For Beijing, a sharper choice on N. Korea: accord and prosperity, or discord and chaos

Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Zhu Feng sketched out a vision of the thinking in Beijing from the perspective of a person more reasonable than Xi Jinping has been, so far. Zhu’s piece suggests the outlines of an agreement with Beijing to defang Kim Jong-Un and manage North Korea’s transition to peace. Alas, Zhu Feng is not in charge in Beijing, and Xi Jinping is. Suspend your paranoia that this essay is only an artifice to persuade us that Beijing will be reasonable, if only we stay our hands on secondary sanctions another year or two (years we no longer have). The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, if only for what it tells us about the thoughts of those in Beijing whose influence we should seek to weaken or strengthen, and whose fears we should seek to exploit. 

In this regard, Trump needs to understand the complexity of China’s thinking on North Korean policy. Getting China to take more responsibility on North Korea requires both a gentle and a hard push. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea—but Beijing has heard this before. Despite the rhetorical flourish, to the experienced Chinese diplomat, the Trump administration’s policy sounds quite a lot like those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama: a desire to achieve denuclearization but an unwillingness for this to come at the cost of war on the peninsula. Chinese President Xi Jinping is similarly bound by the strategic logic of China’s long-standing approach to its petulant neighbor—avoiding the dangers and uncertainty of war and instability by looking past the present consequences of North Korea’s actions. Xi’s view of North Korea is still dominated by the fear of a reunified Korea under Seoul, which may want U.S. forces to remain in the country. This is a legitimate concern, but it is possible, given Trump’s isolationist stance, that he might consider not stationing U.S. troops above the 38th parallel or deploying offensive capabilities to a unified Korea. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can envision how an agreement with Beijing might work: China would enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions — no more and no less. It would import no more than $400 million worth of coal, and it would not buy coal or anything else from any entities designated by the U.N., that were associated with Pyongyang’s weapons programs, or that were reasonably suspected of contributing to those programs. It would freeze the assets of North Korea’s proliferators and their front companies and put their agents on the first Air Koryo flight home. It would also freeze any accounts of North Korean nationals or trading companies until it ensured, in accordance with UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), that those funds could not be used for WMD programs or other prohibited purposes. For good measure, it would also expel any North Korean workers. It would keep those measures in place until Pyongyang was fully disarmed. That, in turn, would almost certainly require the removal of Kim Jong-Un, but coordinated economic strangulation of the regime — which should carefully avoid impeding the trade in food — would likely cause the elites to lose confidence in him. By many accounts, that confidence is already shaky.

In return, the U.S. would agree not to station forces inside the borders of what is now North Korea (something that we should not do under any circumstances anyway). We might even discuss a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, which would no longer be needed in Korea. We would agree to suspend sanctions, year by year, provided Pyongyang was making progress toward the conditions described in our laws, toward a more humane and open society whose disarmament we could actually believe in. This state would be neither a militarized totalitarian cult nor a Jeffersonian democracy, but a state that was evolving from totalitarianism to one that was merely authoritarian, along the lines of what we see in Burma today. Great change takes time. North Korea and its people would need time to evolve into a self-governable society, ready to take its place in the world.

Once North Korea was disarmed and the artillery was removed from the bunkers along the DMZ, Korea could be reunified in all but name. Korean families would be reunited, a new pan-Korean culture would be reborn, and commerce would flow freely across the nature reserve formerly known as the DMZ. An agreement with Beijing and Seoul might preserve a fig leaf of separation for an agreeable transitional period, excluding any foreign forces and ensuring friendly relations with all of Korea’s neighbors, friends, and trading partners, to assuage Beijing’s security and economic concerns. South Korea would assume responsibility for controlling the China-North Korea border and caring for the poor and dispossessed North Koreans who might otherwise cross it. The consequent economic revitalization, including access to refurbished North Korean seaports, would be a boon to China’s northeastern rust belt. The political status of North Korea after this transitional period — say, ten years — would be for the people of both Koreas to decide. Enough of foreign powers drawing lines through a nation that ought to be able to decide its own fate. A unified Korea would be no threat to China.

Of course, if Beijing does not cooperate, things might have to take a darker turn.

The real difference that Beijing and Washington must overcome, however, is China’s fear of chaos in North Korea spilling over its own borders. Such instability could spell an unmanageable situation involving all sorts of crises: civil war, famine, and mass displacement, not to mention the danger of fissile material and biological weapons falling into even more unstable hands. Of course, some Chinese hardliners take this view even further, suggesting that it would be foolish for China to take the North Korean burden off the back of its greatest competitor. They argue that, considering that the United States is in many ways a thorn in the flesh to Chinese interests in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, it would be against China’s national interests to release the United States from this problem.

Today, many within China believe that Beijing must reevaluate its relationship with both Koreas, which essentially means abandoning Pyongyang. It is both the strategic and the moral choice. Choosing South Korea, a democracy with a strong economy, will place China on the right side of history. China’s lack of clear direction on this issue is beginning to negatively affect its reputation, with Beijing seen by the international community as reluctant to cooperate or behave responsibly. These are not traits that behoove a rising power. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can also envision how things would have to work if China does not cooperate. The alternative would be China’s greatest fear — chaos. It would have to be. Pyongyang insists that its nuclear program is non-negotiable. Even assuming that, under extreme duress, Pyongyang eventually said otherwise, it will never be possible for a prudent person to believe in the denuclearization of a society as closed as North Korea’s, or to trust the words of a regime as mendacious as Pyongyang’s.

Because of all the years wasted by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, we may, for a while, be stuck with the option of trying to deter a nuclear North Korea. This option is only slightly less terrible than war, and anyone who has watched how Pyongyang has behaved in recent years knows that this isn’t sustainable. We are always laying down red lines we think Pyongyang wouldn’t dare cross. Our calculations are invariably miscalculations, and Pyongyang crosses our red lines like so many cracks in a sidewalk. Can we deter a regime that built a reactor in Syria, used VX in the middle of the crowded Kuala Lumpur Airport terminal, or uses cyber attacks to terrorize us, smother own freedom of expression, and rob banks? Can we deter a regime that has carried out multiple armed attacks, cyber attacks, and assassination attempts in South Korea since 2010, killing at least 50 people? Can we deter a regime that sells chemical weapons technology to Assad and MANPADS to terrorists? How do you deter Pyongyang once it thinks it can nuke Seoul, Tokyo and New York? Will Pyongyang become more restrained when it thinks we think it can, or might?

Eventually, Pyongyang will go too far and we will be at war. Deterrence will fail. That’s why the Trump administration is right to turn down the idea of a freeze — not that Pyongyang is interested in one anyway. Pyongyang can’t be allowed to have nukes, or even nuclear technology to sell to others. But no one believes it is possible to take these things away from Pyongyang without a fundamental change in the regime’s character.

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The cold, hard truth that too few of us are willing to confront is this — there is no peaceful solution to the North Korea crisis as long as Kim Jong-Un remains in power. The syllogism is a simple one: if Kim Jong-Un won’t disarm, and if we can’t live with Kim Jong-Un (or he won’t live with us) if he doesn’t disarm, then Kim Jong-Un must go. The question then becomes a matter of finding the least-risky option to achieve that result.

Once we conclude that Pyongyang won’t disarm under pressure, what it means for sanctions to “work” shifts. Then, the focus of sanctions also shifts, from creating economic pressure on Pyongyang to supporting political subversion of the regime by targeting its immune system — the border guards, the army, Ministry of State Security, the State Security Department, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department. In a country whose political and economic models are fragile and possibly unsustainable, change can take many forms. Certainly, it should not take the form of invasion or decapitation unless that’s our only protection against a grave and imminent threat to ourselves and our allies. It could mean sudden collapse if the elites turn on Kim Jong-Un, but our influence over such an event would be indirect at best. Don’t get me wrong — we should do everything within our power to prepare the Pyongyang elites for it, if only to make the right people in Pyongyang and Beijing nervous, and most urgently, to discourage North Korean troops from killing their brother and sister Koreans in the event we can’t prevent war.

The change we can do the most to catalyze, however, is a slow-motion revolution in the countryside. Our strategy should be to use sanctions and information warfare to degrade the regime’s capacity to repress, even as we use economic engagement and information warfare help an informed, enriched, and empowered people rise. This would not be regime change, exactly, but regime decline and regime replacement by dozens of local shadow governments. As the security forces lost their foreign sources of income due to sanctions, their members would desert, turn to corruption, or allow themselves to be coopted by the rising merchants and shadow warlords. Officers patrolling the markets could not shake the people down without fear of resistance or reprisal. Inside the jangmadang, they would become prisoners of the people. Inside their stations, they would be besieged, isolated, and ineffective. As the state’s power melted away and flowed back down the songbun scale, information operations would tell the elites that Kim Jong-Un’s days are numbered, that they should not support him, and that they should disobey any orders to kill their brothers and sisters. Implicit in the slow degradation of a totalitarian state is the historical inevitability that it can decline only so much before it can’t contain an explosion. That is, it must change or perish. Political change tends to happen like bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Who is to say when regime decline might become the people’s revolution that Thae Yong-Ho has predicted? Beijing and Pyongyang should certainly worry about this.

For poor North Koreans, this would mean freedom of trade, freedom from fear, and freedom from the confiscation of their land and their crops. It might also mean chaos along China’s border. China would have to deploy troops to seal that border. Dandong, Dalian, and other cities involved in cross-border trade would face the concentrated effects of secondary sanctions, and even a loss of access to trade with America, that might plunge them into recession and unemployment. If the propaganda circulating in the jangmadang harnessed North Korea’s nationalism in an intensely anti-Chinese direction, it could make North Korea an unsafe place for Chinese investments for years to come. Even after reunification, Chinese goods would face steep fees for the use of North Korean ports. China would be offered no guarantees about the future disposition of U.S. forces (though we’d be smart to leave the pacification of North Korea to the Koreans). Chinese investments — particularly those found to violate U.N. sanctions — might be confiscated, or written off as odious debts. Refugees would flood across the Tumen, and Seoul and Washington would be powerless to stop that flood. To prevent Pyongyang from proliferating, we might have to impose a naval blockade, and an economic air blockade.

All of this is a much more chaotic alternative than an agreement to enforce the sanctions Beijing already voted for at the U.N. Security Council, but for us, it’s far better than the collapse of global nonproliferation or a coerced capitulation of South Korea. If Beijing is blithe about (or applauds, or encourages) our greatest security fears, then our response should be to identify and exploit its greatest fears in return.

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Dear President Park: Make Reunification Your Legacy

Last week was a tough week for Park Geun-hye, when her party lost its majority in the National Assembly. The simplest explanation for this is that historically, ruling parties usually take beatings in mid-term elections, particularly when their own voters don’t show up to vote. The ruling party may poll well in the abstract, but a party that enters an election divided is likely to underperform expectations. 

Republicans, take note. And don’t look so smug, Democrats.

