Pompeo, Malinowski, and The Change That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The failure of “engaging” North Korea into reform and peace, the madness of war, and the impossibility of coexisting with a nuclear North Korea are, however belatedly, causing more Americans to do some hard thinking about hastening our progression toward the post-Kim Jong-Un era. Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who speaks to the President about North Korea frequently) caused a stir in Washington and apoplexy in Pyongyang when he made comments at the Aspen Security Forum that hinted at this.

He continued, “So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart.”

Pompeo said both the intelligence community and the Department of Defense have been tasked with drafting plans for what “ultimately needs to be achieved” with regard to the North Korean nuclear threat.

When asked if he meant he was advocating regime change, Pompeo denied that was necessarily what he was talking about but seemed to suggest advocating Kim’s ouster. He said he believed the US could tackle “every piece” of the North Korean threat.

“As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system,” Pompeo said. “The North Korean people I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see him go.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, Pompeo clarified he did not view Kim’s ouster as an “unadulterated good” for the US, and pointing to the unknown consequences, Pompeo asked, “What’s behind door number three?”

He went on to clarify that this was not an immediate task underway “to make happen tomorrow,” and said the challenge was to convince other nations on the issue. [CNN]

I’ve never made a secret of my desire to see the regime in Pyongyang altered or abolished, but I’ve never been fond of the term “regime change” in the North Korean context, either. When most people hear that term, they think of something I adamantly oppose — an invasion or a military attack. But as I’ve argued before, everyone but the most ardent North Korea apologists supports some plan to change this regime. Advocates of Sunshine and “engagement” policies were really selling a plan for gradual regime change — albeit one whose fatal flaw was its reliance on the cooperation of a regime determined to resist change at all costs, and that consequently took precautions to ensure that it would never happen. On the other extreme is the growing talk of changing the regime by force, which is just that, for now — talk, and talk that scares our friends more than it scares our enemies. 

Pompeo, by contrast, seems to be hinting at enabling internal opposition in North Korea, which is the kind of talk that makes Foreign Ministry officials in Pyongyang lose their shit.

“Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the U.S. with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, quoting a spokesman of the North Korean foreign ministry.

The report said Pompeo’s remarks “have gone over the line, and it has now become clear that the ultimate aim of the Trump administration … is the regime change.”

Those remarks display Pompeo’s “illiteracy about the DPRK and an explicit illustration of incompetence of the U.S. intelligence community,” the report also said, calling the country by the acronym of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If the supreme dignity of the DPRK is threatened, (North Korea) must preemptively annihilate those countries and entities that are directly or indirectly involved in it by mobilizing all kinds of strike means including the nuclear ones,” according to the KCNA.

“The likes of Pompeo will bitterly experience the catastrophic and miserable consequences caused by having dared to shake their little fists at the supreme leadership,” it said, referring to the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. [Yonhap]

Attention, Director Pompeo: this is how Pyongyang reacts when you’ve just said the very thing it fears more than it fears anything else. Just in case that knowledge might be useful to you in some way.

Pompeo’s statement is at variance with previous statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. (in CNN’s phasing) “was against forcing Kim out of power or the collapse of his government.” It also signals U.S. ambivalence about South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s ardent opposition to “regime change,” making this just the latest indication that Moon’s summit with Trump avoided disaster but ultimately bridged few real differences on THAAD, on USFK cost sharing, trade, or North Korea policy.

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In case you wondered if Pompeo was the lone person in our government who was receptive to doing more than wishing for the revolution that North Korea desperately needs, Tom Malinowski, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, has offered much more specific thoughts in an interesting op-ed in Politico. Malinowski became the one Obama administration official I liked and admired more than any other, despite my criticism of the broader reticence and incoherence of the administration’s North Korea policy. Behind the scenes, Malinowski fought to keep human rights on the administration’s North Korea policy agenda, and did it skillfully and effectively. Let’s start our discussion of Malinowski’s proposal with this interesting confirmation of one of the best things the Obama administration did:

At the State Department, I oversaw the U.S. government’s efforts to get information into North Korea. We funded defector-run radio stations, which had the added benefit of training North Koreans to be journalists. We saw an increase in North Koreans watching Chinese and South Korean TV, and supported groups producing shows North Koreans would find interesting (like reality shows about the daily experiences—good and bad—of defectors in the South). We helped non-governmental organizations that send in foreign movies and TV shows through the market trade, including one group that made cross-border deliveries by drone of specific films that North Koreans requested (we used to joke that we were running a peculiar version of Netflix for North Korea). A big priority was educating North Koreans on how to protect themselves from surveillance, and staying ahead of regime efforts to turn technology against its people. Last year, for example, we learned that North Korea had updated the operating system for its cellphones so that they could read media only with a government-approved digital signature; there should be a countermeasure for this (and hopefully for whatever the regime does to counter the countermeasure). [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

I certainly hope Rex Tillerson is carrying on with this, if only because the law calls on him to do so. This is the sort of direct, people-to-people engagement we should have started doing decades ago, rather than the people-to-minder engagement that filled Pyongyang’s coffers and validated its propaganda. What’s more, the change that Malinowski contemplates is not merely evolutionary, but revolutionary.

