This morning’s panel, “What can be done about North Korea?” contained much of the familiar definitions and explanations of the North Korea problem, and many of the well-worn regrets of North Korean intransigence. The list of North Korean transgressions include the continuation of its nuclear program, its clear intent to solidify its status as a nuclear state, weapons trafficking by North Korea to terror organizations in the Middle East and the threat that the Kim Jong-Il regime represents to the region.

Discussion about what can be done with North Korea centered around the familiar cycle of incentive and sanctions, offers of economic and humanitarian aid, continuation of the Six-Party Talks, enforcement of UNSC Resolutions (1718 and 1874, respectively), and the desire to partner with China to resolve the problems presented by a rogue North Korean regime. While thoughtfully expressed, the majority of the panel discussion was not new.

What was new, at least to the ears of the panel attendees, was the perspective of Dr. Katy Oh, a long-time policy advisor on the North Korea problem. Dr. Oh’s assertions were refreshing to hear and drove to the heart of the failure of US policy toward North Korea over the last fifteen years and three administrations.

Dr. Oh laid out some unpopular but largely inescapable conclusions regarding the North Korean regime. North Korea will never give up its nuclear capability. It will use that capability to execute what is described as “coercive diplomacy” against its neighbors (Japan and South Korea) in the region. The “change in behavior” sought by US policy toward North Korea is highly unlikely given the nature of an insular and repressive dictatorship. The Six-Party Talks have little real value, and are being incorporated into the North Korean paradigm of “negotiate, prevaricate, escalate, then re-negotiate”.

China’s role and motivations towards North Korea, she believes, are misunderstood by the United States. A territorial hegemon who recognizes the United States as an economic rival and potential military adversary, China does not align her long term interests in the region with the United States, even if she has some common goals (nuclear disarmament) regarding North Korea. China is looking to reduce or replace US influence in the region, and is willing to use North Korea, within limits, as a foil to US interests and those of her allies. China remains, to a certain extent, North Korea’s benefactor and protector, especially when doing so frustrates US plans for regional influence.

Also, the pervasive belief that North Korea is susceptible to internal collapse does not reflect the reality of the skill and determination of the regime to survive. Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, says Dr. Oh, will not easily go away.

The approach offered by Dr. Oh to break the impasse regarding North Korea was a novel and interesting one. Rather than more high-level government-to-government effort that has limited chance of success, her assertion is that the effort needs to be a direct reaching out to the people of North Korea. She has written extensively about the state of “the forgotten people” of that grim land. Dr. Oh has noted the subtle but definite introduction of information technologies that have the potential to bring to the isolated and suppressed people of North Korea the ideas and information that drives the societal change that topples oppressive regimes.

Dr. Oh calls this outcome “constructive destruction”. She points out that US options regarding North Korea are very limited, and thus far North Korea’s strategy for survival has been far more effective than the last decade and a half of US policy to disarm the North. Now, however, she sees the opportunity for exploiting the “double life” led by a small but significant number of North Korean citizens who are “socialist by day, and capitalist by night” as they begin to comprehend the advantages of the officially demonized South Korean and American (and ironically, Chinese) free-market economies.

Dr. Oh’s proposition of direct engagement of the North Korean people does indeed have precedent. Our efforts at the height of the Cold War, with Radio Free Europe, to directly engage the Eastern European peoples subjugated by the Soviet yoke, yielded results that manifested themselves as soon as the prospect of freedom from Communist dictatorship became a realistic possibility. Similar effects may be possible behind one of the last vestiges of the Iron Curtain, on the peninsula of Korea.

Dr. Oh’s ideas are worth a serious look. Current policy, and that of the past administrations, has been nearly entirely ineffective and are likely to remain so. North Korea is a dangerous enemy, a regional threat, and potentially a global one (with proliferation of fissile materials). The government will not yield. But the people, when they are exposed to life outside the borders of their depressed and repressive country, may force their hand.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Foreign Policy, Homeland Security

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  • claudio

    Katy has a very unique perspective on Korea, due to her studies and also to her very very extensive contacts in North and South Korea. Definitely prudent to pay attention when she talks about North Korea.