Something like this appears to have happened in South Korea this week, but I suspect that economics and quality-of-life issued mattered, too. For decades, South Korea’s economy has been based on a model in which the working classes toiled, sacrificed, and saved to develop its economy into a vibrant and prosperous one. A little research quickly confirms one’s anecdotal observation that Korea’s public policies are still a relic of that era. Obviously, South Korea’s society and economy have changed dramatically since Park Chung-hee was President. Its human development index is now higher than that of France, Finland, or Belgium, yet its average wages are lower, and its disposable income is significantly lower, due to its high cost of living. This, despite the fact that Koreans work more hours than in almost any other OECD country, and despite Korea having one of the OECD’s highest rates of fatal industrial accidents.

As human development rises, people naturally expect more from life. The “Hell Chosun” narrative can sound pathetic and whiney coming from a country that, after all, shares a peninsula with North Korea, but South Koreans who expect more of that thing we like to call work-life balance still have a point. Why, for example, do South Korean companies still expect people to show up to work on Saturdays, especially after staying out late enabling their boss’s drinking habits?

With the probability that the new National Assembly will frustrate Park’s plans for economic and labor “reforms” — and there is no more dangerously misused manipulation in our political lexicon than the word “reform” — Park isn’t going to be able to bust unions and lower trade barriers for the remainder of her time in office. One can reject the repellent political views of some of South Korea’s unions and still believe that as a general matter, unions play an important role in giving workers a voice for better pay and working conditions, things that are very much on the minds of young South Koreans today.

In time, Park may come to see this loss as a gift. Her economic agenda might have been good for South Korea’s economy in the short term, but politically, it would have been a fast drive into a hard wall. Few South Koreans will miss it. Over the long term, ultra-free-market policies also create classes of losers. In this country, they’re currently voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in droves, ironically threatening to overturn the very principles that made America great. Park’s policies, too, might have been exceedingly controversial going into the next election. Even in the minority, the opposition would have stood a good chance of blocking them and riding their obstructionism to victory in the next election.

Saenuri leaders who haven’t resigned have been holding crisis meetings about the future of their party, and Park has to be wondering whether her legacy will be the Sewol Ferry disaster. It doesn’t have to be so. American presidents — most famously, Richard Nixon, and most recently, Barack Obama — have historically turned outward when hostile congresses frustrated their domestic agendas. Park isn’t going to have a strong legislative legacy, but she can claim one really significant accomplishment — the North Korea human rights law that passed, just in the nick of time. Park should implement that new law as liberally as her country’s canons of construction allow.

Only this year, we saw the first signs that Park had shed her cautious exoskeleton and shown us some spine. She finally began to pupate into a leader, and her leadership on North Korea has been the brightest spot in her generally lackluster popularity. Koreans don’t find Park very likable, but they liked the way Park handled Kim Jong-un last August, and they supported her when she shut down Kaesong, a scam that remained popular years after it had manifestly failed to achieve its stated purposes. It makes good political sense, then, for Park to spend the remainder of her term capitalizing on her strength—her emergence as a national, and global, leader in responding to a rising North Korean threat.

South Korea’s own unilateral sanctions are important to this symbolically and diplomatically, but they will not be the policy that records Park’s destiny in Korean history. Yes, South Korea’s sanctions can help seal the leaks in a global sanctions regime, and enforcing sanctions gives Park the credibility to ask other states to do the same, but South Korea lacks America’s unique financial power. Its unique power is a far greater thing — the power of nationhood and national legitimacy. President Park is the only elected (and therefore, legitimate) leader of the Korean nation, and the South Korean Constitution claims the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory.

Thus, if South Korea marshals its considerable technological talents and finds a way to open communications directly with its citizens north of the Imjin River, North Korea cannot long resist the changes that its downtrodden have steadily advanced, despite the regime’s efforts to stifle them. Forget loudspeakers — Seoul should open south-to-north broadcasting on the medium wave band, and build a string of cell phone towers along the DMZ to open the channels of direct engagement to Koreans north of the DMZ.

Then, Park should do something truly historic. This year, on the August anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule, Park should address the people of North Korea. She should tell them that they are her countrymen, too. She should tell them in unambiguous terms how Kim Jong-un has squandered their food, their money, and their sweat to support a bloated military, a system that terrorizes them, and an opulent lifestyle for which no more evidence is needed than His Corpulency’s omnipresent moonscape. She should tell them that even as she sanctions his regime to slow his capacity to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, she will also do everything in her power to ease their suffering.

One way to do this will be to ease restrictions on remittances sent by the refugee diaspora to their families back inside North Korea. She can ask churches and NGOs to use these family bonds to fund informal clandestine networks inside North Korea to get food, medicine, medical care, and news to those who need it most. She can continue to push the United Nations and its member states to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity. She can urge other U.N. member states to freeze the assets that are misspent for weapons and luxury goods, and increase pressure on the regime to accede to humanitarian reforms.

In doing so, Park can become a leader to all Koreans, and begin Korea’s long-overlooked preparations for reunification by rebuilding the broken foundations of North Korea’s civil society. She can give Koreans north of the Imjin River what they’ve never had — the knowledge that a legitimate Korean government has not forgotten them when their need is greatest. Park would also be building a legacy for her own party. After all, although most Asian-American and Latino voters tend to vote Democratic, Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans still vote Republican. Undoubtedly, this reflects the sense that in their hour of greatest need, the Republicans stood in solidarity with them.

More than ever, one senses that the current trends in North Korea cannot continue for long. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated ineptitude as a leader, both domestically and internationally. He may be gone in two months or five years, but it’s hard to see how his misrule, with its dependence on hard currency from abroad, survives a growing, self-inflicted international isolation for much longer than this. Reunification could be a moment when South Korea absorbs 23 million traumatized, alienated, and restive people. How much better it would be if instead, reunification begins with the hopeful sense among North Koreans that their new government will lead them toward the things that Pyongyang has so long denied them — rice, peace, and freedom.

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Two (Kinda) Free Koreas?

My friend, Adrian Hong, argues in an op-ed for The San Diego Union-Tribune that we should sacrifice one free Korea for specific, pragmatic goals — disarmament, the cessation of Pyongyang’s proliferation and “export of terror,” the closure of the prison camps and other human rights abuses, and ending the North Koreans’ perpetual hunger:

Regional stakeholders regularly reaffirm their desire to see a unified Korea. They do not mean it. They do not desire the status quo — only Pyongyang’s rulers prefer that. But the sudden reunification of Korea would result in enormous uncertainty in the region, and South Korea and its neighbors are rightfully apprehensive.

South Korea is unprepared and unwilling to accept the massive burden of absorbing tens of millions of impoverished North Koreans at once. Both China and the United States know that a reunified Korea would result in a profound shift in the balance of power — but do not know in which direction that shift would turn. The possibility of such world-remaking tectonic shifts begets the great likelihood of dramatic escalation by heavily armed regional players. Greater wars have been sparked over less. [….]

The retention of North Korea as a distinct political state would enable Beijing to keep a buffer between it and the South, and by extension American troops, and retain the present regional balance of power. A new government in Pyongyang could renounce provocations and proliferation, and end biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs. Changes to the future of regional alliances could be managed deliberately and collaboratively, instead of in a panic and piecemeal. An understanding that there would effectively be a freeze on changes on the Korean peninsula beyond a change in government in Pyongyang would maximize chances for peaceful resolution and military deconfliction. [Adrian Hong]

Instead of reunification, Hong advocates something like a Sunshine Policy with a (presumably, more receptive) post-Kim Jong-un government in Pyongyang, in which South Korean capital and expertise would help the North recover as a friendly, but independent, neighbor to both South Korea and China. 

I’ll confess my sympathy for some of Hong’s arguments. I agree that we should seek to accommodate China’s security interests by keeping U.S. forces out of northern Korea. I can even envision agreeing to a remove U.S. ground forces from a unified and stabilized Korea. (Keeping U.S. air power, naval facilities, and missile defense systems in the South is another matter. If the South wants them and is willing to pay a fair share of the cost, those should stay.)

China also has commercial interests in northern Korea that a unified Korea may or may not choose to recognize. These interests give China an incentive to reach a diplomatic settlement to help disarm and reform North Korea.

I also agree that a post-collapse North Korea will require some heavy (if temporary) controls on internal and external migration to help stabilize and pacify it, deal with its humanitarian needs and public health, and set the stage for land reform and reconstruction. (This might be a good time to review Bruce Bennett’s paper on dealing with a North Korean collapse.) As reconstruction progresses, these controls can be relaxed gradually.

A post-collapse North Korea will need time to prepare itself for self-government. Democratization is not an event, but a process that will require years of accelerated public education about the most basic values of a free society — the respect for different views, different faiths, and private property; respect for the law; and the suppression of corruption. There will have to be a phased transition from totalitarianism to benevolent authoritarianism, and then to experiments with elections at the local, province, and national levels.

Critically, this transition might not work without a large commitment of South Korean police and military personnel to stabilize it. The North Korean military is probably too brutal, too undisciplined, and too hated to maintain order in a non-totalitarian society.

What troubles me most about this proposal, however, is the suggestion that foreign powers should do another secret handshake to decide Korea’s destiny. Most Koreans still haven’t forgiven us for the first time we did that. But then, near the end of his piece, Hong writes that “the Koreas will be one, someday.” This leaves me wondering just what Hong has in mind — a two-state solution? One country, two systems? And for how long?

What I have much less sympathy for is the concession to Chinese or U.S. interests in maintaining a regional balance of power, or that maintaining this balance requires us to maintain the status quo. 

After all, it is China that has upset this balance during the Obama years, with its military buildup, its bullying of neighboring countries, and its expansionist claims on Senkaku and the South China Sea. If China continues this behavior, its neighbors will need an alliance to restore that balance. A reunified Korea with a large, well-trained, highly disciplined (and perhaps, if tacitly, nuclear-armed) military could be to a future Asian defense alliance what Britain is to NATO, containing an increasingly militarized and expansionist China.

Nor is it safe to assume that China would long respect the independence of an “independent” North. Given Xi Jinping’s hegemonic streak, how is this not a formula for an Outer Chosun Autonomous Zone? How long would a broken and vulnerable North lie prone to Chinese predation before it is devoured? 

In the end, my differences with Hong are really matters of timing, degree, and semantics. No, there will be no instant unification. But the idea that a post-Kim North Korea can persist, much less rebuild itself, as an independent nation defies both reality and destiny.

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Guerrilla Engagement: A strategy for regime replacement and reconstruction in North Korea

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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 exist 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.

The European Alliance for North Korean Human Rights has parallel thoughts. It collaborates with North Korean defector, poet, author, and intellectual Jang Jin Sung to propose what it calls “separative engagement,” a model of engagement focused on reaching the North Korean people directly.

“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. Once-hopeful trends in information penetration — trends that had given many of us long-term hope for North Korea — are slowing, and may yet come to a full stop. Writing at NK News, Chad O’Carroll has proposed one possible way to break the blockade again. I can think of others, but people in Pyongyang read this site, so I’ll keep them to myself.

