Fred LaSor: There are other options for North Korea
September 21, 2017
The North Korea column two weeks ago by my friend Guy Farmer was educational, prompting me to look further at the issue. Guy is right diplomacy needs to be our first weapon against Kim Jong Un, but people are still calling for force to decapitate Kim's regime. Here are additional options Guy didn't have space for:
North Korea's neighbors — South Korea and China — would be flooded by refugees if his government was overthrown. Kim is politically shaky, and if the army were to go rogue, large numbers of North Koreans would flee, overwhelming the resources of the neighboring countries.
So neither Seoul nor Beijing wants to see Kim Jong Un deposed. This should reassure him as he understands the Chinese and South Koreans won't attack. That reassurance leaves him free to become a nuclear power, to develop an arsenal of missiles, and to create alliances with rogue states like Iran. But it should also cause him to recognize nuclear threats aren't his only course of action. Our job is to make him consider alternatives.
Next, we need to understand North Korea has been ruled since the Japanese were expelled in 1945 by the Kim dynasty — grandfather, father and son — who are largely considered gods by their countrymen. This was perhaps understandable for the grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who was a guerilla leader against Japanese colonialism and an early organizer for the Communist party.
It's less understandable for the following two generations, particularly current Chairman Kim Jong Un, who's said by intelligence sources to have alienated many in the party with brutal treatment of senior officials. He showed no reluctance to have his uncle and brother killed when he suspected they threatened his rule, and has executed some perceived enemies with singular brutality — dogs tore one of the condemned to pieces. While that created fear for some, it has stimulated internal dissent, a slow evolution for officials who would never have considered opposing his grandfather's rule. We should be encouraging that evolution, looking for ways to let Kim's opponents know we won't oppose efforts to overthrow him. This largely involves covert operations, but propaganda also plays a role here, including radio broadcasts and public statements. These are probably already being undertaken — my thought would be "step it up."
Third, we need to break down North Korea's isolation. Contact with the outside world has been systematically blocked since Kim Il Sung came to power in 1948. Only recently have recorded TV programs been smuggled in from South Korea and China, and North Koreans have begun to glimpse at the world outside their borders. Citizens who long assumed theirs was the most powerful and advanced nation on Earth are gradually learning the opposite is true. We need to encourage that evolution by aiding the smuggling of thumb drives with programs that show the economic and technological development of South Korea and the rest of the world, and to get stories of northern defectors told all across the country.
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Finally, we can threaten to expel some of the 100,000 Chinese students currently studying in U.S. universities if Beijing doesn't rein in Kim. Educational exchange programs are generally a good idea. In the case of China, these programs also represent a safety valve of sorts as there aren't enough good colleges at home. Threatening to start sending students home would get Beijing's attention quickly.
Other options certainly exist besides war. Kim needs to know we will go to war if necessary, but we need to be engaging every available opportunity to make him consider other alternatives.
Fred LaSor is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose first overseas assignment was in Asia. He has followed developments in that part of the globe ever since then.
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