An expert's point of view on a current event.

How to Free North Korea

The time to topple the criminal government in Pyongyang is now. Here's how to do it.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Yuri Irsenovich Kim, known to most as Kim Jong Il, died on Saturday, reportedly of a heart attack, ending a 15-year reign over the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Yuri Irsenovich Kim, known to most as Kim Jong Il, died on Saturday, reportedly of a heart attack, ending a 15-year reign over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim’s 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, was declared the "great successor" by state media, in a choreographed and rehearsed move three years in the making, since the elder Kim’s 2008 stroke first raised the need for a proper succession plan.

With the elder Kim’s death, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea enters a critical phase, with a unique, once-in-a-generation vulnerability. With a formidable state apparatus, North Korea has watched the revolutions of the past few decades closely, each time learning from the weaknesses of other dictatorships and avoiding their mistakes. Corrupt leaders like Nicolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and others rose and fell while the Kim dynasty seemed to only grow stronger. North Korea would not have announced the death of Kim Jong Il publicly had they not been supremely self-confident that they were prepared for any resulting instability. Amidst the spread of the Arab Spring, North Korea reportedly moved tanks, barricades, and military units to pre-positioned locations in Pyongyang, just in case.

Veteran North Korea watchers have resigned themselves to the cyclical, predictable nature of North Korea’s allegedly unpredictable behavior. Here’s what will likely happen: The regime will launch an aggressive provocation of some sort, calling attention to itself. Then it will express a willingness to engage, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, in exchange for sweeteners, usually in the form of released sanctions, humanitarian aid, fuel, or other resources. The regime will negotiate dismantling or removal of whatever the key problem was — missiles, nuclear facilities, etc — and claim to have done so, before revealing months later yet another provocation. It goes on and on. The short-range missiles test on the morning North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong-Il fit this pattern well.

But there is a critical opportunity here. In recent years, cracks have begun to show in North Korea’s previously flawless presentation. A famine in the mid-1990s took the lives of over one million North Koreans, while economists proved the nation had enough food and resources to provide for its own people. Botched currency reform efforts and poor harvests coupled with international aid shortages led to increasing dissatisfaction among the masses. As South Korea’s government switched parties to a less appeasement-minded President Lee Myung Bak, North Korea launched a missile test (April 2009), an underground nuclear test (May 2009), sunk a South Korean warship (March 2010), and shelled a South Korean island and debuted a secret, previously unknown uranium enrichment facility (Nov. 2010). The resulting slew of sanctions and international pressure raised a level of unprecedented pressure on the regime, including aggressive American, European, and U.N. sanctions on key figures and off-shore accounts.

But most of this key progress has been abandoned as the world’s attention focused on the U.S. recession, the Euro debt crisis, and the Arab Awakening.

For the past few years, North Korea has been making big plans for 2012. The regime claims that the suffering and hardship of the North Korean people will be rewarded with a "year of prosperity" in 2012 — the 100th anniversary of birthday of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung (Jong Un’s grandfather). Accordingly, North Korea began hoarding food and resources, and asking close allies, namely China, to help provide significant aid and assistance for the occasion.

It is thus likely that Jong Un will consolidate power and begin gifting these resources to the people, claiming that his leadership brought newfound prosperity. North Korea will not likely launch international provocations in the next critical phase — Jong Un knows very well that South Korea is not likely to take a third provocation in just over a year sitting down, particularly with Lee in office. Pyongyang thus will embark on false attempts at engagement and dialogue, while taking bought time to consolidate Jong Un’s rule, before entering again in North Korea’s tried-and-true cycle of provocation, conciliation, and provocation again.

But this is not merely some geopolitical game; North Korea is more than a nuisance in international policy. It is home to some of the most widespread human rights violations in the world today. Nearly every freedom enshrined in the free world — speech, religion, assembly, movement, dissent, and more — does not exist north of the 38th parallel. Those perceived as disloyal are sent to a network of concentration camps claiming more than a quarter million prisoners. Public executions serve as a chilling effect for dissent and misbehavior, and tens of thousands of North Koreans fleeing to China and Russia face torture if captured and repatriated.

Simply put, North Korea represents the very worst of humanity — a nation ruled with impunity, where several thousand key leaders live at the great expense of 24 million or so others. It represents atrocities and human suffering on a staggering scale.

