Time for Fresh Approaches to North Korea

A familiar op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post by Victor Cha (Asian Studies professor at Georgetown, director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, and deputy head of the U.S. delegation at the six-party talks) outlined how the U.S. should “disarm” North Korea. Put simply, the U.S. should get China and Russia to help, beef up financial sanctions, and strengthen the American alliance with South Korea … common proposals united by decades of ineffectiveness.

Instead, it is long past time for new ideas to reinvigorate U.S. relations with North Korea. I offer two examples here, one harnessing cellphones and the latest transmission technologies, the second going back to the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War in 1953.

North Korean refugee groups headquartered in Seoul and operating along the China-Korea border are already using the most promising idea – infiltrating cellphones into the North to break the Kim government’s 60-year lock on information flowing into, out of, and around the country. The outmanned refugees’ haphazard, dangerous, and underfunded method has already succeeded in increased information flow out of the country, including the first reports of both the North’s disastrous currency reform and the entry of the worldwide 2009 influenza epidemic into the North.

The system works by having a refugee in the South, or China, use a smuggler (often a Chinese national of Korean ancestry) to contact friends and family still living in the North. The smuggler passes along a cellphone capable of connecting to the Chinese network across the border. ‘Illegal’ calls are then made between the refugee and those remaining behind in the North, near the border with China, using the Chinese cellular network. Refugees, activists, and journalists in the South make calls for everything from timely family updates to gathering previously unobtainable intelligence.

By following the lead of the refugee groups, the U.S. (with or without the cooperation of the South, Japan, China, and Russia) could threaten to undermine the Kim family’s grip on the country by vastly increasing both the number and connection capabilities of outside cellphones smuggled into the North. Based on the vitriolic response of the North to the limited capabilities of the refugee groups, a U.S. threat to harness this new method would gain the attention of the North in a way unmatched by the tired old threats of increased sanctions, enhanced military cooperation with the South, and vain hopes of additional Chinese cooperation.

Second, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) was established in 1953 by the signatories of the Korean War armistice – essentially China, North Korea, and the U.S. but, notably, not the South (Rhee Syngman, the South’s leader at the time, refused to sign, preferring to continue the war until the country was unified). One of the stipulated tasks of the NNSC is to inspect and investigate military developments on both sides of the peninsula – Korea’s original inspection regime.

The Swiss and Swedes continue to staff their missions to the NNSC (and, as a sideline, stock one of the best mess halls on the peninsula), offering the opportunity to reinvigorate a previously agreed upon inspection system capable of monitoring nuclear and other developments on the peninsula. Proposing a rejuvenated NNSC offers two key benefits. It sidesteps monitoring by the politically and diplomatically unpopular IAEA, while offering powerful, peninsula-wide inspection capabilities already agreed to by China and North Korea.

Existing policies designed to prevent or eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons development have demonstrably failed. Instead, it is time to refresh the process with new ideas and novel approaches. The two methods outlined here highlight policies that alter the North’s threat calculus, provide a new tool for compelling Northern compliance, and offer a face-saving way to promptly resume inspections and monitoring of nuclear and other facilities in the North.

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