Shadow Government

A few options on North Korea

Further to Will Tobey's excellent post below, the last thing that the Obama administration wanted to deal with during Thanksgiving week is another crisis with North Korea. The administration's policy thus far of "strategic patience" has rightly avoided the past traps of rewarding the DPRK's bad behavior and broken agreements with further concessions. But the Kim regime's latest round of belligerence -- including artillery attacks on civilian populations in South Korea and ominous advances in its uranium enrichment program -- show the limits of strategic patience alone in the face of an adversary willing to escalate its provocations to dangerous levels that cannot be ignored.

In the short term there are no good options on the table, only a difficult set of choices as the White House seeks to avert war on the Korean peninsula while dissuading the DPRK from further aggression and reassuring U.S. allies in the region, especially South Korea and Japan. The announcement of joint military exercises with the South Koreans is a good start, but more will need to be done. Just what that "more" entails is the hard part. As my former NSC colleague and Korea expert Victor Cha said in the Washington Post yesterday, "in many ways this is our worst nightmare… the administration has really got its work cut out for it."

Will Tobey is correct that beyond the tactical challenges of this current flare-up, the administration should develop a long-term North Korea strategy that includes seeking the end of the Kim dynasty dictatorship. Such a strategy will entail many components. One pillar it needs to include, especially for a peaceful change in North Korea, is human rights promotion. In the midst of the current policy stalemate, a pivot by the U.S. towards a renewed focus on the plight of the North Korean people and the illegitimacy of the Kim regime could provide a strategic game-changer.

The regime's greatest vulnerability is its appalling barbarity and decades-long torment of its own citizens. It also represents an area of potentially overwhelming international consensus. With the unfortunate exception of the cynical Chinese government, virtually no global power supports North Korea's mistreatment of its people.

What might be done? There are many possible steps; here are just a few:

  • Escalate the "reputational sanctions" targeting the regime's illicit activities, such as international financial institutions that hold the ill-gotten gains of the regime's henchmen, including the Kim family. And follow through vigorously on implementation and enforcement. Few things got Kim Jong Il's attention like $25 million of his personal fortune being frozen in Banco Delta Asia's accounts in 2005. Condition the lifting of the sanctions on a dramatic improvement in human rights, such as the closure of the regime's prison camps and release of all prisoners of conscience.
  • President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other senior U.S. officials should hold visible meetings with North Korean defectors, dissidents, and survivors of its prison camps. And encourage other world leaders to do the same.
  • Substantially increase financial support for independent broadcasting into North Korea (via radio, TV, and Internet), step up countermeasures to override the regime's jamming, and even explore ways to get uncensored radios and televisions into the hands of more North Korean people.
  • Press for a U.N. Security Council debate on applying the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine to North Korea for "crimes against humanity," and the application of Principle Three on intervention by the international community. With the possibility of further famines caused by state malevolence, on top of the regime's ongoing depredations, such a debate would at a minimum draw global attention to conditions in North Korea, and might even lead to multilateral action.
  • Include Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Bob King at the table in any possible future resumption of negotiations involving North Korea (whether six-party talks or bilateral). This will make clear that America's priority concerns are not just the DPRK's nuclear weapons but also its treatment of its people.
  • Direct the intelligence community to increase its collection efforts on human rights conditions within North Korea. Most of what the U.S. government knows in this area comes from the intrepid work of human rights NGOs and defectors. Much more could be learned if the intelligence community devoted resources to mapping the locations and activity patterns of prison camps, monitoring the DPRK's internal repression system, and identifying possible dissident activity.

Finally, don't expect help from China. Beijing ostensibly shares an interest with the U.S. in curtailing the nuclear adventurism of its most problematic client state, and has on occasion (though not consistently) been helpful in restraining Pyongyang. But when it comes to the regime itself, China's interests diverge from the United States', at least insofar as Beijing has made the short-sighted calculation to keep propping up the Kim dynasty as a buffer state on its border. The United States should leave the short-sightedness to the Chinese. A more visionary long-term strategy for the United States should include concrete steps to support the North Korean people in ending the tyranny that afflicts them.

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Shadow Government

Eventually the Kim dynasty must end

North Korea's revelations of a long-suspected illicit uranium enrichment program, construction of a new, larger nuclear reactor, and its unprovoked artillery attack on South Korean territory raise the stakes in an already dangerous situation. It is time to think strategically, not tactically, and for resolve, not appeasement.

North Korea's benighted regime is corrupt, brutal, incompetent, and violently aggressive. The scale of its crimes against the Korean people is evident even from outer space at night as a black armband of poverty across the Peninsula, surrounded by the bright lights of prosperity burning from China and South Korea. Very likely over a million people in the North starved to death during the 1990s due to Pyongyang's twin policies of juche (self-reliance), and meeting military needs first. Political prisoners are held in camps scattered throughout the North, but in a very real sense, nearly all of its citizens are prisoners of the state.

The North Korean regime could not exist without support from China. Beijing provides trade, aid, and political sustenance sufficient to keep the failed state from complete collapse. It does so to avoid a flood of refugees or political instability which might spread to China. Moreover, this tragic situation is made dangerous by North Korea's behavior overseas.

In the 1980s, North Korean agents committed acts of terrorism, including bombing an airliner and attempting to assassinate the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma.  North Korea kidnapped dozens of Japanese and South Korean citizens to exploit them for intelligence purposes. Pyongyang is the leading exporter of ballistic missiles to dangerous regimes, most likely was the source of some of the material shipped to Libya's nuclear program, and helped Syria to build a covert plutonium production reactor, which could have been used to produce nuclear weapons, had it not been destroyed by Israeli jets in September 2007. Twice recently, North Korea has attacked the South with military force.  These actions are inconsistent with international peace and security.

The newly unveiled uranium enrichment program is a particularly dangerous development. It gives the North another path to make fissile material for nuclear weapons-and might provide a further revenue source from illicit sales. It is very unlikely that this program grew to its present size-reportedly 2,000 centrifuges in a "stunning" modern facility-in the months between the departure of U.S. and international inspectors in the spring of 2009 and now. A more plausible explanation is that the newly-revealed facility is the fruit of a long-suspected program, undertaken in violation of numerous international agreements.

An early temptation will be to view the situation tactically-to ask what can be done to calm the crisis? This is a sensible impulse; preventing war is a worthy goal. Strategic considerations, however, are also important. Consistent with its paramount interests in avoiding political instability and refugee flows, China will be eager to calm the situation. The United States and its allies must take the case to Beijing that long term stability on the Peninsula can only be guaranteed by truly ending the Korean War. Eventually -- like all dynasties -- Kim's will end. The choice for Beijing is thus whether it will continue heroic measures to maintain a terminal patient, thereby extending the North Korean people's misery and threats to international security, or alternatively plan for and work toward a peaceful, stable, democratic, and reunited Korean Peninsula. Beijing's apparent acquiescence to dynastic succession in North Korea was a mistake. In light of recent developments, China has the opportunity to correct that mistake, and Washington has stronger arguments to persuade Beijing to do so.