Foreign Policy Memo

Urgent: How to Topple Kim Jong Il
Foreign Policy Magazine
March/April 2007, P.70-74
Andrei Lankov

From: Andrei Lankov
To: Condoleezza Rice
RE: Bringing Freedom to North Korea

When North Korea tested a nuclear weapon late last year, one thing became clear: The United States’ strategy for dealing with North Korea is failing. Your current policy is based on the assumption that pressuring the small and isolated state will force itto change course. That has not happened—and perhaps never will.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and his senior leaders understand that political or economic reforms will probably lead to the collapse of their regime. They face a challenge that their peers in China and Vietnam never did—a prosperous and free “other half” of the same nation. North Korea’s rulers believe that if they introduce reforms, their people will do what the East Germans did more than 15 years ago. So, from the perspective of North Korea’s elite, there are compelling reasons to resist all outside pressure. if anything, foreign pressure (particularly from Americans) fits very well into what Pyongyang wants to propagate— the image of a brave nation standing up to a hostile world dominated by the United States.

Yet, sadly, the burden of encouraging change in North Korea remains the United States’ alone. China and Russia, though not happy about a nuclear North Korea, are primarily concerned with reducing U.S. influence in East Asia. China is sending considerable aid to Pyongyang. You already know that South Korea, supposedly a U.S. ally, is even less willing to join your efforts. Seoul’s major worry is not a North Korean nuclear arsenal but the possibility of sudden regime collapse. A democratic revolution in the North, followed by a German-style unification, would deal a heavy blow to the South Korean economy. That’s why Seoul works to ensure that the regime in Pyongyang remains stable, while it enjoys newfound affluence and North Koreans quietly suffer.

Do not allow this status quo to persist. Lead the fight for change in North Korea. Here are some ideas to make it happen:

Realize a Quiet Revolution Is Already Under Way: For decades, the Hermit Kingdom was as close to an Orwellian nightmare as the world has ever come. But that’s simply not the case anymore. A dramatic transformation has taken place in North Korea in recent years that is chronically underestimated, particularly in Washington. This transformation has made Kim Jong Ii increasingly vulnerable to internal pressures. Yes, North Korea is still a brutal dictatorship. But compared to the 1970s or 1980s, its government has far less control over the daily lives of its people.

With the state-run economy in shambles, the government no longer has the resources to reward “correct” behavior or pay the hordes of lackeys who enforce the will of the Stalinist regime. Corruption runs rampant, and officials are always on the lookout for a bribe. Old regulations still remain on the books, but they are seldom enforced. North Koreans nowadays can travel outside their county of residence without getting permission from the authorities. Private markets, once prohibited, are flourishing. People can easily skip an indoctrination session or two, and minor ideological deviations often go unpunished. It’s a far cry from a free society, but these changes do constitute a considerable relaxation from the old days.

Deliver Information Inside: North Korea has maintained a self-imposed information blockade that is without parallel. Owning radios with free tuning is still technically illegal— a prohibition without precedent anywhere. This news blackout is supposed to keep North Koreans believing that their country is an earthly paradise. But, today, it is crumbling.

North Korea’s 880-mile border with China is notoriously porous. Smuggling and human trafficking across this remote landscape is rampant. Today, 50,000 to 100,000 North Koreans reside illegally inside China, working for a couple of dollars a day (a fortune, by North Korean standards). In the past 10 years, the number of North Koreans who have been to China and then returned home may be as large as 500,000. These people bring with them news about the outside world. They also bring back short-wave radios, which, though illegal, are easy to conceal. It is also becoming common to modify state-produced radios that have fixed tuning to the state’s propaganda channels. With a little rejiggering, North Koreans can listen to foreign news broadcasts.

But there are few broadcasts that North Koreans can hope to intercept. It was once assumed that South Korea would do the best job broadcasting news to its northern neighbor. And that was true until the late 1990s, when, as part of its “sunshine policy,” South Korea deliberately made these broadcasts “non-provocative.” There are only three other stations that target North Korea. But their airtime is short, largely due to a shortage of funds. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America each broadcast for roughly four hours per day, and Free North Korea (FNK), a small, South Korea-based station staffed by North Korean defectors, broadcasts for just one hour per day.

