The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. – Sun Tzu
On the Fourth of July, I had a long talk with a Famous Person who would probably prefer that I not mention his name here. He’s famous (or infamous — your mileage may vary) for his association with a foreign policy philosophy described as “neoconservative,” whatever that means. Like many Famous Persons, this person’s public image is an injustice to his actual views, which sounded classically liberal to my ears. He had an easy and unpretentious manner, and great depth in both experience and intellect. He recalled, at length, his support for Kim Dae-Jung’s life and freedom during South Korea’s right-wing dictatorship and other events I watched in rapt attention years ago. Because I’m not naming him, he probably won’t mind me quoting a wise thing he said: “This talk of bombing North Korea is scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies.” I couldn’t agree more. The word I keep returning to is “madness.” Not that it should matter, but there are people in Seoul I love.
It will probably also scare some of our friends that I made the case to this Famous Person that we must match Pyongyang’s escalation and deter the next one by helping the people of North Korea to resist the regime, but at least that suggestion has the advantage of terrifying our enemies and merely dividing our friends. Already, some of you are thinking that I’m scaring the Chinese and the Russians away from cooperating with us, as if all of the State Department’s supplications of the last 20 years have achieved anything. Or, that I’m scaring Pyongyang away from the negotiating table, as if Pyongyang would come back to the negotiating table otherwise, and as if Pyongyang doesn’t already believe we’re trying to overthrow it. Or that I’m ignoring the danger of loose nukes — as if the danger of WMD proliferation isn’t just as great or greater with this regime intact.
If we’re really honest, we’re all praying for some kind of regime change in North Korea. Prayer, of course, is not a strategy. The Sunshine Policy didn’t work, but it was a strategy for regime change by other means. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, the architect of that policy, was extraordinarily cautious about suggesting an intent to catalyze political change in the North, but a careful reader could see that it necessarily had political objectives: “Through open interaction with the global economy, North Korea will emerge as a responsible member of the international community, contribute to the stability of the peninsula, and develop its economy efficiently.” As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I explained in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that is also why Pyongyang couldn’t let the Sunshine Policy succeed. I also doubt that Kim Dae-Jung was only speaking of South Korea’s former right-wing dictators when he quoted Confucious in his Nobel acceptance speech: “The king is son of heaven. Heaven sent him to serve the people with just rule. If he fails and oppresses the people, the people have the right, on behalf of heaven, to dispose of him.” (This is a point I’ll return to later in this post.)
The same is true of Americans who believe (or believed) in the Sunshine Policy. As the unreconstructed arch-engager David Kang once wrote, “I am totally for regime change, or a regime that modifies its ways and introduces economic and social reforms that improve the lives of its people.” At the height of talks over the 1994 Agreed Framework, Wendy Sherman pined for something more kinetic: “We just thought all that would bring about the collapse of the North Korean government within two or three years.”
We’ve all wished for a change of regime in North Korea, if only on an emotional level, notwithstanding how expensive, chaotic, and dangerous we know Kim Jong-Un’s Götterdämmerung could be. For years, we desperately hoped there might be some path to easy, evolutionary change. The unstated part of this hope was that with sufficient time and engagement, that evolutionary process might terminate as it did in Eastern Europe. But as events have proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there is no path to easy, evolutionary change in North Korea. There is profiteering and outright theft, and Pyongyang’s rich are getting richer. Call that capitalism if you want, but it’s the capitalism of a predatory military-industrial complex that’s no more a harbinger of peace or political reform than Krupp, Messerschmitt, or I.G. Farben were.
Contrary to Wendy Sherman’s expectations, the North Korean government did not collapse, because the North Korean people were too afraid, too hungry, too exhausted, and (above all) too isolated from each other to challenge the state. That is why, though there have been a thousand small and not-small acts of armed and unarmed resistance by the North Korean people against the state in recent years, those acts could not threaten the state’s control or disrupt its oppressive strategy. The people of North Korea had no means to communicate, organize, or resist. For those things, they will need our help. We should give them that help, in ways that would be public knowledge, and in other ways that would necessarily remain covert or clandestine. I don’t see another way. If you do, the comments are open.
