Stop saying there are no good options on North Korea. Here’s how we can end the threat once and for all—without firing a shot.
At my Senate confirmation hearing a few years ago, I made a promise to the panel deciding my fate: never to use the phrase “there are no good options.” After all, if there were obvious solutions to the hardest—and most interesting—problems we face in the world, they would already have been found. Our job in the U.S. government—I served in the State Department as an assistant secretary focused on human rights—was not to make excuses in such situations, but to use whatever inherently limited tools we had to try to make things better, and to avoid making them worse.
North Korea tests this proposition like nothing else. Since its latest provocative missile test, thoughtful observers have pointed out that neither sanctions nor diplomacy are likely to dissuade Kim Jong Un from deploying nuclear weapons that can reach the United States, that we cannot depend on China to stop him for us, but that the alternative of a military strike on North Korea could cause a war that would lay waste to our ally South Korea. When it comes to North Korea, the phrase “there are no good options” has become a mantra.
Though we’ve been slow to admit it, the reasons have been plain for some time. Kim Jong Un, like all totalitarian leaders, wants above all to ensure his survival. He is convinced that a nuclear strike capability is necessary to deter the United States and South Korea from threatening his regime, and to extract concessions that might prolong its life. There is nothing crazy about this conviction. And because the matter is existential for Kim, more economic pressure will not change his mind. His regime survived a famine and can risk economic hardship. What he apparently will not risk is following the example of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi, who gave up nuclear programs and found themselves defenseless against foreign interventions that claimed their lives.
But there is an opportunity in Kim’s obsession with survival. While he assumes the United States would not start a catastrophic war to stop his nuclear program, he also knows that were he to start that war, the U.S. would have no reason to hold back. We could, and likely would, destroy his regime. This means that even if we can’t prevent North Korea from gaining the ability to hit us or our allies, we can deter it from actually doing so, and thus have time to pursue, by means more effective than sanctions and less dangerous than war, our ultimate goal of a reunified Korea that threatens no one.
Kim is right to feel insecure. His life depends on the preservation of a regime, and of a country, that are both artificial constructs. There is no good reason for the existence of a North Korean state that is vastly poorer than its ethnically identical South Korean neighbor, other than to enable his family to rule. To hold on, the Kim regime has thus had to do more than make the North Korean people afraid of its executioners; it has tried to maintain a total information blockade to keep them from knowing just how artificial this situation is.
But knowledge—about the prosperity and freedom of their fellow Koreans south of the DMZ, and about the abnormality of their own suffering—is spreading among North Koreans. We are learning more about them, too—they are not brainwashed, “robotic” denizens of an “ant colony,” as they are so often described. They are resilient, increasingly entrepreneurial people with normal aspirations, who will some day want a say in the fate of their country.
No one can predict when and how Kim’s hold will weaken, and it would be foolish to think we can force change from the outside. So if anyone reading this has fantasies about setting up governments in exile or fomenting coups or calling for uprisings, please put them aside—that kind of talk will only get people inside North Korea killed. There are, however, forces in play within North Korea that will probably lead to the end of its regime and its reason to exist as a country. Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime. The central aim of our strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes.
This approach will carry its own risks and costs. And in the meantime, we should continue to oppose North Korea’s nuclear program, using diplomacy and sanctions to manage the danger it poses to us and to our allies. But our primary focus should be on shaping something that can happen in North Korea, rather than expending all our energies on something that will not.
The possibility of change in North Korea arose from its greatest calamity—the famine in the 1990s, in which over a million of its citizens died. Until then, according to defectors, most North Koreans were simply unaware that different ways of life or forms of government existed in the world. Other totalitarian states—Stalin’s in Russia, Mao’s in China, Pol Pot’s in Cambodia—tried to isolate their people from knowledge of the world, but none could sustain the feat long enough (two generations in the case of North Korea) to create a population unable to imagine alternatives.
The famine began to weaken the regime’s hold on its people and their imaginations. As the state-run food distribution system broke down, North Koreans became less trusting of and dependent on their state. Eventually, private markets sprung up around the country. People started crossing the border to China, not just to find food, but to bring back goods to be sold in these markets. From China, they also brought back stories of a country where people could enjoy private lives, choose their professions, own property, travel and learn about the world—like North Korea, a communist dictatorship, but vastly freer than theirs.
