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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.
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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. Continue reading »