In this week’s posts, I’ve explained why every other option ends in either a nuclear war, a surrender of South Korea, the collapse of nonproliferation, or grave threats to our own security and freedom. The hard realities are, in no particular order, that we cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, and that neither talks, nor surrender, nor China, nor the Swiss-educated reformer who never was will solve this crisis for us. War would, but it would also be a catastrophe of incalculable proportions. All options that remain — including the option of doing nothing, or seeking an accommodation with the regime — come with a significant or unacceptable risk of ending catastrophically. There is no safe option left to us; there are only less-dangerous ones. Dramatically improved enforcement of sanctions is the only nonviolent one left, and while I continue to believe that vigorously enforced sanctions could bring the regime to an existential crisis that could dethrone His Porcine Majesty, only the removal of Kim Jong-Un from power (and consequently, from this Earth) can disarm Pyongyang now.
It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that Kim Jong-Un must die so that Korea may live, and that the coup de grâce must come from within, and not from us. It may be that the only way to prevent a larger war is to catalyze a smaller one. But that smaller war — or even the credible threat of one — may stand the best chance of ending with a peace agreement worthy of its name, from which Korea would emerge intact, liberated, unoccupied by foreign powers, and on a manageable timetable for reunification.
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Let’s stop tiptoeing around what most of us have quietly wished for, but which we’ve done nothing — at least nothing I can see — to instigate: North Korea needs a revolution. It is in our interest to be rid of Kim Jong-Un, but above all, it’s in the interests of the North Korean people to be rid of him. The merchants who have waged an unarmed war of resistance against the state’s uniformed shake-down artists and press-gangs want to be rid of him. The nameless victims of torture who wanted nothing more than the right to live and move freely want to be rid of him. The people of North Hamgyeong, who are still waiting for an uncaring government to help them more than a year after floods devastated their homes and farms, want to be rid of him. The dirt-poor private farmers whose land is being confiscated, even as food prices rise, want to be rid of him. The collective farmers whose hopes for agricultural reform were dashed into the reality of exploitative sharecropping want to be rid of him. The poor in North Korea’s cities and towns, who scrape through life inside the confines of a state-imposed class system, want to be rid of him. The soldiers who are killing their abusive officers or walking through minefields to freedom want to be rid of him. The desperately hungry border guards who carry their guns into China and desert want to be rid of him. The elites in Pyongyang, who have begun defecting in greater numbers than ever — to include diplomats, money launderers, security officials, and (most recently) one of Kim Jong-Un’s bodyguards — want to be rid of him. The men, women, and children in the gulags must surely pray that they may live long enough to be rid of him. The 30,000 North Koreans who risked everything to flee to South Korea — and the countless others who died along the way, or in prison camps after they were recaptured — wanted to be rid of him.
Our real military option isn’t bombing, but a combination of overt, covert, and clandestine operations to catalyze the formation of a resistance movement by North Korea’s rural poor, historically its most exploited and discontented class, particularly in the northern and eastern provinces. The tried-and-tested argument for that uprising is the timeless appeal of class warfare. North Korea’s is a society of artificial, politically assigned, hereditary classes that mark every citizen for life and decide her access to education, a decent job or place to live, and even food.
As for the organizational foundations of such a movement, I’ve already discussed them at length, but they aren’t so different from the model used by Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. That model begins with a guerrilla banking system that seeds a multitude of unaffiliated, clandestine social welfare organizations and evolves into a shadow government, providing for the needs of the people that the state does not, and that resists the state’s violation of the fundamental human rights of the people in whatever ways it can. The essential and missing element is a means of communication, but even that isn’t far off. I’ll keep the discussion of logistics to myself or leave that to Dave Maxwell — he’s the retired Special Forces colonel, not me. I’ll only say that North Korea has two long coastlines, one long and partially porous border, robust smuggling networks, and a population that has learned to be extraordinarily resourceful to survive. The markets in North Korea seem to provide anything for which there is a demand.
