The new North Korea engagement is about life after Kim Jong-un

By now, most sensible people have discarded the faddish illusions of 2012 that Kim Jong-un would be the Swiss-educated reformer they’ve been waiting for. Mainstream opinion is migrating to the view that the world would be a safer and happier place without Kim Jong-un, although one seldom hears these sentiments developed as concrete ideas. The practical obstacles to achieving them are obvious. How can we influence change in the world’s most isolated and terrorized society? How would our ally (and therefore, how would we) deal with the chaos that could follow certain overthrow scenarios?

But whether we wish it so or not, the evidence shows increasingly clear signs that the elites in Pyongyang have lost confidence in their new dictator. When His Porcine Majesty took power, about 25,000 North Koreans — mostly poor and downtrodden people from the country’s outer provinces — had escaped to South Korea. Countless others died along the way, or in prison camps after being repatriated by China. After Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, a security crackdown along the northern border halved the number of escapees.

Today, the number of North Korean refugees is the South approaches 30,000, but this year, the number of escapees is rising, and their backgrounds are changing. More of them come from the vetted elites in Pyongyang: overseas workers, officials, and even diplomats. According to the head of the Korea Hana Foundation, defections by members of the privileged classes rose more than 87 percent in the last two years. The reasons why they’re defecting are changing, too. More of the new arrivals report fleeing for political reasons, such as the fear of being purged, a desire for greater personal freedom, or a sense that Kim Jong-un’s regime holds no future for their children. There is no evidence that the elites have plotted or attempted to overthrow Kim, but for obvious reasons, newspaper readers would be the last to know that.

Are there ways to influence the thinking of the elites in Pyongyang? A few weeks ago, a U.S. Navy officer, Commander Skip Vincenzo, brought some of the world’s foremost North Korea experts together — including several intelligence officers and military officers — and also, me. The result of a day’s discussion and much editing is this very short, readable report: “An Information-Based Strategy to Reduce North Korea’s Increasing Threat: Recommendations for ROK & U.S. Policy Makers.” While I’ve done most of my thinking about directing information operations to the poor, this report focuses on the elites in Pyongyang. It calls for the U.S. and South Korea to adopt an information strategy to target the elites in Pyongyang, exploit their accelerating discontent, and ease their fears of the unknown consequences of a sudden regime collapse.

A strategy of calibrated communication to the many actors in the North Korean state will allow the United States to drive an unacceptable situation towards a conclusion with acceptable costs. It does not advocate for regime change outright, but if this strategy is having a visible effect, the likely outcome would be the end of the Kim regime.

Agnosticism aside, it reads like a strategy for encouraging a coup d’etat against Kim Jong-un. For obvious reasons, the authors left the specific methods and strategies out of their report. In September, the State Department submitted a classified report required by section 301 of the NKSPEA presenting “a detailed plan for making unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.” (Yonhap’s reporter thinks that means “such devices as small radios, USB drives and DVDs,” but USBs and DVDs are not “mass communication” devices; cell phones and smartphones are.) 

The information strategy the report advocates is meant to achieve a variety of objectives.

• Enhance our ability to de-escalate a crisis by ensuring that the regime’s elites fully understand the consequences of a war by continually demonstrating the U.S.-ROK Alliance’s advanced military capabilities.

• Reduce the potential for violence by formulating policies that provide credible assurances of amnesty to regime elites and, if they act in ways which support alliance efforts, a beneficial role after the Kim regime collapses or a conflict is resolved on Alliance terms.

• Reduce the humanitarian costs by formulating policies that inform ordinary North Koreans what to expect in a contingency and how to act.

• Reduce civil and military resistance by formulating policies that guarantee North Koreans full rights as citizens of South Korea.

• Mitigate collapse of the civil infrastructure by incentivizing bureaucrats, technicians, and local commanders to protect and maintain critical facilities. 

Can it work? No one really knows, but there are signs that North Koreans are ready to listen. Completely aside from recent high-level defections, Jieun Baek explains that South Korean culture has undermined the state’s political mythology. Children of the elites like to watch English lessons on South Korean educational broadcasts. Overseas workers are obtaining radios and smartphones to read the news about North Korea, and those smartphones apparently played a role in a recent group defection of construction workers in Russia.Recently, even the loyalty of the minder-minders has come into question. The Daily NK reports that foreign radio consumption is rising. In Pyongyang, it’s sometimes possible to watch South Korean television. Imagine the effect if the people of Pyongyang saw the face and heard the manifesto of Thae Yong-ho, or perhaps even the Ningpo 13

Obviously, an internal challenge to Kim Jong-un would have to overcome many interlocking layers of minders. Bob Collins recently described how that system works. But this was no less true of the regimes in Romania and East Germany, which also fell. It’s probably true that a diplomatic solution is unrealistic now, and the result of recent talks with North Korea should reinforce this. We must also accept the bitter truth that a nuclear North Korea will not just coexist with us, or with our allies. If that is so, then the only solution that does not involve war is to destroy the regime from within. 

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