Pyongyan visit 9 jun 2015

For now, consider the possibilities once the U.S. and its allies give the North Korean people the gift of free speech. Shatter this blockade and the possibilities are limitless.

~   3   ~

Once the North Korean people have access to communications, guerrilla engagement can take its first important step: shifting the balance of economic power away from the regime and toward the people. This will require two parallel initiatives: first, using financial sanctions to de-fund the palace economy; and second, establishing an independent financial system to unleash the peoples’ economy, and with it, the production and transportation of food, consumer goods, and information.

To do this, South Korea (or Japan, which is seeking ways to influence events inside North Korea) should leverage electronic communications to build a virtual electronic banking network for North Korea’s underprivileged classes. This network would allow North Korean merchants to make electronic payments and transactions using dollar accounts in banks based in New York, Tokyo, or Seoul. The use of dollar accounts would not only protect this underground economy from reactions by the North Korean and Chinese central banks, it would also allow the U.S. Treasury Department a greater measure of control over regime-connected figures who would invariably tap into it. It would also give the U.S. and South Korean governments (and the local networks they empower) a credible threat to wield against officials that cracked down on the people. For the regime, it would be tantamount to financial receivership.

The establishment of a virtual dollar economy would open North Korea’s borders, not only to remittances by refugees to their relatives, but to charitable donations by church groups to local agents operating humanitarian organizations inside North Korea itself. These groups would feed North Korea’s dispossessed — the starving orphans that haunt North Korea’s markets, those languishing in state institutions, those at the bottom of the songbun scale, and perhaps even prisoners, if guards could be bribed into permitting it.

With money and information flowing through the people’s economy and frozen in the palace economy, many officials, soldiers, and border guards would have nowhere to turn for their paychecks but the merchants, traders, and NGOs that harnessed this new financial system. Corruption would take its toll, smuggling would rebound, and more fertilizer, high-yield seed, medicine, and dollars could enter the country. Humanitarian NGOs could then purchase food smuggled in from China, pilfered from state stocks, and grown on private-plot farms called sotoji, one of the least talked-about and most important new sources of food for many North Koreans. NGOs could focus on promoting sotoji farms as a humanitarian strategy, supplying them with better seed, fertilizer, agricultural advice, and bribe money to secure the tolerance of officials. At the same time, those who continue to rely on meager state rations or salaries paid in North Korean won would be priced out of the market. In time, they, too, would come to depend on the virtual dollar economy, and might seek to join clandestine unions that would supplement their wages and rations. In the dollar markets, prices for food and consumer goods would fall, as more and higher-quality food were drawn into the markets from sotoji farms, and from across the borders.

In time, independent small-scale manufacturing would also become possible. Smuggled materials could supply underground or gray-market workshops and factories, using local labor earning steady wages, to make goods that the people want.

A virtual dollar economy would have to contend with official resistance, of course, but today, corruption is so endemic that North Koreans with money consider greasing the palms of regime officials to be just another cost of doing business. Here, sanctions would play an important complementary role. Those officials would have to look the other way if the Treasury Department unleashed a parallel crackdown on the regime’s funds and accounts based in China and elsewhere. If merchants suddenly had a greater capacity to pay regime officials than the regime itself did, Pyongyang’s control would begin to break down. Gradually, the balance of power would shift. Regime officials would be coopted, unwittingly, by an alliance of external and internal forces. In time, the influence of clandestine NGOs would spread to military units, whose soldiers are often sick or underfed. And in a society where force is law, it can be a useful thing to have friends within the security forces. Soldiers might even be paid and fed to provide security to markets, freight, goods, and people during their off-hours, including North Korea’s vulnerable women. This could be a first step in fracturing the cohesion of the security forces.

A free communications network could have other transformative effects. It could augment and replace North Korea’s broken public health system with tele-medicine, staffed by volunteer foreign doctors and local nurses, to treat the sick with smuggled medicines. Volunteer teachers in South Korea could teach virtual classes to orphans, to low-songbun students seeking valuable life skills like auto mechanics, engineering, or medicine. As the people’s economy developed, communities could gain independence in other important ways. Imported solar panels, which are increasingly available inside North Korea, would give the people independent sources of electricity. With independent sources of food, electricity, and other items the market could supply, rural areas, and eventually, entire regions, could gain economic and ideological independence from Pyongyang. But even this is only a beginning.

In time, as the security forces became overwhelmed by the volume of unregulated expression and commerce, guerrilla engagement would allow for more subversive activities to take place. The South Korean Unification Ministry could create a national clearinghouse for virtual family reunions. South Korean churches could live-cast services across North Korea, and no North Korean parishioner would know the name of any other parishioner. International activists could teach North Korean factory workers to organize clandestinely to demand better working conditions and better pay, and how to conduct work stoppages and slowdowns.

A network of guerrilla journalists could tell the world about these acts of resistance from inside North Korea, and publish news reports from around the world for North Koreans to read on their devices. In time, clandestine NGOs and churches (led by ministers based in South Korea) could begin feeding starving low-ranking soldiers, treating their medical conditions, and quietly introducing them to subversive ideas about spirituality and governance. In theory, it might even be possible for North Koreans to register remotely as voters, vote in referenda on policies that affect them, and elect a government in exile. If labor organizations become established, they could eventually coordinate a nationwide general strike, with the knowledge that any overreaction would be reported, photographed, filmed, and covered worldwide.

Even this regime knows that it can’t kill and imprison everyone.

~   4   ~

Sir Robert Thompson, the great theorist of insurgency and counter-insurgency, is generally credited with the strategy that defeated the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. What impressed me so deeply about Thompson’s memoir of the Malayan insurgency was how little it said about military tactics, and how much it said about law, journalism, governance, policing, and intelligence. In a society ruled by violence and terror, like today’s North Korea, these things all support the reestablishment of a functioning civil society, or an objective that could be restated in a single word: legitimacy. The allegiance of a people will inevitably migrate toward the side that establishes legitimate governance, and the side that establishes legitimate governance is the one that provides for the needs of the people. The side that provides for the needs of the people — and in North Korea, there is no question that the people have many unmet needs — is the side that is responsive and accountable to them.

At the same time, a diplomatic campaign could gradually deny Pyongyang its international legitimacy until it ends the crimes against humanity it commits against its people.

If providing for the people is the prerequisite of a government’s legitimacy, then there is no better way for the South Korean government to be a legitimate government for its citizens in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung than by providing for their needs, too, if indirectly and clandestinely at first. For now, from the standpoint of domestic South Korean politics, this is unlikely. But once guerrilla engagement established local shadow governments, amenable to influence from Seoul, the South Korean government could play an important role in funding and organizing them as instruments of information operations, humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and the extension of Seoul’s legitimacy to North Korea itself. The work of underground schools, journalists, and unions could become more subversive, eventually challenging the state through strikes, demonstrations, barricades, and acts of non-violent sabotage to disrupt the oppressive work of the state’s security forces.

Guerrilla journalists could also broadcast an increasingly subversive message to the North Korean people, vividly portraying the state’s corruption, class divisions, culpable waste of national resources, and failure to provide for the needs of the people. Reporting on Chinese influence over Kim Jong Un’s regime would undercut the regime’s message of nationalist independence. Reporting on Chinese abuses of North Korean refugees, particularly women, would mobilize anti-Chinese sentiment, and deter any temptation by China to intervene militarily. Guerrilla journalism could also criticize Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle, legitimacy, and competence to rule.

Eventually, trade networks and labor organizations could organize clandestine security guards and police to protect the population from violence by soldiers and members of the security forces. Initially, paid, masked security guards and guerrilla policing organizations could patrol high-crime areas, where marauding bands of soldiers rape vulnerable women, bully traders, and rob farmers. Some of the police might be recruited from deserting soldiers, who might otherwise die from lack of food and medical care.

Because the North Korean military tightly restricts the distribution of ammunition, soldiers who commit crimes against the civilian population often wander unarmed; thus, in many cases, the shadow government’s police could be effective without the use of lethal force. To prevent wanton violence and revenge killings, and to protect the people against arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial execution by the security forces, communities could organize local courts, perhaps with remote electronic training, support, and appellate review from outside North Korea.

Guerrilla courts would have the exclusive authority to permit or order the use of deadly force against military officers or members of the security forces responsible for the most severe human rights abuses. Any violent act not sanctioned by the courts, regardless of the affiliation of the person responsible, should be treated like a crime. Like all legal systems, a court empowered to punish violent crime would help to deter future violent crime, including by a regime that does not necessarily explicitly authorize crimes committed by corrupt officers or undisciplined soldiers. To the extent deadly force was necessary to protect journalists, trade unionists, and NGO workers, guerrilla police forces could obtain arms and ammunition from soldiers motivated by hunger, disease, drug addiction, or grievances against their officers. Guerrilla organizations that engaged in extrajudicial violence should be denied financial support, and when appropriate, punished criminally.

Of course, the regime would react violently to this, to the extent it could identify those responsible, to the extent this dispersed network of dissent did not overwhelm the state’s capacity to suppress it, and to the extent its local officials had not been coopted by the resistance. But the longer these groups could delay a broader, violent confrontation with the regime, the more widely this clandestine organization could penetrate North Korea’s society, government, and security forces, and the more likely it would be to survive and prevail once that confrontation comes. In that confrontation, citizen journalists with hidden cameras would be critical to deterring a violent reaction by the state, and to publicizing any such reaction both inside North Korea and globally. This, in turn, would spur diplomatic and political action to deprive North Korea of foreign investment, finance, diplomatic support, and international legitimacy. It might eventually spur South Korea toward accepting its responsibilities for the welfare of the North Korean people, as their legitimate government.

~   5   ~

In February of 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” This status quo is not peace. It is not quite the absence of war. It is a lurid kaleidoscope of violent crime, waged by a few armed men against a defenseless majority. With its political competence in decline, it can’t last.

Over the weekend, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ. The North Korean army is now said to be laying mines along the DMZ to prevent more defections. Last week, a North Korean, who may or may not have been the latest in a series of armed soldiers to desert his post, was shot and killed by Chinese police. (Update: he was a civilian.)

But this essay is not about predicting the direction of history; it is about finding ways to influence it. In such desperate, violent circumstances, completely non-violent change may be an unrealistic ideal. But it is always realistic, and compelled by both morality and our national interests, to seek a strategy to deter and prevent as much suffering and loss of life as is still possible. With Kim Jong Un rejecting political reforms and pursuing policies of war and violence, a controlled demolition of the regime may be the only way to save the Korean people from an anarchic collapse (on one hand) and the horrific status quo (on the other).

When totalitarian states collapse, they tend to collapse suddenly, violently, and chaotically, in the way that Romania, Syria, and Libya all did. There have been exceptions, like the fall of Enver Hoxha’s rule in Albania, but if the violence of any Götterdämmerung is proportional to a system’s totalitarianism, then North Korea’s collapse is likely to be more violent than any of these examples. If Götterdämmerung isn’t already imminent, the North Korean people will need whatever time they have to begin weaving the fabric of a civil society, while unraveling the discipline and unity of command the state will need to wage a civil war against them.