I think — and there is a basis for my speculation — that Kim Jong-Un’s nightmare scenario is to wake up one day to hear that after an MPS officer beat a merchant who refused him a bribe, that the merchants rioted and killed the officer with a pistol bought from a deserting soldier, that riots spread throughout the province once people began texting the news on smuggled phones, and that people had set up roadblocks all over Hoeryong, within sight of journalists just across the border in China.
There would be no question, of course, of a peasant army marching on Pyongyang. That would be impossible, undesirable, and unnecessary. It would present Pyongyang with the sudden, use-it-or-lose-it choice that we must carefully avoid. The state’s loss of control would instead be gradual. If North Korea’s vast, almost roadless interior dissolved into anarchy as Syria and Libya did so unexpectedly, Pyongyang could lose its land access to the fisheries of the east, the coal mines and power plants in the interior, and all the remote places where it hides his missiles. Broadcasts directed at his elites, who are already defecting in growing numbers, would show them how the countryside was slipping into anarchy. If the security forces were already sanctioned to the verge of bankruptcy, they would be hard-pressed to pay, fuel, and maintain an army to patrol the borders, and the villages and fields near the most critical roads, railroads, and power lines. It is the economic and political blows, not the military one, that would be fatal, and that would force Pyongyang’s elites to demand peace talks on terms that would lead to a genuine peace.
As border control broke down, information would flow in and people would flow out. Trade links to China would become untenable, adding more financial pressure to the effects of sanctions. As Pyongyang functionally became a city-state surrounded by an ungovernable countryside and a patchwork of liberated zones, the elites might decide that the world was closing in on them and hedge their bets about the future. In exchange for our covert support, a thousand unseen eyes in the mountains could report the location of every missile truck, slip messages to unit commanders, or send out videos of gulags or abuses by soldiers. In the towns and villages of Ryanggang and North Hamgyeong, the State Security Department’s officers would become prisoners of the people, too afraid to patrol the markets and reduced to taking bribes from those they no longer dared to extort, in exchange for looking the other way at more open acts of subversion. No foreign power, including China, would dare wade into this mess. As for the generals, all that would be asked of them to save themselves and their families would be to make sure that at the critical hour, their troops don’t move and don’t shoot.
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What can America give to the people of North Korea? First, a means to communicate and organize among themselves; second, a message to galvanize and focus their discontent; third, a concerted legal attack on the finances of the security forces to give the people breathing space; and perhaps, as a deterrent to further acts of aggression and oppression, a covert supply of arms, or a way to manufacture them in small guerrilla workshops.
We already have specialized aircraft designed for hijacking the airwaves of hostile states. The message we broadcast must be tailored to different audiences — the elites, the military, and the rural poor. For the elites in Pyongyang, the message must be that there is a better future without Kim Jong-Un than with him. That for those who resist the state and refuse to take part in its crimes against humanity, there will be clemency, freedom, and a better life in the future. If the regime persists, they can expect to meet the same fate as Jang Song-Thaek and his family.
For the soldiers, it must be a message of rice, peace, and freedom. In the event of war, they must refrain from killing their brothers and sisters in the South. They must be told that the targets assigned to them are civilian targets, and that their duty as Koreans is to disable their weapons, refuse to fire, or intentionally miss those targets.
For the rural poor, it must be that they are poor and hungry because of the state’s choices — to build weapons and ski resorts, and to import yachts and missile trucks, instead of feeding them. That the state keeps them hungry to control them. That it divides them against each other by making them inform on one another. The message must be rich with actual, credible stories about people like them who have suffered from the regime’s abuse, corruption, and oppression. They must awaken to the fact that they alone can change that, because no one else is coming to save them.
For all North Koreans, we should help them begin a conversation about the difficulties that sudden change will mean to a society that isn’t prepared for them. Should they stay in place or move? Who will own the soil, and who will till it? Will they be allowed to sell the land, and for what price? Will rich South Koreans flood in and make them second-class citizens in their own country? Will they acquire legal ownership of their own homes? Will industries in the hands of the state, the donju, or foreign investors be nationalized and sold off? Will the communes be broken up or consolidated? How can they prevent foreign occupation? What is the right balance between free speech and social stability? Who will be held responsible for crimes against the North Korean people, and who will be forgiven in the name of ending them? They must feel that they will have a say in how those questions are answered.