Being a former Soviet citizen, I know that shortwave radios could be the most important tool for loosening Pyongyang’s grip. That was the case in the Soviet Union. In the mid-1980s, some 25 percent of Russia’s adult population listened to foreign radio broadcasts at least once a week because they were one of the only reliable sources of news about the world and, more importantly, our own society A dramatic increase in funding for broadcasts by Voice Of America is necessary.  It is also important to support the defectors’ groups that do similar broadcasting themselves. These groups are regularly silenced by South Korean authorities, and they have to do everything on a shoestring. A journalist at the FNK gets paid the equivalent of a janitor’s salary in Seoul.  Even a small amount of money- less than U.S. military forces in Seoul spend on coffee-could expand their airtime greatly. With an annual budget of just $1 million, a refugee-staffed station could be on air for four hours a day, 365 days a year.

Leverage the Refugee Community in the South: There are some 10,000 North Korean defectors living in the South, and their numbers are growing fast. Unlike in earlier times, these defectors stay in touch with their families back home using smugglers’ networks and mobile phones. However, the defectors are not a prominent lobby in South Korea. In communist-dominated Eastern Europe, large and vibrant exile communities played a major role in promoting changes back home and, after the collapse of communism, helped ensure the transformation to democracy and a market economy. That is why the United States must help increase the influence of this community by making sure that a cadre of educated and gifted defectors emerges from their ranks.

Today, younger North Korean defectors are being admitted to South Korean colleges through simplified examinations (they have no chance of passing the standard tests), but a bachelor’s degree means little in modern South Korea. Defectors cannot afford the tuition for a postgraduate degree, which is the only path to a professional career. Thus, postgraduate scholarships and internship programs will be critical to their success. Without outside help, it is unlikely that a vocal and influential group of defectors will emerge. Seoul won’t fund these programs, so it will be up to foreign governments and non-governmental organizations to do so. Fortunately, these kinds of initiatives are cheap, easy to enact, and perfectly compatible with the views of almost every U.S. politician, from right to left.

Fund, Plan, and Carry out Cultural Exchanges: The Cold War was won not by mindless pressure alone, but by a combination of pressure and engagement. The same will be true with North Korea The United States must support, both officially and unofficially, all policies that promote North Korea’s Contacts with the outside world. These policies are likely to be relatively expensive, compared to the measures above, but cheap in comparison to a military showdown with a nuclear power.

It makes sense for the U.S. government to bring North Korean students to study overseas (paid for with U.S. tax dollars), to bring their dancers or singers to perform in the West, and to invite their officials to take “study tours.” Without question, North Korean officials are wary of these kinds of exchanges with the United States. However, they will be less unwilling to allow exchanges with countries seen as neutral, such as Australia and New Zealand. In the past, Pyongyang would never have allowed such exchanges to happen. But nowadays, because most of these programs will benefit elite, well- connected North Korean families, the temptation will be too great to resist. in-other words, a official in Pyongyang might understand perfectly well that sending his son to study market economics at the Australian National University is bad for the communist system, but as long as his son will benefit, he will probably support the project.

Convince Fellow Republicans That Subtle Measures Can Work: Some Republicans, particularly in the U.S. Congress, might object to any cultural exchanges that will benefit already-privileged North Koreans. And, for many, funding Voice of America isn’t as attractive as pounding a fist in Kim’s face. But these criticisms are probably shortsighted. As a student of Soviet history, you know that mild exposure to the world outside the Soviet Union had a great impact on many Soviet party officials. And information almost always filters downstream. A similar effect can be expected in North Korea. During the Cold War, official exchange programs nurtured three trends that eventually brought down the Soviet system: disappointment among the masses, discontent among the intellectuals, and a longing for reforms among bureaucrats. Money invested in subtle measures is not another way to feed the North Korean elite indirectly; it is an investment in the gradual disintegration of a dangerous and brutal regime.

North Korea has changed, and its changes should be boldly exploited. The communist countries of the 20th century were not conquered. Their collapse came from within, as their citizens finally realized the failures of the system that had been foisted on them. The simple steps outlined here will help many North Koreans arrive at the same conclusion. It may be the only realistic way to solve the North Korean problem, while also paving the way for the eventual transformation of the country into a free society. This fight will take time, but there is no reason to wait any longer.


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