First, guerrilla engagement would overwhelm the state’s machinery of censorship with millions of isolated words and acts of micro-subversion, as described in Part 3. It would equip North Koreans to secede from and resist the state with money and information. In this phase, underground organizations would avoid, or delay for as long as possible, a direct confrontation that would provoke a violent reaction by the regime, to allow peaceful infiltration and evolution to advance as far as possible. The principal objective of this phase would be to establish the roots of a legitimate shadow government — a broad coalition of commercial and humanitarian networks to provide the population with food, medical care, education, electricity, consumer goods, information, and in some areas, a small measure of security from lawlessness and crimes against humanity.

Second, guerrilla engagement would coalesce a critical mass of these isolated shadow networks into a broad-based, loosely-connected political organization with a common vision of reunification under a liberal, humane, free-market, and representative system of government. No resistance movement has ever challenged a determined government successfully without such a galvanizing vision, and without a broad-based political infrastructure to supply it with intelligence, food, shelter, money, recruits, and the incalculable psychological empowerment of knowing that others share their aspirations. Very few states have survived while opposed by such a political infrastructure. As Mao Tse-Tung said,“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Guerrilla engagement would seek to build this political base, while delaying (and later, deterring) a violent reaction by the state. At this stage, the shadow government would begin to wage aggressive information operations against the regime and its foreign backers. Information operations should have a strongly nationalist orientation, to help deter a Chinese intervention.

Third, guerrilla engagement would attempt to demoralize, coopt, and recruit as many members of the military and the security forces as possible, to divide them and disrupt their readiness, discipline, and unity of command. Sanctions would be essential in this process, to disrupt the military’s pay, supply, and commissary systems, and to draw soldiers into economic dependence on the shadow government.

starving nk soldiers

[Starving North Korean soldiers. Image from Rimjin-gang.]

On an individual and small unit level, resistance networks would recruit hungry and disgruntled soldiers, such as those who have increasingly turned to violence against their own commanders, the civilian population, or Chinese civilians. Once recruited, these soldiers could pilfer fuel and critical supplies, sabotage and steal weapons, spread subversive information, and encourage the disobedience of orders harmful to the population. A contemporary example is the practice of regime soldiers stealing fuel from trucks and ships, and replacing it with corrosive salt water. Eventually, corrupt officers could also be coopted into resisting orders to suppress dissent. The objective would be to dilute the security forces’ readiness, discipline, and unity of command, and render as many units as possible unwilling or unable to execute a violent crackdown, or to actively oppose one.

At the same time, local leaders of the shadow government could secretly connect South Korean military officers with key regional commanders in the North Korean military. The objective of these contacts would be to persuade key North Korean officers that the consequence of a violent crackdown against an organized (and potentially, armed) population would be civil war — a war that would be unwinnable in the face of crippling financial sanctions, widespread internal dissent, and diplomatic isolation. If vast areas of North Korea’s mountainous interior slipped out of the regime’s control, they would be difficult and costly for a mechanized, road-bound army with few helicopters to regain. The regime could not hope to seal two land borders and two long coastlines. On the other hand, officers who refuse orders that violate the laws of armed conflict should be offered immunity from prosecution. Those who oppose them should also be offered foreign backing, and a meaningful role in the reconstruction of a united Korea.

Fourth, and only after the decay of the security forces reaches a critical stage, the resistance could challenge the state openly through a coordinated, nationwide wave of work stoppages, acts of non-violent sabotage, strikes, and protests. This critical stage would arrive when the resistance coopts enough soldiers and units that, if ordered to carry out a violent crackdown, enough units would disobey or resist to render the order ineffective. Where the orders are carried out, guerrilla journalists must have a sufficient presence to ensure that any violent reaction is filmed, photographed, and reported both at home and abroad, catalyzing more internal resistance and foreign disinvestment and sanctions. In this way, guerrilla journalism could attach a prohibitive diplomatic and financial cost to a violent crackdown. By documenting any crimes against the population, guerrilla organizations could also credibly threaten regime commanders with accountability before local (or eventually, international) courts. Even by demonstrating a broad presence throughout North Korea, guerrilla journalism could help deter and restrain the regime’s excesses.


It is at this point, after the resistance demonstrates its capacity to disrupt the regime’s control, but before a violent reaction, that a diplomatic approach to Beijing may receive a more open-minded reception. Under these circumstances, Pyongyang may see agreement to reforms and disarmament as its best available option. If Pyongyang credibly agrees to halt its suppression of the resistance and implement reforms, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could compel the resistance to temporarily halt its campaign of defiance. Failing this, China may see an agreement to force a transition of power by cutting off support to the regime as a better option than an outbreak of chaos along its northeastern border. In exchange, the allies could offer the eventual removal of U.S. ground forces from the Korean Peninsula, to keep foreign forces south of the 38th Parallel in a reunified Korea, and to recognize the validity of Chinese investment contracts with the former regime. Deprived of external and internal support, the regime would have to choose between accepting reforms and fighting a war it could neither afford nor win.

If Kim Jong Un could not see this for himself, then surely his military commanders would.

With each passing year since 1994, a peaceful transition of North Korea has seemed less likely. None of our highest hopes for the evolution of North Korea into a humane and peaceful society has been plausible for a decade or more. There is a long history of North Koreans resisting the state spontaneously, although all of this resistance has been isolated and easily contained. If collapse does come unexpectedly, the South Korean government could partner with a clandestine political infrastructure to restore order and security, coordinate humanitarian relief, feed the hungry, heal the sick, address questions of transitional justice through the rule of law, and reestablish legitimacy. Today’s purges and indiscipline in the military may mean that North Korea is descending into chaos, and that we’ve run out of time for guerrilla engagement to restrain or mitigate the violence and anarchy it will entail. But it is urgent that the allies begin now, to restrain as much of this violence as we still can.

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Really? Just 15% of S. Koreans support humanitarian aid to N. Korea?

Yonhap reports that, according to a poll commissioned by the Database Center for North Korean Human rights, 73.1% of South Korean adults surveyed support approval of a human rights law. That would be even better news if the respondents actually knew what the law would do; I can’t say I do.

(While you’re at NKDB’s site, be sure to have a look at their Google Earth Visual Atlas.)

It’s also good news that less than 20% opposed “meddling” in the “internal” issue of North Korean human rights. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they were interested in the issue. Asked how to address it, 40% said international pressure, and 32% said dialogue.

The findings fuel my suspicion that nothing has been quite so influential within South Korean society about human rights in the North as peer pressure.

Even assuming that the methodology of this poll is solid, I’m not aware of any base line for those numbers allowing an apples-to-apples comparison showing how the trends have changed. Still, my guess is that these numbers are less sympathetic to Pyongyang than they would have been ten years ago. They also fit with the trends I identified in this post. See also this and this.

By a narrow margin, 50% said that sending propaganda balloons across the DMZ was “not necessary,” while 45.6% said it was. What I wish the respondents had been asked was whether they thought North Korea’s threats of violence were an appropriate reason for the South Korean government to block the launches with the force of law.

The Korea Times, reporting on the very same survey, found that a surprisingly low 15% of South Koreans agree with continuing humanitarian aid to the North, because they don’t believe it’s effective. Can that possibly be right?

Asked whether human rights conditions in the North are getting better or worse, 40% said “worse,” 45% said they’re staying the same, and just 6.5% said they were improving. So much for the Sunshine Policy.

The Korea Times also reports that nearly 40% of South Koreans would like the South Korean government to allow only certain North Koreans to cross the border in the event of regime collapse, and that another 9% would exclude them completely.

The Korea Times spins this as indicative of an unwelcoming attitude by South Koreans toward their brothers in the North, but I might well be among the 9% myself, at least initially. There would be very good reasons to keep North Koreans in place in the event of a collapse. Encouraging hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people to move around an unstable country and across international borders would dramatically complicate the process of providing them with food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. It could spread infectious disease, and would also complicate the reestablishment of security. For more on that topic, read this.

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Kang Chol-Hwan does a Reddit AMA

“One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive,” he said. “But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment.” [The Atlantic]

Kang is a survivor of Camp 15, which some unconfirmed reports say has been dismantled as part of a hoax to fool the United Nations–reports I’ll believe when I see satellite imagery that proves it. You can buy Kang’s memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, here; his AMA is here.

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Park Geun-Hye still pushing for reunification

President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday made another pitch for her signature reunification vision, emphasizing that it’s time to end the pain of a divided Korean Peninsula.

“I think the time has come to fundamentally resolve the pain of a division on the peninsula, as next year marks the 70th anniversary of that,” she said in a video message for the inaugural World Conference on North Korean Studies.

The two-day forum opened at Seoul’s Yonsei University, drawing more than 150 South Korean and foreign scholars. [….]

“The government is continuing support to substantively help North Koreans, endeavoring to expand cooperation and exchange, with the door for dialogue open, while dealing resolutely with North Korea’s provocations,” she said. [Yonhap]

It’s a sad statement that the President of South Korea has to market something that ought to be the fondest wish of the people of any divided nation state, particularly one where each is in such desperate need of the other’s resources. If only Park could articulate a credible path for bringing that about. What she’s saying, unfortunately, sounds like a slightly less permissive version of the same thing that’s been failing for two decades.

I had hoped that this interview with Professor Shinn Chang-Min would help me understand the ideas that Park Geun-Hye herself has articulated so poorly. The interview is interesting, readable, and filled with novel and unconventional ideas, and Shinn is realistic enough about the nature of the regime. At the end, however, it was a bit like listening to the Underpants Gnomes present their business plan—I still didn’t understand Phase 2, how Shinn expects to reunify Korea without removing the principal obstacle to that outcome.

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Sue Terry v. John Delury and Moon Chung-In, on reunification

Although Delury and Moon may not like the idea of North Korea’s collapse, that is a far more likely scenario than their fantasy of “the gradual merging of North and South.” South Korea has tried to make that dream come true before, through the so-called sunshine policy it pursued from 1998 to 2008, and the result was unambiguous failure. During those years, South Korea gave North Korea $8 billion in investment and assistance. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung even handed Kim Jong Il $500 million in cash to stage a summit (an act that earned the former the Nobel Peace Prize). In return, Seoul got, well, nothing. Pyongyang advanced its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, and remained as repressive and dysfunctional as ever. Delury and Moon make no case for why a new sunshine policy would work any better. [Sue Mi Terry, Foreign Affairs]

Granted, arguing with John Delury might sound a bit like Thai boxing Stephen Hawking, but it still shames me a little when a non-native speaker like Terry writes and argues better in her second language than I write in my first. Read the rest on your own. Background here.

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Sue Mi Terry in the New York Times: Let N. Korea Collapse

Writing in The New York Times, Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Senior Analyst and current Columbia University Senior Research Scholar, calls for the five parties to accept and prepare for the collapse of North Korea. In the process, Terry also gives Park Geun-Hye’s “jackpot” concept a coherence that Park herself never quite could.