We worry about the miniaturization of North Korean nukes; what threatens the Kim regime is the miniaturization of information technology. In the famine years, North Koreans learned about the lives of others by word of mouth; then they started watching smuggled video and audio tapes that were relatively easy to confiscate; now information spreads on USB drives and SD cards that contain huge amounts of data and are easily hidden amid goods being traded to and from China. Few North Koreans can access the global internet, but more than 3 million have cellphones, many using domestically produced, Bluetooth-enabled devices on which movies and TV shows can be played; many more have cheap Chinese DVD players that can play content from USB drives. This is supplemented by foreign radio broadcasts that can be heard throughout the country, and TV programming that can be seen by those living closer to its borders with South Korea and China.
Virtually all recent North Korean defectors say that despite the risks, they consumed these media before leaving their country; usage by the general population may be lower, but is growing each year. In a recent survey, 87 percent of defectors say they purchased media devices and other consumer goods, including food and clothes, using money earned outside their official occupation—a sign of how ubiquitous black markets now are in North Korea. As a result, the regime has shifted its strategy from trying to deny its people access to information technologies to controlling and monitoring their use. But the more people use these devices, the harder it becomes for the state to spy on everyone.
At the State Department, I oversaw the U.S. government’s efforts to get information into North Korea. We funded defector-run radio stations, which had the added benefit of training North Koreans to be journalists. We saw an increase in North Koreans watching Chinese and South Korean TV, and supported groups producing shows North Koreans would find interesting (like reality shows about the daily experiences—good and bad—of defectors in the South). We helped non-governmental organizations that send in foreign movies and TV shows through the market trade, including one group that made cross-border deliveries by drone of specific films that North Koreans requested (we used to joke that we were running a peculiar version of Netflix for North Korea). A big priority was educating North Koreans on how to protect themselves from surveillance, and staying ahead of regime efforts to turn technology against its people. Last year, for example, we learned that North Korea had updated the operating system for its cellphones so that they could read media only with a government-approved digital signature; there should be a countermeasure for this (and hopefully for whatever the regime does to counter the countermeasure).
I imagined the information flowing into North Korea as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid, the majority of content, is entertainment—South Korean TV dramas, pop music and foreign movies. North Koreans watch these not just for the stories but for the background details. Consider what a cop show, or teenage school drama, can teach about how people in a normal country interact with authority. Think what a family sitcom can reveal about how we eat, shop and dress, and how preoccupied we are with our personal lives and loves over service to the state. One North Korean defector, a young woman named Park Yeon-mi, has described the effect of watching the final scene of the movie Titanic: “Everything in North Korea was about the leader, all the books, music and TV,” she said. “So what was shocking to me about Titanic was that the guy gave his life for the woman and not for his country—I just couldn’t understand that mind-set.”
Those whose curiosity is sparked by Leonardo DiCaprio can move up to nonfiction—reality shows, including about how North Koreans deal with the challenges of life in South Korea, and documentaries about food, and travel and culture. One more level up the pyramid are textbooks, documentaries about history (those showing what really happened in the Korean War are particularly important) and encyclopedias. The entire Korean-language Wikipedia fits on one tiny USB and has been sent into the North. At the very top of the pyramid, of interest to the fewest people and most dangerous to consume, is explicitly political information about human rights and democracy. It is essential that none of this resemble the propaganda North Koreans hear from their state, because they wouldn’t believe it. The best content is honest about problems in America and South Korea, while showing how citizens in a free country can address them.
The most obvious effects of exposure to information are superficial—young North Koreans are increasingly copying the hair, clothing styles and manners of speech they glean from foreign media. The political effects are not yet visible, but I think the Kim regime is right to fear them. Its past success in denying people information is precisely what makes it vulnerable to a sudden influx of information. More than any other modern dictatorship, its legitimacy depends on myths—about the Korean War, the infallibility of its leaders, and how much better it is to live in North than in South Korea—that are shattered once people know the truth. The more total the lie, the more total rejection of the liar when it is exposed.
By sharing media with family, friends, and broader networks, and by learning to avoid detection, North Koreans are also gaining skills and connections essential to independent political organization. In a totalitarian state like North Korea, a group of neighbors gathering once a week to watch the latest episode of a forbidden soap opera is committing a political act, and forming, with the market traders who deliver them this treasure, a rudimentary civil society. A recent survey taken inside North Korea suggests that participation in these activities is making people less dependent on and more critical of the state.
