in a slow, deliberate voice. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This is all very nice from the perspective of a carnivorous South Dakotan and the readers of this blog, although I’m not sure how much of the NKPA audience is prepared to take in such a bluntly political message.

Smart people have done good research about what messages influence North Koreans, and they found that most North Korean listeners just want to be entertained, at least initially. North Koreans have also emerged to advise us what to broadcast. For some of them, entertainment becomes a gateway drug for complaints about material matters, local policies, state policies, and eventually, their country’s political system.

To the extent the content of broadcasts is political, it works better for creating favorable impressions of South Korea or the United States than for creating unfavorable impressions of the North Korean government. (North Koreans tend to distrust what they hear about their own country from the media. They’re more likely to trust what they hear by word of mouth, from their friends and relatives.) That counsels us that a message of peace could be effective in counteracting the state’s war propaganda.

This is not to deny that anti-state messages have their place. Frankly, when I see people argue for or against broadcasting political content, I have to wonder if they ever turn the dials on their own car radios. Not all North Koreans want the same content any more than we do. Some want k-pop, some want trot, some want dramas, some want straight news, and perhaps some demographic is just waiting for a North Korean Rush Limbaugh to come along.

The great theorist of counter-insurgency, Sir Robert Thompson, argued that reporting on the adversary’s corruption was often devastating. Another argument that seems to be resonating with some North Koreans is the idea that nuke tests are a waste of money that the government ought to be spending on providing them with food and essential services.

This leaves me wondering just exactly how loudspeaking plays into a coherent long-term strategy. Look — I’m all for deterring violence with non-violence, so I’m all for the basic concept. It’s just hard for me to see what deterrent effect this auditory punitive expedition will have, when it will end, or how. It’s also hard for Patrick Cronin, who puts it very well in this must-read piece:

Fifth, South Korea should rethink the propaganda broadcasts and replace them with a more comprehensive and strategic information campaign. This campaign would develop new means and double down on existing means of spreading facts about the lack of justice in North Korea (with gulags and summary executions for political opponents), the criminal mismanagement of North Korea’s leadership (with a quarter of a meager GDP being spent on the military) and the growing inequality between the average citizens of North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea or China on the other. The positive message of this information campaign should focus on the bonanza that peaceful unification might bring to all Koreans. [Patrick Cronin, The National Interest]

Read the whole thing. 

The first question I would ask is who the audience is. If it’s conscripts, wouldn’t it be more effective to talk about corruption, abuse, disease, malnutrition, and low morale in the North Korean military? Or recent fraggings and defections? Or to send a message of peace, that soldiers should try to save the lives of fellow Koreans by sabotaging weapons, misplacing firing pins and bolts, or intentionally missing their targets? North Korean soldiers might be intensely curious about life in the ROK Army, although that’s not always a very cheery story, either.

Of course, I continue to believe that blaring noise to a few hundred, or a few thousand, conscripts is small ball. If the ROKs are really serious about changing North Korean society, they’ll need to engage the whole population. Once there is cross-border cell service, the possibilities are limitless. The Albert Einstein Institute has published a well-developed theory of using non-violent resistance to topple totalitarian regimes, but few of the strategies articulated here have any realistic chance of success in North Korea. By Einstein’s own admission, non-violent resistance harnesses the power of indigenous civil institutions. Those don’t exist in North Korea today, but if the security forces suddenly found themselves unable to pay their cadres, the internal balance of power could start to shift. South Korea’s strategic goal, then, ought to be to remotely rebuild the civil institutions that North Korea lacks.

There are some new technical ideas that may help us do this. First, in a little-noticed but fascinating report by the UPI’s Elizabeth Shim, a North Korean defector reports that it is now possible for some defectors in China to Skype their relatives back home by bringing a South Korean smartphone into the Chinese side of the border zone.

Second, with the caveat that I’m not a telecommunications expert, I’d like to hear some well-informed thoughts on the following modest proposal: now that Orascom has written off Koryolink, could South Korea build some towers along the DMZ and broadcast a cell signal on Koryolink’s frequency? Would this allow a South Korean in, say, Musan to call a North Korean in, say, Cheongjin? If you’re one who believes in engaging North Korea in principle, how could you possibly be against shattering the digital DMZ, and allowing all Koreans the means to engage with one another, people-to-people?

1 Comment

  1. A fine post as usual Mr. Stanton. I remain confident that you are not throwing pearls to pigs.

    Whatever material progress Germany made after unification in 1871 did not render the Prussian monarchy right for Germany. China after 1949 might be analogous. As the proclivities of the Habsburg regime in Vienna were a liability for Germany, so also the behavior of the Kim family regime in Pyongyang for China. The junkers then could not see it any more than the communists now. But China is far greater than the communists, as one Tsai Ing-wen will shortly demonstrate. As surely as the sun rises in the east, the mainland authorities will be driven to decide if they are partisans or patriots, if they are communists or Chinese.