Considering all these benefits, the United States and its allies must revise their approach to North Korea. Rather than continue to prop up a government they worry might topple over on its own, they should pursue a tougher version of containment, knowing that that may accelerate the collapse of the Kim regime.

This harder policy would entail trying to cut off all the regime’s illicit sources of revenues, including drug smuggling, currency counterfeiting and exports of military equipment, while expanding sanctions to freeze all of Pyongyang’s overseas bank accounts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved legislation along these lines on May 29; that proposal deserves to become law. The United States government should also do more to undermine Pyongyang’s hold on its population by increasing broadcasting by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. [Sue Mi Terry, New York Times]

To clarify, the objective of H.R. 1771 isn’t necessarily to euthanize the Kim regime, but to alter how North Korea behaves, one way or another. It would be lovely if tougher sanctions could give us the leverage our diplomacy has always lacked to be effective, but we’d have little leverage if we didn’t express our preference to see Kim Jong Un face summary justice by his own people than let him continue to starve and murder them, and to nuke up and proliferate his wares to Iran, Syria, and God-knows-who-else.

Once you’ve read Terry’s New York Times op-ed, read her longer article in Foreign Affairs, starting with its excellent title.

If I have any regret about Terry’s piece, it’s the timing of its publication, as it becomes clear that after winning two wars in Iraq — one to dethrone Saddam Hussein, and one to extirpate Al Qaeda from it — our government has managed to lose the peace there. (Thanks in part to Christopher Hill, who must be the greatest human wrecking ball in the history of American diplomacy. If only I’d warned you. Oh, right.) No doubt, the Times editors were making their final edits to Terry’s work just as Al Qaeda was making its final plans to sack Mosul and slaughter its dispirited defenders.

A simplistic reaction to subsequent events is that enough regimes have collapsed for the time being, and we’re tired. The most thoughtful response this reaction deserves is that Korea is not Iraq. I don’t know Terry’s views on a U.S. role in post-collapse North Korea, but I’ve frequently argued that at most, it should be very brief and minimalist — secure the nukes, the borders with China, and the camps; help fill the most imminent humanitarian needs; and get out fast. South Korea, the only occupier that North Koreans would accept as legitimate, needs to prepare for that contingency by raising an effective Army Reserve.

The problems we will face in North Korea will be nothing like those facing Iraq or Syria. Those “nations” are geographic fossils, each a pile of cultural and demographic sweepings that never shared a common sense of nationhood, and which has been at war with itself for a millennium.

Post-collapse Korea will be riven by class and ideology, but one thing you can’t accuse Koreans of is lacking a sense of nationhood, or a capacity for unified action in its service. Not even religious differences have managed to divide Koreans’ powerful sense of national identity. I’m not sanguine about the problems of de-juchification, reunification, and reconstruction, and I’ve discussed them in stark terms more than once. Those are also problems we’re going to have to face eventually, whether we want to or not. They’re problems that good diplomacy, information operations, and contingency planning could do much to mitigate. More specifics here.

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Can Park Geun-Hye prepare Korea, and the world, for reunification?

Yesterday, Yonhap reported that an unusual billboard had appeared in Times Square in New York: “Korean Unification would be an immeasurable BONANZA for any nations with interests in the Korean Peninsula.” To most of the Americans who read it, the billboard will seem odd, but Korea-watchers will recall when Korean-Americans took out similar ads in the United States, about things that matter much less. Beneath the paywall, we learn that “[t]he ad was set up by Han Tae-gyuk, a 66-year-old Korean-American man, at his own expense,” because Han “wants to publicize the importance of Park’s recent message on the future of the two Koreas.”

(Update: Here’s an image of the “billboard.”)

We could speculate as to whether the Korean government prompted or encouraged Mr. Han, and that is also remarkable if you knew the Korea I knew just over a decade ago. Lately, President Park herself has taken to promising Korea’s neighbors (read: China) that they will share in a “jackpot” when the day of reunification comes:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that the Korean unification would be a blessing not only for the Koreas but for neighbors as well, citing investment opportunities in the communist North. Park made the remark during a question and answer session after a keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. She said unification of the two Koreas would be a “jackpot” for all of Northeast Asia.

“I think unification will be a great benefit for neighboring countries,” Park said, adding that unification will touch off massive investments in North Korea, mainly infrastructure projects, and revitalize investments in neighboring China and Russia too.  “As unification can provide the Northeast Asia region with a fresh growth engine, I think unification will be a jackpot not only for South Korea, but also for all neighboring countries in Northeast Asia,” she said. [Yonhap]

In case you think Park is talking about some hippie-drum-circle fantasy that preserves the North Korean political system, read on:

Park also said that unification would also be meaningful in that it will free North Korean people from the starvation and human rights violations they suffer under the communist regime. Park also said the best way to predict the future is to map out your own future. She added that she is trying to make unification happen by creating the right conditions for a peaceful unification, rather than just sitting by and waiting for it.

If you didn’t read that last passage carefully, reread it and measure the immensity of all that it implies. Read it as if you were in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Chongjin.

In a possibly related development, the Unification Ministry has just launched a (Korean-language only) portal ( to “provide comprehensive information on North Korea ranging from politics and the military to economy and social issues,” including “information on more than 290 high-profile North Korean officials, as well as information on geographic features of the isolated country.” Secretary of State John Kerry also says he will raise the topic of reunification during an upcoming visit to China, something he wouldn’t have done unless President Park had asked him to so.

So who is this woman, and what has she done with the consistently cautious, visionless, and pragmatic Park Geun-Hye we all thought we knew, and for whom a narrow majority of South Koreans votedShe sounds like John Bolton … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

~  ~  ~

Officially, Park Geun Hye’s policy toward North Korea had been something called “Trustpolitik.” (Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.) If you read Park’s “Trustpolitik” manifesto closely, however, it’s tougher than its gauzy label suggests. It isn’t Sunshine 2.0, and it isn’t about taking risks to earn North Korea’s trust. Instead, it puts the onus of earning Park’s trust on Kim Jong Un, because it is his government, after all, that has repeatedly broken its commitments. Trustpolitik is about holding North Korea to its commitments and to international norms, and it is about imposing consequences when the North breaks them. It is a sober, grouchy policy that fits South Korea’s mood today. Above all, it is passive. It isn’t about forcing change. It’s about reacting to change it can’t believe in. Cynical, calculating, hard-nosed, and reactionary — that is the Park Geun-Hye I know, but assuredly do not love.

By contrast, Park’s talk of reunification isn’t passive. It might even be revolutionary, and not in the usual trite way you’re used to hearing in car commercials. It’s selling the biggest change in Korea’s political status since 1945. Depending on exactly what Park has in mind, you could call it “bold,” “ambitious,” “historic,” or “grandiose,” or just a lot of talk. I could be reading what I want to see here. Like any good politician — or psychiatrist — President Park shows us an inkblot and lets us see our own fetishes in it. (If you want an especially cynical view, please see Dr. Foster-Carter’s.)

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that reunification of the Koreas would be immensely costly. This wisdom has persisted because (a) it supports the argument that favors a gradual, negotiated reunification, and (b) because it happens to be trueA declining percentage of South Koreans say reunification will benefit their country, and few think its benefits will be worth its costs. The leader of the Democratic Party, which has recently triangulated toward the political center, must think that Park is overreaching, and that his party can gain an advantage on this issue:

He especially expressed reservations about President Park Geun-hye’s analogy of reunification as a “jackpot,” claiming it painted too rosy a picture of reunification and gave the false impression that it could happen anytime. “For reunification, the process is very important,” Kim said in his address to the National Assembly. “Without consistent cooperation for reconciliation and efforts and steps to improve ties, the ‘reunification is a jackpot theory’ can easily be misunderstood as an impending sudden change.” Kim stressed that his party is against reunification by absorption due to the enormous costs and confusion it would bring to society. [Yonhap]

But what that really means is more indefinite preservation of the status quo, at an incalculable cost to North Koreans, and to the security of both South Korea and the world.

There is no question that reunification will be costly and painful in the short term, although the South would be able to impose a degree of gradualism if the Kim Dynasty falls tomorrow by controlling the movements of people, money, goods, and property until the two economies reintegrate.

In the long term, however, Park is right — reunification promises to be an engine of spectacular growth, prosperity, and power for both Koreas. Once the overburden of the North Korea’s dysfunctional political system is stripped away from its natural and human resources, its wealth will be unlocked by the South’s economy, capital, and legal system, and North Koreans will be able to earn a living wage. And also, to live.

How can President Park expect to win votes campaigning for something that scares more South Koreans than it inspires today? She certainly hasn’t communicated any specific plans for achieving “peaceful” reunification or economic integration recently, except as small throwaway ideas. So what is Park thinking with her talk of reunification? Are these her first cautious steps toward beginning a national conversation about reunification, in the hope that she can make South Koreans think differently about it? Is she preparing the diplomatic and political ground for something she believes is inevitable, and that will be revealed to us in due course?

~  ~  ~

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it would be presidential malpractice to fail to prepare for what expert opinion sees as increasingly likely, whether South Koreans are mentally prepared for it or not.

Uncertainty about North Korea’s regime has grown since the downfall of Jang Song-thaek, who was the country’s second most powerful figure, a U.S. congressional think tank said. Jang’s demise in December indicates the “boldness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un, which could lead to more provocative and unpredictable actions in the future, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases,” it said in a recent report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.” The CRS pointed out the sudden purging and execution of Jang, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was unusual because of his elite status and top-ranking posts. It completed “nearly a total sweep of late ruler Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, signaling Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of authority in Pyongyang,” said the CRS. [Yonhap]

The U.S. military says that it is “updating its contingency plans for a possible regime collapse in North Korea,” and ordering “detailed planning” for “a rapidly changing situation that would require stabilization of the peninsula,” but not all of the plans are so passive. Robert Beckhusen points to this fascinating article in “Special Warfare,” a publication of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, about last year’s joint “Balance Knife 13-1” exercise, between U.S. and ROK Special Forces, which tested their readiness to act “if tasked to conduct unconventional warfare in the Korean Theater of Operations.” And by “unconventional warfare,” the Army means “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The exercise included “a reassessment of infiltration methods and the various risks the [Korean Theater of Operations] poses to each,” and examined such practical problems as evacuating wounded, traveling in mountainous terrain, finding food in a starving country, and communicating without a communications infrastructure. It also discussed the tactical and logistical challenges of supporting an insurgency inside North Korea. A small sample:

Many ROKSF soldiers still have family in the north that they may or may not maintain contact with. These divided families provide strong relationships that transcend NK ideology and can serve as a foundation for the development of a loyal resistance organization.

The Balance Knife exercise was held within the context of the big annual exercise called Foal Eagle, which also stressed readiness for “combined unconventional warfare.” The willingness to acknowledge and talk about supporting a (still hypothetical) North Korean resistance is essential to preparing ourselves to support one, should one emerge. (And when one does emerge, it’s almost certain to emerge suddenly.)