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Our sanctions-targeting strategy must also evolve with the recognition of these same hard realities. During this event on Capitol Hill several weeks ago, former Treasury Undersecretary and former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen made a profoundly important statement that would have been easy to miss. Cohen said that the strategy for sanctions enforcement depends on the objective of sanctions. Until now, it has been to pressure Kim Jong-Un to negotiate away his nukes, based on the flawed premise that he cares about the welfare of his people and the development of his country (in fact, those things would pose serious threats to his internal control by breaking the peoples’ material and ideological dependence on the state).
If we agree that Kim Jong-Un will never disarm voluntarily, then our sanctions should instead target the regime’s security forces and their capacity to suppress the population. How? We know, for example, that two sanctioned North Korean coal export companies support the military and that a third supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The security forces fund themselves with certain trading companies. If so, our sanctions should preferentially target the regime’s immune system to disrupt its capacity to oppress, to compel its security forces to rely on corruption, and to break down barriers to the smuggling of goods, people, and information across North Korea’s borders.
Part of this strategy could take several years to prepare, unfortunately. The critical communications technology to allow North Koreans to organize still isn’t in place. Once resistance begins, it’s difficult to know whether it would spread or how quickly. If we controlled its funding, we could exercise some control over its conduct, but only to an extent. We can expect Pyongyang to hit back (though in limited, non-suicidal ways) if it knows or assumes that we’re supporting internal resistance. In the meantime, we’ll need an interim containment strategy, including aggressive sanctions enforcement, the accelerated deployment of missile defenses and deterrence, and perhaps a blockade. The President may have to use force to deter the next Yeonpyeong-do incident or slow North Korea’s missile development, and hope that a limited conflict stays limited. At the same time, we must never close the door to an agreement in which Pyongyang would disarm and begin a graduated process of humanitarian reform in exchange for the suspension of sanctions. But in the end, containment alone is not a permanent solution to this problem, and deterrence has been failing since 2010.
For years, the experts who have held the tiller of our policy for so much of the last three decades have offered Pyongyang “security guarantees” for a disarmament deal. Pyongyang either didn’t take them or took them and reneged. It’s time to turn this formula on its head and offer Pyongyang insecurity guarantees as long as it refuses to disarm. Once we pose a credible threat of destabilizing the countryside between Pyongyang and Dandong, our chances of a diplomatic solution rise from zero to something more than zero. How much more depends on the credibility of the threat and how much we have to offer in terms of trading stability for a lasting peace.
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When Kim Dae Jung quoted Confucious in his Nobel speech, he reminded his audience that Confucious spoke those words 2,000 years before John Locke wrote of his version of the social contract theory, which incorporated a right of revolution. Against Locke, Thomas Hobbes argued, based on his bitter experiences during England’s civil war, that the subject’s duty was to obey the sovereign for better or for worse lest he reduce his kingdom to a state of anarchy where life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” But North Korea, where the regime has imposed its social contract on the people, is as Hobbesian a place as you will find — it is a living (if one can call it that) exhibit to Locke’s brief for the right to revolution. In another hundred years, Thomas Jefferson would write that when a government becomes destructive of the ends of the life, liberty, and happiness of the people, “it is the right of the people to alter, or to abolish it.” I do not reserve that right to Americans alone. That would make me an American exceptionalist.
In our long war of skirmishes against the Kim Dynasty, it has always been the people of North Korea who have been our most important — and most overlooked — potential allies. Kim Jong-Il now presents a grave threat to our freedom, our security, our prosperity, and our way of life. We are justified in threatening the integrity of his political system in return. The perpetuation of that system represents a grave threat to us, to our allies, and to the people of North Korea most of all. We also compelled to do this in a way that reduces the risk of catastrophe as much as that is still possible, and that minimizes unnecessary suffering by the North Korean people. Our support for any resistance group must be strictly conditioned on its adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict. It must tolerate no attacks against noncombatants, no banditry, and no theft. The choice to resist, of course, is a choice that belongs to the people of North Korea. But if they are willing to make it, they should find no better friend than us.