None of this means that effective political resistance is yet possible in North Korea. Its police state remains brutal and effective. But similar totalitarian regimes—Romania under Ceausescu, Libya under Qadhafi—have appeared just as impregnable, until they were not. Unpredictable events—a local riot that police hesitate to put down, a change in the health of the leader, the execution of the wrong person, a split in the security forces—can break open hidden cracks in what seems a solid foundation. Exposure to information is a predicate for this. Without it, North Koreans could not conceive an alternative to the present regime, or any way to attain it. With it, their regime becomes just an ordinary dictatorship, vulnerable to the sudden swings of fortune that all dictatorships eventually suffer.

That day will bring its own challenges. The Kim regime cannot “evolve” in the way communist China has because, again, it presides over an artificial country. If its people gain even a bit of freedom, the first question they will ask is the one East Germans asked in 1989: Why should they stay separated by minefields and machine gun nests from a vastly wealthier and freer version of themselves? So the regime must rule as it has or lose a country to rule. [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

Malinowski acknowledges and discusses the risks this will bring. But with Pyongyang validating on a weekly basis that it isn’t interested in a negotiated disarmament, the competing risks increasingly come down to nuclear war, global WMD proliferation, surrendering South Korea, or this. That’s driving The Change That Dare Not Speak Its Name out of closets on both sides of the hallway. Still, one senses some internal discord in Malinowski’s liberal vision of North Korea’s revolution.

But knowledge—about the prosperity and freedom of their fellow Koreans south of the DMZ, and about the abnormality of their own suffering—is spreading among North Koreans. We are learning more about them, too—they are not brainwashed, “robotic” denizens of an “ant colony,” as they are so often described. They are resilient, increasingly entrepreneurial people with normal aspirations, who will some day want a say in the fate of their country.

No one can predict when and how Kim’s hold will weaken, and it would be foolish to think we can force change from the outside. So if anyone reading this has fantasies about setting up governments in exile or fomenting coups or calling for uprisings, please put them aside—that kind of talk will only get people inside North Korea killed. There are, however, forces in play within North Korea that will probably lead to the end of its regime and its reason to exist as a country. Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime. The central aim of our strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes. [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

It’s hard for me to see how North Koreans can challenge Pyongyang in the way Malinowski describes elsewhere in his essay and survive the experience without eventually resorting to force of arms. I really wish there was another way. Yes, much of the most important work of quietly breaking the North Korean people free of Pyongyang’s control can and should be done peacefully, by sanctioning the regime even as we help the poor build a shadow banking system and government. We should do everything Malinowski proposes and hope that it works just as he suggests it will. 

But if it doesn’t, how much further should we go? One should never resort to violence to do what can be done without violence. One should never support a greater amount of violence than is necessary to preempt something worse — say, a nuclear war, or crimes against humanity that the oxymoron sometimes called the “international community” has consistently failed to respond to. One must never support those — such as those in power in Pyongyang now — who target noncombatants or violate the laws of armed conflict. One must always leave a way open to a negotiated peace that ends the violence as quickly as possible, provided that the terms are likely to result in a real and lasting peace. And if change must come to North Korea from within, then it will only come when the North Korean people themselves are ready to demand it.

But eventually, change will come. Historically, totalitarian states have either reformed or perished, and Pyongyang is determined to resist reform, and may soon be in desperate need of other people’s money. If you can see past the disinformed reporting from Pyongyang that shows the North Korean people as automatons, there is ample evidence of discontent among the elites (over Kim Jong-Un’s purges) and the poor (over the regime’s corruption and brutality, and economic inequality). It’s fair to infer that if diplomats, elite workers, elite students, border guards, money launderers, senior officials from the security forces, and soldiers are defecting and deserting in growing numbers, many others must also be discontented. A regime that is so despised that a party member and his entire family prefer to take cyanide than be sent back there suggests the existence of profound discontent. We cannot do reliable public opinion polling in North Korea, for obvious reasons, though some have made admirable efforts to do so. Eventually, however, one must acknowledge that the plural of “anecdote” is “data.”

The day the North Korean people are given the technological means to coalesce around their grievances, the regime’s capacity to suppress dissent will be overwhelmed, the myths on which this regime built its foundations will erode, and the regime’s days will be numbered. Then, we will transition from the current crisis to the next one.

2 Comments

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that outside forces pushing for regime change can only be by violent means and therefore not the preferred means of “regime change”, and that the best alternative for us is to simply improve and prod the revolutionary potential of the NK citizens themselves.

    However, while this is probably the most sensible strategy right now, I question its viability in face of the time constraints we face as NK advances its ICBM capabilities.

    While we foster the revolutionary potential of the NKs and wait for a fracture in the armor of the NK security and political apparatuses, moments of opportunity are likely to be many years away. Precious time that we do not have in abundance.

    We cannot, by force, dethrone Kim Jong Un, but neither can we sit by waiting for decades for the right opportunity to exploit a moment of weakness. In such a predicament, what is the right course of action in your opinion?




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  2. The best combination of sanctions, deterrence, and blockade we can manage until the conditions are right for revolution. It’s not a great answer. Thank Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for that.




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