All of this planning and training is still in its infancy. It should be viewed as nothing more than prudent contingency planning for events we can’t anticipate. In other words, U.S. and ROK forces are preparing for what we weren’t prepared for when events in Libya and Syria took us by surprise. In both cases, the length of the conflict was inversely proportional to the quality of the outcome. If there is some low-risk alternative that can influence the outcome of a North Korean civil war, we won’t be able to do it if we haven’t planned and trained for it.

For now, of course, there is no North Korean opposition of real significance, so any discussion of whether and how to support one is entirely speculative. But if you still haven’t read Bruce Bennett’s RAND study of the problems we’ll face when the regime collapses, you’ll understand why we can’t afford to ignore the question. Simply put, South Korea doesn’t have enough manpower to reestablish order in the North. (I’ll add that America may well decline — and probably should decline — to contribute that manpower.) Enabling indigenous forces to resist the regime and reestablish order in “liberated zones” could make the difference whether Korea is re-stabilized under a unified government or becomes a source of chaos and great-power conflict. The only plausible way to stabilize North Korea is to enlist the North Koreans themselves. We are far more likely to form those alliances if we being to “engage” the North Korean people, and persuadable demographics within the security forces, now. The decisions North Koreans make within the first 72 hours of a crisis could determine the course of Korea’s history. For example, the emergence of a strong, pro-South Korean opposition in the North would reduce the risk of a Chinese intervention and great-power conflict dramatically. It would also reduce the odds that South Korea asks the U.S. to help occupy the North.

Certainly there is room for argument about how Korea reunifies. That argument may soon begin in earnest. But there is no higher objective for the Korean nation-state than to form one free Korea — reunification under an independent and representative government. For the sake of her nation, I hope President Park will undertake this campaign as carefully and methodically as she undertook her campaign for the presidency. If she manages it, she will easily eclipse her father’s place in history.

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RAND’s study of N. Korea collapse should be required reading at State, USFK

This week, the World Bank recently analyzed a series of governance indicators to conclude that the North Korean regime is stabilizing. Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees. Bruce Bennett of RAND has just published an indispensable, readable, and plausibly terrifying new study of the regime’s stability, and he reaches a very different conclusion. To Bennett, a violent and chaotic collapse looks increasingly likely as North Korea tries to consolidate succession to its third hereditary ruler. (Thanks to a reader for forwarding).

Bennett lays out a series of factors that have accurately predicted the collapse of other totalitarian regimes in third-world ex-colonies. Despite some necessary hedging, a careful read suggests that a violent collapse, humanitarian disaster, and geopolitical anarchy are not a matter of “if” but “when.” Bennett urges the U.S., South Korean, and Chinese governments to discuss–urgently–how to respond to a host of predictable problems to save as many lives possible, to stabilize and reunify Korea as quickly as possible, and to prevent war.

Now, if you’ve read this site for any length of time, you’ve watched my North Korea collapse clock jiggle between 11:52 and 12:03 for nearly a decade. I agree with almost everything Bennett writes. Maybe you don’t, but if you’re interested in North Korea, read his paper. In case you aren’t interested enough to read over 300 pages, however, I’m here to help.

Why Bennett thinks North Korea is collapsing:

Whether you believe that North Korea is stabilizing or increasingly fragile probably depends on what you read and what you believe. Bennett, for example, cites a Joongang Ilbo report of an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un in 2012, and he collects a series of similar reports of aborted mutinies and assassinations, starting on page 45. Even if you discount every one of these reports, there is plenty of evidence that the regime’s ideological control is being eroded by cross-border smuggling of radios, cell phones, and DVDs. Critically, this trend also exists within at least some segments of the North Korean military.

The economic tides are also washing the system’s foundations away. Pyongyang looks richer and a few people are growing very wealthy, but the cost is growing corruption and loss of economic control. (Me: one thing I’ve concluded from the North Korean example and others is that poverty doesn’t cause revolutions; jealousy does. Class envy is far more dangerous to Kim Jong Un than famine was to Kim Jong Il.)

Other threats to stability include a decaying infrastructure, a weak currency, corruption in the security forces, and “anxiety” in some quarters of the security forces due to recent purges (the very things that the World Bank sees as signs of stability). To Bennett, those purges also signal the leadership’s dissatisfaction with much of its power structure. Refugee flows out of North Korea are probably our best indication of broad popular discontent.

Preventing anarchy and humanitarian disaster:

Once the central government begins to collapse, North Korea will be like no anarchy we’ve seen in recent times. Different military units could end up fighting each other, armed bands of criminals, or occupation forces from the U.S., South Korea, or China.

Bennett sees information operations as critical to the restoration of order (this may be the point I agree with most emphatically; for more on this, read chapter 4, starting at page 103). We should be talking to the North Korean people about things like reunification, transitional justice, prosecution of crimes against humanity, and property rights. We should be doing more to counteract the state’s xenophobic indoctrination. We (or rather, the ROKs) should also be reaching out to North Korean corps and division commanders about their critical decisions when things start falling part. Read the Hamhung example on page 192 to see what he means.

He has some other very interesting ideas for using information operations for non-military deterrence, starting at page 133. Just read them on your own; they’re well worth it. I particularly liked how Bennett thinks Lee Myung Bak should have responded to the Yeonpyeong Island shelling, and his suggestions for how South Korean propaganda could influence North Koreans effectively, assuming the South Korean left would ever allow that. What I’d like to know is how this could ever be broadcast into North Korean homes from a strictly technical perspective.

The problem of stabilizing North Korea isn’t just that some North Koreans would resist the collapse of the old regime; the greater problem may be anarchy. The infrastructure and public health are broken. Masses of people will leave their homes, either because of hunger, economic disruption, or to flee conflict. Mass migration creates the potential for famine and epidemics. North Korea will need a massive infusion of humanitarian aid to prevent this, and information operations will be key to persuading people to stay in their homes, farm their land, and wait for humanitarian aid to arrive (again, information operations will be essential). Bennett has a lot of very worthwhile thoughts on restoring social stability, starting on page 121.

The best news is that there will be plenty of work for lawyers in post-apocalyptic North Korea. They’ll have to sort out complex questions about post-unification property rights, the detention of North Korea military personnel, what categories of criminals should be prosecuted or amnestied, and the logistical and evidentiary burdens of detaining and trying criminals fairly.

Lest that lighten your mood too much, Bennett devotes several pages to the problems of seizing North Korea’s prison camps to prevent a massacre of potential witnesses:

It will take some time (perhaps at least weeks) for sufficient ROK and U.S. forces to reach as far north as the major political prisons, although the smaller prisons might be handled by air assault, if sufficient helicopters could be committed and the air defense environment mitigated. Specific ROK and U.S. forces should be allocated to each prison and a plan established to deliver them to the prisons as rapidly as possible.

This potential for delay in reaching the political prisons raises questions about alternative approaches. For example, the prisoners significantly outnumber the guards but yet generally do not act against the guards because of the known consequences. To give the prisoners a chance to survive, should ROK and U.S. airpower be used to attack guard weapon facilities, guard towers, and other places guards use in controlling the prisoners? Should airpower be used to open holes in the security fences keeping prisoners in the facilities and to kill the power at camps to disable electrical fences and lights used at night for monitoring the prisoners? Should ROK and U.S. special forces be sent to the camps either to assist the prisoners in escaping or to assist the prisoners in seizing control from the guards? Under such circumstances, are the prisoners more likely to survive by rebelling against the guards? Or will such a rebellion just give the guards the excuse they want to exterminate many of the prisoners? All these actions carry considerable risk but potentially no more so than waiting for weeks before dealing with each camp, thereby allowing the camp officials time to exterminate many prisoners. Should the camps be closely monitored and these interventions begun only when extermination efforts start? Or would delaying that long give the guards too much of an advantage in killing the prisoners? All these factors need to be considered and trade-offs analyzed to determine preferred courses of action. [pp. 237-38]

Either that, or we can just let the Chinese go in, bulldoze all the evidence, and put the guards in charge of a factory where child prisoners work in small unventilated rooms full of toxic fumes 18 hours a day, making Elmo plush dolls. I’ll let you read the rest on your own. He even flatters this humble blog with a footnote cite. There’s another long passage about dealing with North Korea’s human rights disasters, starting on page 223.

Risks of Chinese intervention and conflict

Bennett worries, with good reason, that ROK, U.S., and Chinese forces will end up streaming into North Korea from opposite directions, and that the result will be either a re-division of Korea or war. The Chinese refuse to talk to us about post-collapse planning, which feeds distrust on both sides and amplifies that risk. In a fast-moving situation, the North Korean bitter-enders you think you’re shooting at might just turn out to be ChiCom special forces.

Refugee flows into China could also cause Chinese forces to enter North Korea to establish a “buffer zone,” and this could evolve into a permanent division and a long-term source of conflict. There are other motives, too:

China might also be interested in reaching [WMD] facilities because evidence of Chinese assistance to the North Korean WMD program might be found there, evidence that could taint China’s global image.

China might decide to go further and race the ROK and the United States to Pyongyang. Control of Pyongyang would give China a strong bargaining position for postcollapse negotiations, should it decide to leave North Korea. Alternatively, if China decides to sustain a North Korean government and abort Korean unification, control of Pyongyang would give it a means of legitimizing the North Korean puppet government it could decide to install. Chinese control of North Korean territory north of Pyongyang would give it free access to ports on the East Sea/Sea of Japan and the ability to exploit most of the North Korean mineral resources, resources that are now expected to be substantial. According to one observer, “unencumbered Chinese access to North Korea’s minerals, labor and ports would fuel China’s ever-growing economy. Through the calculated distortion of history, China is therefore being proactive against scenarios on the Korean peninsula it dislikes.”

Most of the North Korean military faces south along the DMZ, not north along the Yalu. Little would stand in the way of the Chinese as they raced south. In the event of such a race, China would end up occupying most of North Korea’s territory and population, which would cause an outbreak of nationalist rage in South Korea, and more potential for conflict.

Another risk Bennett cites is that North Korea would start a “diversionary” war with South Korea to distract discontented factions from fighting the system, possibly using sleeper agents carrying out terrorist attacks in South Korea or Japan.

In other words, a North Korean collapse presents a significant risk of a long, dreary counterinsurgency, a war with China, or both, but good planning, diplomacy, and information operations could do much to mitigate those risks.

The ROK Army can’t stabilize North Korea alone

Bennett doesn’t believe the South Koreans have nearly a large enough army to restore order in North Korea, in part because they continue to reduce its size by reducing the term of conscription. Bennett sees the answer as improving the size and quality of the ROKA reserves.

(Me: another part is building a professional ROK Army. Unlike Bennett, I’m dead-set against more than a very brief and limited U.S. role in restabilizing North Korea. Yes, go in with generators, tents, blankets, and medical clinics. Grab the WMD before anyone call sell them off. Liberate the camps before the prisoners are killed off. Then get out. Obviously, without the hundreds of thousands of Americans the ROKs are planning on having by their side, the manpower problem is a lot bigger.)

