Every time North Korea pops into the headlines, whether for testing nukes, starving its people, or killing South Korean sailors, the media is filled with articles demanding something be done, this time … and then, further along in the story, lamenting the lack of decent policy options. After dismissing the old standbys  – diplomatic remonstrations, tighter economic sanctions, and, for those trying to be particularly tough (while hiding safely inside a beltway think tank), military strikes, most articles settle for the now common refrain, If only China would

If only China would what? Step up and handle a problem South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have been complaining about for decades? People have been expounding that nonsense since the Clinton administration. How’s it worked so far? Still holding your breath, thinking this time it’s going to be different?

No, instead of begging China for help, it’s time for some fresh ideas. Having written a fair amount on the North, here are my two cents.

First, the holy trinity as it relates to conventional wisdom on North Korea:

  1. The North is an intelligence/information black hole, with limited collection opportunities inside the country.
  2. North Korea refuses to uphold international agreements.
  3. Without Chinese help, the U.S. and South Korea have only limited policy options for influencing the North: little trade is left to sanction, diplomatic protestations are ignored, and military strikes, short of outright invasion, are ineffectual.
All three represent decades-old conventional wisdom, just as all three are wrong, wrong, and wrong. It’s time to blow up conventional wisdom on North Korea, and we can do it with something you probably have in your pocket right now: a cell phone. 1. Since last year, human intelligence has been gushing out of the North. Defector organizations in South Korea, chief among them Good Friends Korea, Daily NK and Free North Korea Radio, have put cell phones into the hands of compatriots still living inside the North, especially along the border with China. Through regular calls using cell towers along the Chinese border, these organizations have established collection networks inside the North, and done it on a shoestring budget. Doubt their value? Last December they forced the North to admit the existence of swine flu to the World Health Organization light years faster than the North has admitted previous disease outbreaks, or food shortages. Over the winter, they kept the outside world apprised of North Korea’s currency reforms and their eventual collapse. While most outsiders may not, the North understands the importance and danger of these organizations – over the spring it announced an enhanced campaign to find and punish those caught cooperating with the defector organizations. 2. North Korea has proven it will keep an agreement, even in the face of repeated violations by the other party, if the agreement remains in the best interests of the North. What is that agreement? In 2004, the North and South signed an agreement ending decades of propaganda campaigns. Since then, both defector and Christian groups in the South, citing free speech rights, have regularly used balloons to send thousands of leaflets, and the occasional CD, into the North. While the North regularly complains about these activities, rightly calling them a violation of the agreement, it has not broken the agreement itself. Now, with South Korea vowing to restart propaganda broadcasts into the North in response to the sinking of the Cheonan, we can get an even clearer picture. The North, rather than starting its own propaganda campaign, has instead vowed to attack the South’s loudspeakers [also here]. Why? Though the North is experienced in, and understands, fighting wars of economic, diplomatic, and military attrition, it knows an information war is a lost cause. Any increased flow of North Korean media into the South, or the U.S., would have a negligible effect, despite the opinions of the South’s old guard. The same cannot be said about increased flows of outside information into the North. It would be a disaster for the North’s rulers, and one they understand they are ill-equipped to handle – hence sticking to the agreement even in the face of repeated and increasing Southern violations. 3. North Korea has sent numerous signals, inadvertent and otherwise, that the U.S. and South have a tool at their disposal it truly fears. There’s a reason TVs and radios have switches, rather than tuners, and the Internet and most cell phones are banned outright, in North Korea. One of the foundations on which the North Korean regime is built is information control – what gets out, what gets in, and who is allowed to talk to whom. Flood the country with cell phones, put up terrestrial cell towers capable of covering Pyongyang along the South’s side of the DMZ, and this foundation cracks. More important than finally having collectors inside the North, even more important than finally having direct access to the North Korean populace, is giving the North Korean people the ability to communicate with one-another secretly and effectively. If the U.S. or South Korea break that information wall, or even threaten to break it, then the North’s leaders start having the same sleepless nights as the parents of the Cheonan sailors. New technologies and methods, as pioneered by those who know the North best, the defector organizations, offer hope for the design of policies and tools that the U.S. and South Korea can use to break the North’s stranglehold on information – weakening the regime far more than sanctions, diplomatic babble, or a military strike. These new tools are non-lethal, already shown to be effective, and capable of calibration in response to Northern actions – precisely the kind of tools currently lacking. Instead of complaining about a lack of policy alternatives in dealing with North Korean provocations, it’s time the South and U.S. got creative, recognized their strengths, and started exploiting North Korea’s weaknesses. Bombs, sanctions, and diplomacy all require international agreement, strictures and delay. Cell phones, as the defectors have shown, can be sent tomorrow. Why the delay?
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