The international community is thus presented with a rare opportunity. The next year, beginning now, is likely to bring a carefully coordinated show — a show of paternal generosity and domestic strength, while Kim Jong Un showers his people with gifts and begins to consolidate more completely his authority — and perhaps a show of friendliness and hints at reform internationally, à la Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.

The international community cannot be fooled again. Before Jong Un is able to solidify his rule; before the people of North Korea lose the glimmer of hope sparked by rumors of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria; before they resign themselves to another generation of yet another Kim enslaving them; the world must act quickly, deliberately, together.

A coordinated effort can open North Korea, weaken the regime, and lead it to a soft landing that benefits all of its regional neighbors, while helping the North Korean people to rise up and take ownership of their nation.

If Qaddafi’s assault on Benghazi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attack on his own people precipitated international sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and condemnation, why should North Korea not receive the same or more many times over? A collaborative slate of full sanctions, particularly targeting luxury goods, technology, weapons proliferation, offshore bank accounts, and key regime figureheads would cause critical damage to North Korea at the precise moment when it most needs financial stability. Key to this effort are two pieces: first, finding and freezing the labyrinthine network of offshore bank accounts the regime has developed throughout decades (at least $4 billion dollars are reportedly in Luxembourg alone). Second, full compliance and sanctions by China and Russia are necessary to ensure North Korea does not have a backdoor undermining the rest of the world’s efforts.

The United States, European Union, South Korea, and Japan should lead a diplomatic offensive seeking global isolation of Pyongyang — beginning with breaking bilateral ties across the board for those that have them. The United States should stop pursuing a reboot of the repeatedly failed Six Party Talks — a useless effort of talk for only the appearance of progress. It’s clear that North Korea will never, ever give up its nuclear capacity — its leaders have seen what happened to Hussein and Qaddafi and will not make the same mistake.

That said, pressure is still the key. Western nations, in conjunction with China and Russia, should overtly offer senior DPRK leadership asylum in exchange for defection, while pursuing action at the International Criminal Court against senior leadership implicated in crimes against humanity. Although distasteful, efforts should be made to pledge immunity from prosecution for key leaders in exchange for going into exile.

Parallel to this effort is shining a light on the country’s heinous record. Governments should release better-than-commercial grade satellite imagery of North Korea’s vast network of death camps, and support efforts to obtain footage of the same. Such potent evidence will go a long way towards helping public sentiment understand the gravity of what is happening in North Korea, and help strengthen thousands of eyewitness and personal testimonies by defectors, including former prison guards.

A central piece to the puzzle, and to any future destiny of North Korea, is China, its patron state and lone, true ally. China is not married to North Korea’s leadership or political system. It is simply looking out for its own interest and leveraging North Korea’s misbehavior for increased political capital. The solution here is straightforward: cut a deal with China. Beijing is hedging, in characteristic fashion, much like the Imperial court did centuries before. Whenever China’s dynasties invaded a neighboring kingdom, they would simply extract fealty and annual tribute, and largely leave the neighbor alone to its own affairs — with the collateral of bringing heirs to the throne back to China to intermarry and remain under Chinese protection or control.

China today has adopted the same approach with Tibet and North Korea — kidnapping the Panchen Lama and sheltering Kim Jong Nam, oldest son of Jong Il, in Macau. Such behavior is an implicit threat — misbehave too much, and we will install our own puppet king.

Yet China can be reasoned with. With the right inputs, a North Korea free of the Kim regime would bring about increased stability in the region and opportunities for economic development, investment, and trade. United Nations Development Program studies have for years noted the economic benefits that developed North Korean ports, pipelines, and rail could have on the entire region. Guaranteeing that Chinese investments and real estate contracts made there would be honored is critical.

In addition, a pledge by the United States to either leave the Korean peninsula entirely — or to keep U.S. soldiers no higher than the 38th parallel — would help. Leaked U.S. government cables confirmed suspicions that China would accept a reunified Korea under Seoul’s governance, so long as it was not hostile to Beijing or Chinese interests, even in a "benign alliance" with the United States. 

Mass defections are always a precursor to revolution and regime collapse. To help promote change within the country and refugee outflows, funding for radio broadcasts and other communications into North Korea must be improved from the current tragic lows. Beefing up efforts to support external communication to, from, and among the North Koreans would be a critical blow to Pyongyang’s control, enabling citizens to organize amongst themselves.