Bennett doesn’t see how anyone can re-stabilize North Korea without the help of whatever North Korean military and police units remain intact. That brings us back to the importance of information operations.

Some recommendations:

– “To deal with China’s concerns, the ROK could explain to China its plans for unification, and the United States could commit to China that U.S. forces would not be based on North Korean territory after unification. The ROK and the United States could use an information operations campaign to communicate this information to China. But note that such an information operations campaign needs to begin now, well before a government collapse, and then be adjusted as circumstances develop.”

– “Currently, there is also no bilateral, interagency organization to prepare and implement a strategy to address these challenges.” (Me: Logically, that organization should be USAID.)

– “Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicated that he would send primarily air and naval forces to handle Korean contingencies, instead of the U.S. ground forces that would normally be involved in handling a collapse.”  (Me: I wish Gates was still SecDef, for a lot of reasons. The answer to any personnel shortfalls, as the author indicates, is improving the ROK reserve forces, coopting intact portions of regime security forces, and doing info ops to prepare the NK population to support the reestablishment of order.)

My thoughts:

Bennett’s analysis makes a lot of sense to me. It’s exactly the kind of thing that people in Washington read, agree with, fail to do anything about, and wish they’d taken more seriously years later, after it’s too late. It would be easier to identify the few things Bennett says that I don’t agree with and work from there.

Unlike Bennett, I’m not sure a civil war in North Korea would be worse than the status quo. Reform is a dead dream, and a bloodless coup is unlikely. A split in the security forces, followed by a civil war leading to regime collapse, is probably North Korea’s only way out of a tragic situation that has probably killed millions of people. How bloody that war is could depend on whether U.S. and South Korean governments give early and strong support to an opposition that’s willing to replace the current system with something more to our liking. This administration got that mostly right in Libya, but completely blew it in Iran and Syria, which means that both situations are now much worse than they had to be.

I don’t concede that a Chinese entry into North Korea can ever be a good thing, under any circumstances. Sure, it would be awfully swell if Xi Jinping agreed to occupy, stabilize, and rebuild half of the world’s most broken country free of charge, and then leave as soon as he’s asked politely, but it isn’t very likely.

I agree that existing ROK forces may be insufficient to stabilize North Korea, but I don’t follow that to agreement that U.S. forces should occupy the North. The national mood in the United States wouldn’t support it, and putting foreign troops on North Korean soil would greatly amplify popular opposition to the new regime, which would require even more troops. South Korea’s population is twice that of the North. The ROK Army had better get ready to draft enough South Koreans to do the job. The good news is that at this point, a lot of North Korean soldiers and police would probably work for anyone who gave them decent and steady pay.

The cost estimates of occupying the North run into the trillions of dollars. For comparison’s sake, the annual budget of the South Korean government is $250 billion. (Me: Yes, it’s probably worth some expenditure by U.S. taxpayers to help a successful reintegration of North Korea, but other nations with interests will have to help, too. Time to work on mending fences with Japan.)

Although it’s certainly possible that “North Korea’s WMD capabilities make WMD proliferation to a terrorist group a potential consequence that could lead to another potential consequence, terrorists using WMD against the United States,” to me, that consequence is more likely with the regime and its increasingly reckless proliferation networks intact.

One other point of emphatic agreement relates to the importance of diplomacy with China. With China, however, you need to bring both positive and not-so-positive incentives to the conversation. We have plenty of leverage, if we decide to use it, including recognition or non-recognition of Chinese investments and debt holdings, a commitment to contain refugee flows inside North Korea, access to North Korean ports and railways in Hamgyeong Buk-do, a commitment to keep U.S. forces and bases out of North Korea, or a commitment to the eventual removal of U.S. ground forces from South Korea. (The United States should not support Chinese demands that Korea be neutral or non-nuclear. Those issues should be left up to Koreans to decide.) And of course, if China just decided to occupy and digest part of North Korea anyway, South Koreans would probably be mad enough to support some fairly inflammatory anti-Chinese information operations, or even to provide material support for North Korean resistance to a Chinese occupation.

Since the famine years, North Korea has been a system on the defensive, glued together by a combination of fear, awe, pride, habit, and exhaustion. Fear probably still holds for the most part, but fear is a fragile bond and, without the reenforcing fibers of awe and pride, it would likely shatter in the event of a war, mutiny, or popular uprising. Koreans on both sides of the DMZ are nationalistic and proud of their nation and culture, but one would think that this pride is transferrable to whichever Korea government and society that holds the greatest military, economic, and cultural power.

The awe is probably about spent. Many North Koreans still hold a residual faith in Kim Il Sung, the old guerrilla who built a nation that once had (thanks to generous Soviet subsidies) a decent standard of living. I can’t imagine that his morbidly obese twenty-something grandson evokes a similar reaction with his inspection visits to water parks and ski resorts, or with his public friendship with a towering foreign laughingstock like Dennis Rodman. There can’t be much awe under a system where corruption is as rife as it is now. North Koreans will hold Kim Jong Un in contempt if they see him as having abandoned his grandfather’s aura of dignity, national superiority, and rigid principle. If the leaders aren’t faithful to the core principles, why should anyone else respect the system?

Eventually, the stopped clocks of most Korea watchers will be right. The fear will shatter, and that will be the beginning of the very painful death of North Korea.

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Lee Myung Bak, History, and Korea’s National Conversation

Nearly five years ago, before Lee Myung Bak was even a candidate for his country’s presidency, I expressed my reservations about his pushy style of governance and his history of gaffes. I do not share his love of grandiose and costly projects of questionable merit (something about water seems to unhinge him). But Lee has performed admirably at governing a nation that often seems ungovernable, and during some very difficult times. Competently.

Lee’s first real test stuck shortly after his inauguration — a mass protest movement founded on urban legends, and spread by state-owned broadcasters who were willing to lie for sensational appeal. Lee survived this. Later, he steered South Korea relatively unscathed through an international economic crisis that ought to have hurt a country with such inflated real estate values far worse than it did.

Lee has also stood firm in the face of plenty of extortion from North Korea. Breaking from the course of his predecessors, Lee refused to go on expanding — and even curtailed — South Korean subsidies to a regime that nonetheless felt entitled to murder, kidnap, and detain South Korean citizens, and which refused to take seriously its commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs. When North Korea responded with the most brazen act of war since its attempted hit on Park Chung-Hee in 1968, Lee might have caved (as Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung assuredly would have) or let himself be provoked into a military conflict. He did neither. Instead, knowing the exceptionally gullible brand of “skepticism” that prevails within South Korea’s political left, Lee skillfully borrowed global legitimacy by convening an international board of experts to investigate the sinking of the Cheonan, exhausted his options in the U.N., and used the incident to repair his damaged alliance with a liberal American president whom many initially expected would be an uneasy ally. Lee hasn’t always responded as I’d have responded, but Lee has shown a canny sense of just how far his voters will let him go, and that’s certainly a sense I admit to lacking. I seldom claim the ability to make sense of how South Koreans will react to anything.

I approve, mostly, of the way Lee has handled North Korea, but I am of two minds about his success at influencing President Obama. The extent of Seoul’s influence in Washington dismays me, because I perceive such an excess of “clientitis” in our government. Why else do liberal South Korean presidents get the policies they want from conservative American presidents, and conservative South Korean presidents get the policies they want from liberal American presidents? I admit that this bothered me more when I didn’t like the way the influence moved us. I believe it pushed us to act against America’s own interests when Roh Moo Hyun was president. That caused me to weigh the other side of the ledger of risks and rewards, and question the value of the alliance as a means of securing America’s interests in the region. I still question it today, but now, I wish Lee well and want our government to find other, less risky ways of supporting his security objectives. And what better way to end our military presence in South Korea than to extinguish the very need for it?

That’s why I welcome Lee Myung Bak’s most grandiose and expensive undertaking yet:

President Lee Myung-bak’s proposal that South Koreans consider a unification tax aims to start what officials say is an overdue national conversation about the country’s future relationship with North Korea, the minister responsible for dealing with the North said.

“The government wants to make unification a public issue, make people have discussions over it and build consensus around it,” Hyun In-taek, minister of unification, said in an interview Thursday. [Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad]

Predictably, the idea of imposing a new tax caused some discomfort among conservatives, too, and Lee had to explain that there are no immediate plans for a specific tax — yet — only an acknowledgment that reunification is likely to be sudden and costly, and that the money to pay for it will have to come from somewhere.

Below the subscriber wall, Ramstad also notes so far, what Lee has done to begin this national conversation consists of launching some “surveys, workshops, and media events” among opinion-makers and intellectuals in government, academia, and business. One particular focus is on determining just what reunification is likely to cost, which is a calculation that must take place in a factual vacuum.

Naturally, this debate has horrified anyone who knows that there are probably gold stars on his dossier somewhere in the archives of the Reconnaissance Bureau in Pyongyang. Just as naturally, Lee’s people insist that they aren’t trying to encourage regime collapse (Who, us? Perish the thought!). At the same time, they say that the want the kind of unification that includes “denuclearization,” “economic cooperation, and most impossibly, as long as the Kim Dynasty holds power, “a political community where the freedom and dignity of Korean people are upheld.” Who could possibly disagree with these perfectly commendable objectives? Or so you might ask if you don’t follow Korean politics.

Whatever you believe Lee’s true intentions to be, and whatever you may think about the merits of those intentions, South Korea needs to have this conversation now. I’ll add that defectors from North Korea need to have a prominent role in it. Recent events have discredited the idea of gradual unification, and not because of anything that Lee could have done differently. The last thing North Korea wants now is an opening of its society — and least of all, unification — under any terms. The North must know that it is no longer capable of absorbing the South’s population, industry, prosperity, ideas, or its belief in gods not sanctioned by the state. Its ideal outcome for South Korea now is to finlandize it and extort regime-sustaining cash from it, just like it did throughout the decade before Lee came to power.

The North Korean system must change, yet it seems determined not to. Will the death of Kim Jong Il be the catalyst for North Korea perestroika? Perhaps at the margins, but North Korea will still be in the hands of people who know that isolation and repression are all that stand between them and the fate of the Ceaucescus. As they see it, perestroika exactly didn’t lead to an optimal outcome. And now that I think about it, Gorbachev and even Putin probably feel the same way.

For all of the hopeless idealism of his (non-)reunification policy, Kim Dae Jung was right about one thing. The Koreas can’t reunify overnight. The absorption must be gradual to give a provisional government time to bring North Korea’s public health crisis under control, repair its infrastructure, reorganize the security services, restore order, secure its WMD facilities, and ameliorate its most immediate environmental catastrophes. It will have to relax migration controls across the DMZ, and even within North Korea, gradually. And all of this must happen without inviting Chinese intervention, which could re-draw the DMZ and ignite a larger regional war (which is why I would offer a withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from all of Korea and no U.S. forces north of the DMZ after reunification — period — in exchange for a Chinese commitment of non-intervention). As you’ve probably inferred by now, what I’m speaking of here is a controlled and phased reunification under a provisional government under South Korean direction, and after a dramatic event in North Korea, such as a coup. What, you thought Jang Song-Thaek was just going to agree to this? Of course you didn’t.