    Information is extremely important when trying to influence another country, specifically the population. We have witnessed the positive effects of information, knowledge of the world (outside of the borders) and the power it has in Eastern Europe in the 80s, Iran and in China more recently. As information becomes available, the thirst for more becomes insatiable. This is significant in DPRK since the only kind of information available is propaganda.

    I experienced this phenomenon while growing up as a kid in Romania. Had the Securitate come into our house anytime day or night, turning on my Grandpa’s shortwave would instantly bring on Voice of America. It was our own version of fireside chats, and brought a whole new world to a 10 year old kid. Thats when I first learned of Reagan, Washington, New York, the Iran hostage crisis. Also learned that Americans are not criminals, the workers are not always on strike or unemployed, or necessarly evil, rather Ceausescu and his regime was.

    Information is POWER, in the right hands. The North Korean people should have more.

    BTW, Katy has just published a new book. Highly recommended as an addition to everyones reading list.

    “The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom”, Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh (Katy)

  • One thing that can be tried for a change is actively pushing the North Korean Government towards collapse.

    The Government is holding it’s population hostage. Our goal should be to free them.

    Alternatively, NGOs should target corporations that do business with the regime.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I believe that is precisely Dr. Oh’s point. The push can come from within, nurtured by US and ROK interests providing the impetus through information strictly forbidden by the regime.


    I am always reminded of Aesop’s fable of the Cat and the Bell when reading about ideas of how to influence North Korea. Hanging a bell around the cat’s neck can certainly make him less terrorizing, but how do you do it?

    Let’s look at the challenges of an information campaign. North Korea is the only country I am aware of that has cable radio so the normal citizens can only listen to state run radio. So you can throw out the idea of radios. All others are strictly controlled. No internet for the people either (let alone power for the majority). The ones who do have internet already know it sucks in North Korea but they are the ones with their boots on the neck of the others. TV? Films? Fliers? Sorry, aint happening either. If 2 million people starving to death didn’t push the people to revolt, not sure what you can do in the short run that will.
    Certainly we should try everything possible on the information front, but we might want to try ignoring them diplomatically. They continually rattle the sabre because it works. We need to recognize that sometimes not reaching an agreement is OK. They shoot missiles, we ignore them and stick to our aims. People are starving, we ignore them and stick to our aims. They threaten to attack Seoul, we ignore them and stick to our aims. Be ready to wipe them from the face of the earth, and let them know in no uncertain terms that that is what you will do if they do anything, but ignore them. Walk out of meetings when they make grandiose statements. We have been rewarding the North Korean for years for being bad, maybe we should start rewarding them for being good instead.

    Everyone saw how well the Sunshine policy works, lets try a darkness policy for the Hermit Kingdom. Do everything possible to cut them off from the rest of the world. Push the people who support the regime, who live the duel life, to understand that they have a losing hand in the long run.

    I don’t hold out much hope, but it will work at least as well as the Sunshine Policy.

    Oh, and demand the return of the Peublo and when they decline, send a B-2 over to drop a few dozen bombs and sink it. That would probably get the point across.

  • While we are at it, kick out diplomatic missions that they have scattered around the world. All they use them for is smuggling and other criminal activities.

    The North Koreans are also letting foreign companies register ships under their flag. The ships and owning companies should be shunned.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Dr. Oh’s point is that information and economic activity in all forms are subject to tight and careful controls by the regime as a means of maintaining authority. But, movement back and forth over the China border has brought nascent trade in the form of de facto smuggling of electronics such as cell phones into nK. A very small but important number of people have seen the outside, and have a means of gathering information that is no longer under direct control of the regime. It is this situation that presents the opportunity that Dr. Oh advocates leveraging.

  • Yes, good to grow something from within, but at the same time we should be pushing the Government off the edge of a cliff. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, someone has always come to save NK from collapse including the US.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    It is true that the US has assisted nK when perhaps in retrospect we shouldn’t.

    As far as pushing goes, we might not find that as easy as we would wish. I think it is likely that we will find someone strongly pushing back, in the form of People’s Republic of China.