Moreover, there are tens of thousands of North Koreans living in exile, many of whom now have advanced degrees and skills that can translate into leadership abilities. Many of them are already engaged in dissident activity within North Korea, including efforts to smuggle in radios and printed material with outside news, or smuggle out refugees and key defectors. Still others have been able to bring out surreptitiously obtained footage from within, or even bribe guards at concentration camps to win release of family members.

Neighboring nations can be induced to offer safe haven to North Korean refugees and pledge not to repatriate — Mongolia, for example, years ago entertained the idea of a semi-permanent refugee station for North Korean refugees. In exile, the North Koreans can begin to organize properly, build democratic institutions, and support internal efforts by dissidents to change the system. They will need training, shelter, and protection.

Thankfully, just south of the Demilitarized Zone lies the world’s 10th largest economy and a highly developed, fully functioning democracy. South Korea happens to have one of the largest standing armies in the world (useful for stabilizing North Korea post-Kim), and also happens to be currently debating collection of a "reunification tax" to help underwrite expenses involved in absorbing a free North Korea into a Unified Korea. The importance of this good southern twin cannot be overstated — South Korea’s economy is an order of magnitude larger than that of the North, with double the population. It can handle, with international support, the absorption of North Korea, and provide reassurances to China and Russia that instability will not prove to be a problem. The concern with refugee outflows can also be mitigated with immediate and adequate deliveries of food, safety, and medical care into the country. There’s no doubt that this will be difficult, but it would be nearly impossible without South Korean leadership.

But what of the most important question: Is revolution from within possible? Absolutely. Despite a lack of civil society organizations, North Korea’s history is dotted with uprisings, including large armed clashes in the 1980s in Chongjin, Hamhung, Musan, and Sinuiju. In 1987, North Korea’s Concentration Camp Number 12 in Onson reportedly saw a mass prisoner uprising — with 5,000 inmates slaughtered by a military battalion in response. Since then, Pyongyang has witnessed uprisings and coup attempts almost every other year, to varying degrees. In 2005, during a World Cup qualifying match in Pyongyang between North Korea and Iran, a crowd of 50,000 began to riot, throwing bottles, chairs, and punches at police and soldiers. Displeased with their team’s loss, the North Korean fans continued facing off with authorities for over two hours, resulting in stunning, inconceivable photos captured by international media there to cover the sporting event.

More recently, a disastrous currency reform effort in Dec. 2009 resulted in destruction of the personal savings of thousands of North Koreans, sparking widespread riots — an act of open defiance that is perhaps, increasingly thinkable in the Hermit Kingdom. Stunningly, government backed off and made concessions, and even executed the official who had conceived of (or been blamed for) the idea.

* * *

This much is clear: North Korea will fall. It is simply a question of when and how. But it is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one’s choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment. And a reunified, free Korea can be a powerful force for good in the world, and a potent economic engine.

But missing this opportunity to bring Pyongyang into the international community would be a grievous error. North Korea’s crimes do not end at its own borders. Beyond state-sponsored acts of terror, kidnappings, and assassination attempts of foreign government officials, human rights activists, and defectors, it has also sold weapons, missiles, technology, and nuclear materials to a who’s who of unfriendly countries, including Egypt, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It has engaged in the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, mass government-sanctioned insurance fraud, and the exportation of North Korean slaves all over the world.

North Korea is not a modern nation-state. It does not exist for the welfare of its populace, nor to safeguard the rights of it’s citizens. It exists for the sole benefit of the king and his barons — a ridiculously-scaled Mafia criminal state — and must be treated as such.

The very progress of our global civilization is for naught if we continue to let the very idea of North Korea exist. North Korea is not a failed state, with warlords fighting for land and treasure. Its atrocities do not stem from factional fighting, crimes of passion, or mob violence. It is on another level entirely — a staggering system entirely built and mastered for the express purpose of propagating human suffering and ensuring the continued exploitation of the people so that the very few can benefit.

It is a moral obligation of the highest order that the international community intervene. What can be done, we must do — and now is the time.

Adrian Hong is managing director of Pegasus Strategies, a strategic advisory firm, and a TED senior fellow. He previously was jailed in China in 2006 for helping North Korean refugees, and founded and led the organization Liberty in North Korea from 2004 to 2008. He visited North Korea in 2008.

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