Even so, it is right for us to remain open to unmistakable signs of genuine reform in the North under future leaders, no matter how doubtful it may be that anyone who holds national influence within the current system will allow the system to change faster than the movement of history will eventually demand. When those demands come due, South Korea must be ready — financially, politically, diplomatically, and psychologically. And if Lee accomplishes what he is setting out to do, he will deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest men in his nation’s history, a liberator and a unifier.

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President Lee Drags South Korea Toward Its Destiny (Updated)

If there is such a thing as cautious enthusiasm — particularly for something that’s implausible on its face — that describes my reaction to President Lee’s proposal for phased unification with North Korea:

Lee’s plan, similar to proposals from previous South Korean leaders, calls for North Korea’s denuclearization. If North Korea meets that demand — and years of international persuasion have not succeeded — Lee’s plan calls for a “peace community,” improved economic cooperation and then the establishment of a “national community.”

“Inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm,” Lee said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. “It is imperative that the two sides choose co-existence instead of confrontation, progress instead of stagnation. The two of us need to overcome the current state of division and proceed with the goal of peaceful reunification.” [WaPo]

Perhaps it’s not completely implausible. Lee must know that the demise of Kim Jong Il is going to destabilize the North Korean leadership, and that if relatively open and moderate thinkers are lying latent in Pyongyang, a proposal like this one could have some appeal for them. There is some chance that this could come to pass if there’s a coup or some other kind of dramatic shift in control, but not without one.

It seems to me that Lee’s proposal does three things he badly needed to do. First, he steals “unification” from the lexicon of those for whom it really means sustaining North Korea (and hence, the division of Korea). I mean, the last thing the average unnamed Hankyoreh “analyst” or Democratic Party assemblyman wants is for the archives of the Peoples’ Reconnaissance Bureau to fall suddenly into the hands of the Chosun Ilbo. But don’t take my word for it:

“Overall, I see a major contradiction in his proposal, proposing a unification tax while having burnt all the bridges with North Korea,” said Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

Personally, I think “torpedoed” would have been the perfect metaphor.

Second, he offers a financial and security incentive for the emergence of legitimate North Korean moderates, as opposed to those who inhabit Selig Harrison’s fantasyland. Third, by levying new taxes to pay for it, he makes a difficult and necessary decision to begin offsetting the cost of reconstruction (and this is also reason for American taxpayers to celebrate). Being a low tax / small government sort myself, I ordinarily recoil at big, expensive projects, but who can really call this discretionary spending? It seems to me that if big changes are inevitable for North Korea, the South is probably money ahead by getting serious about planning for it and having the equipment and logistical machinery in place now. And to the extent there are fiscal objections to this, I’m willing to entertain those from anyone except the same crowd that dumped billions of Sunshine dollars into Mount Paektu and haven’t a thing to show for it.

Fourth, it certainly beats another water project.


In the Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad has some more good quotes from Lee:

“Reunification will happen,” Mr. Lee said. “It is therefore our duty to start thinking about real and substantive ways to prepare for reunification, such as the adoption of a unification tax. I ask that these and other issues related to this be discussed widely and thoroughly by all the members of our society.”

North Korea’s state media carried no immediate reaction to Mr. Lee’s speech. [….]

Mr. Lee’s idea rests on the premise that North Korea’s authoritarian regime will either collapse or be pressured into reaching out for help, and that the more prosperous South will take the lead in picking up the pieces. [….]

Mr. Lee began [his speech] by including “our brethren in the North” in the list of people he was addressing. He opened the section on North Korea by saying “My 70 million compatriots,” a reference to the combined population of the two Koreas.

Powerfully provocative words that I hope many North Koreans will hear. Ramstad compares Lee’s concept to Germany’s the “unification” or “solidarity” tax.

Yonhap notes the absence of detail in Lee’s proposal, suggesting that the tax might be levied in the form of a VAT, a bond issue, or even lottery tickets. This made me snicker …

“President Lee doesn’t call for the immediate imposition of a unification tax. Such a tax, if imposed, will be visible only in the next administration,” Rep. Na Seong-lin of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) said in a radio interview.

What we have here is a bold vision without any specific plans, at least not that Lee’s people are willing to talk about yet:

“Amid speculation about Kim Jong-il’s health problems and the North’s worsening economic crisis, the need for us to raise unification expenses has grown bigger and bigger. We should assume greater responsibility for North Korea if we don’t want to lose it to China in the aftermath of its possible collapse.”

Related Cabinet ministries declined to speculate on how preparations for unification will be funded. An official at the unification ministry said discussions for Lee’s idea of unification tax “will only now enter the early stage of planning” adding, “There could be different ways to secure finances, but it’s something that requires national consensus.”

The big losers here? Kim Jong Il, for one. With this speech, Lee effectively began to write his obituary. Another must be Han Song Ryol, whose cross-DMZ media spectacle was more or less forgotten amid the debate Lee has provoked about better ideas. That debate shows us again that the last thing South Korea’s left really wants is unification:

The main opposition Democratic Party countered that Lee’s words could actually lead North Korea to believe Seoul is trying to “absorb” Pyongyang and that the government would do well to first consider how to first improve inter-Korean ties.

They’ve delayed the inevitable, but in the end, they can’t prevent it — by which I mean the reading of the Reconnaissance Bureau’s archives.

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If there was ever any cognizable justice in holding Gomes in a prison cell for peacefully presenting a petition to North Korean border guards, it ended months ago.

North Korea says an American man being held for illegally crossing its border has tried to kill himself. A statement issued by the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency says Aijalon Mahli Gomes’ suicide attempt was “driven by his strong guilty conscience,” plus disappointment and despair that the U.S. government “has not taken any measure for his freedom.”

This is a transparent demand for ransom, and our government has legal tools for responding to terrorist tactics like this (sadly, it lacks the spine and the sac to use them). Gomes hasn’t been allowed to speak to his mom since April. And while I won’t criticize Robert Park for his still-unretracted confession until I’ve done a little time in a North Korean prison, I’ve noticed that Gomes hasn’t given his captors any such thing.


Speaking of hostages, the Daily NK reports that more than ten North Korean refugees have been living in the Japanese Embassy in Beijing for the last two years, held hostage to Chinese demands that Japan could not legally accede to without violating the same Refugee Convention that China itself flagrantly violates:

Several North Korean defectors who are under the protection of Japanese consular offices in China have not been able to leave China. The Chinese government has been asking Japan to sign an agreement to no longer accept North Korean defectors in exchange for letting them leave the country. [Wall Street Journal, via the Asahi Shimbun]


In most countries, the civil service is known for its generous health benefits for family members. That may be true in North Korea, too, but benefits like that must surely be outweighed by risks like these:

North Korea’s Ministry of State Security last month sent 34 relatives of former economic official Pak Nam Gi and others to a prison camp on the outskirts of the northern city of Hoeryong, Seoul-based Good Friends said on its website. [….]

On June 14, the relatives of Pak and other officials were collected and forcibly loaded into a wagon before being sent to the prison camp, the organization reported, citing an unidentified official at the North’s security ministry. The authorities transported the relatives in the middle of night in part to keep it a secret from the rest of the world to avoid international criticism, the official was quoted as saying.


Grimly, Kang Chol Hwan looks forward to a less horrible future for Korea.

Kang Cheol-Hwan, North Korean defector and activist, thinks Kim Jong Il’s brutal North Korean regime will collapse within three years, five years at the most. But the prospect doesn’t make him giddy. On the contrary, the imminent fall of the one of the world’s most repressive states just means more work. However much he wants North and South Korea to be reunified, he knows that how it happens is as important as reunification itself.

“If it’s done wrong, it will fail,” Kang told me last week when he was in town to attend a conference on the fate of the North Korean regime. As founding director of the North Korea Strategy Center, a nonprofit in Seoul, Kang works to prepare North Korean defectors for leadership roles after reunification. But in many ways, he works just as hard to prepare South Koreans — and even Korean Americans — for the inevitability of a unified Korea. And its discontents.


The Chosun Ilbo wonders if Kim Jong Il’s stroke has had more of an effect than some of us had thought:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has ordered the demolition and rebuilding of a theater that was in perfect condition, adding to suspicions that his judgment is becoming severely impaired as a result of a stroke in 2008. Citing North Korean sources, Radio Free Asia reported on Monday that a national theater in Pyongyang was demolished in May and is being reconstructed. People there “seem to wonder why a building that was just renovated in 2003 is being rebuilt.”

The theater was torn down on May 9 just after Kim watched a play there, making his first public appearance since his visit to China early that month. Kim had apparently watched another performance of the same play there on April 27 and after his second visit had enough and ordered it rebuilt.

“It’s strange enough to watch the same play twice in less than two weeks, but it’s even more absurd to order the reconstruction of a building that was renovated just seven years ago,” said a South Korean intelligence official. “It appears that the aftereffects of Kim Jong-il’s stroke are more serious than we thought.”

It just pains me to think of all the yachts, centrifuges, Mayback sedans, and razor wire the children of North Korea have been denied because of the wasteful spending of its politicians on make-work patronage projects.


Open News talks about the impact of foreign broadcasting on North Korean soldiers.

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Lankov on the New North Korean Elite, Part 2

Alternative elite members who can apply the knowledge they learned in South Korea well in the North Korean reality could be doctors, technicians, CEOs and scholars of a post-Kim age. Re-education could cultivate specialists in the new North Korea. Despite the very low economic level, North Korea provides a fairly good basic education. Therefore, when carrying out the rehabilitation of North Korea, re-education based on the knowledge they already have is more reasonable than educating North Korean specialists such as technicians and doctors all over again from the start. An alternative elite which received a university education in South Korea and has experience of working in a modern environment with modern technologies is one which can accomplish the most in re-education.

Read the rest here.

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Rumor: U.S., China Planning for “Upheaval” in N. Korea

The United States Thursday denied reports that it will soon have closed-door discussions with South Korea and China on plans for upheaval in North Korea.

“I have not been told we are going to have this type of meeting at this particular point,” a senior State Department official said, asking not to be named. “If we are working on that in sort of an early stage, that could be possible.” [Yonhap]

Normally, I’d be tempted to believe this because they denied it, but in this case, I’m tempted to believe it because they really didn’t deny it.

Reports said that representatives of the U.S. Pacific Command and state-run defense think tanks of South Korea and China will get together in Beijing next month to discuss control of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction and refugees in case of a coup or the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

This is one area where diplomacy with China is urgent, necessary, and maybe even promising. It’s in our interests to help Koreans realize their dream of living in one country and learning to hate each other as only neighbors and relatives can.

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