None of this means that effective political resistance is yet possible in North Korea. Its police state remains brutal and effective. But similar totalitarian regimes—Romania under Ceausescu, Libya under Qadhafi—have appeared just as impregnable, until they were not. Unpredictable events—a local riot that police hesitate to put down, a change in the health of the leader, the execution of the wrong person, a split in the security forces—can break open hidden cracks in what seems a solid foundation. Exposure to information is a predicate for this. Without it, North Koreans could not conceive an alternative to the present regime, or any way to attain it. With it, their regime becomes just an ordinary dictatorship, vulnerable to the sudden swings of fortune that all dictatorships eventually suffer.
That day will bring its own challenges. The Kim regime cannot “evolve” in the way communist China has because, again, it presides over an artificial country. If its people gain even a bit of freedom, the first question they will ask is the one East Germans asked in 1989: Why should they stay separated by minefields and machine gun nests from a vastly wealthier and freer version of themselves? So the regime must rule as it has or lose a country to rule.
But would an impending loss of power, for which North Korea’s leaders will blame us whatever our actual role, be the thing that pushes it to start the war we all fear? Of course, we can’t be sure. But experience suggests that in their final moments, dictators, and more important, those to whom they give orders, are preoccupied with getting themselves, their families and their money to safety—goals that are generally not advanced by starting last-minute wars with foreign powers. If such a moment comes in North Korea, most of the regime’s security officials will likely be thinking about how to survive reunification (something we should be encouraging them to consider), not how to follow their leader to oblivion. In any case, an eventual challenge to the stability of the regime is inevitable. I would rather face it sooner, while the regime’s military capacity to lash out is less developed, than later when the danger will be greater. I’d rather that North Koreans’ misery end sooner than later, too.
Fears of a sudden refugee crisis if the North Korean regime crumbles are also somewhat exaggerated. North Koreans will not be able to cross the DMZ to South Korea in the way that Berliners could walk through Checkpoint Charlie; China can control its border if it wants; and in any case, the vast majority of North Koreans (like the vast majority of people everywhere) do not now and will not then want to be homeless refugees, unless mass violence leaves them with no choice. The greater challenges would likely come after reunification. South Koreans will bear huge costs. North Koreans will face painful adjustments. There will be new geopolitical risks, given China’s fears of a U.S.-allied unified Korea. But again, these cannot be put off forever, and we should prefer them to the dangers of a divided Korea with an unstable nuclear-armed dictatorship in the North. Trying to influence and prepare for change is a better option than pretending it will never happen.
So how do you solve a problem like Korea? Here are some options that could actually be good:
Flood the zone with information: In the last year of the Obama administration, we increased our funding for getting information to North Koreans. But the State Department still allocates less then $3 million for this effort, and the Trump administration’s first budget request did not mention it. Congress should work with the administration to create a well-funded, dedicated program. The State Department should also continue efforts we began under Obama to enlist like-minded allies in Europe and Asia to back these efforts, and tech companies to find creative ways for North Koreans to share information safely. More funding should also go to scholarships for North Korean defectors, so that they will be ready to help their people if the North opens up.
Emphasize human rights and reunification, not regime change: In one sense, this is a distinction without a difference, since the Kim regime could not exist if North Koreans could speak, travel and vote freely, and of course it could not survive reunification. But we are more likely to gain support for goals that enjoy broad international legitimacy than with rhetoric that evokes the invasion of Iraq. Our language, like our methodology, should be all about empowering North Koreans to make their own choices, rather than imposing ours.
Continue sanctions, but don’t shut off North Korea: Even if we can’t stop North Korea’s weapons programs, it makes sense to cause delays and disruptions, including through targeted sanctions against Chinese companies that work with the North Korean military. But we should not encourage an end to general trade between China and North Korea because the movement of goods enables the movement of people and ideas. The Kim regime was never more secure than when its country was closed to the world; a return to total isolation would prolong its life, while making its ultimate demise harder to manage.
Strengthen, don’t undermine, the U.S.-South Korean alliance: Everything we must do to empower the North Korean people and to manage the burdens and risks of the North’s eventual transformation depends on close cooperation with South Korea. We may need to sustain this difficult joint effort for years to come. It was thus incredibly irresponsible for President Trump to break solidarity with our ally when the need for it was at its highest, by threatening to renegotiate the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement during President Moon’s recent visit to Washington. As our strategy shifts from preventing North Korea’s nuclear development to deterrence of use, we should also reassure South Korea, as well as Japan, that we will treat an attack on our allies as an attack on ourselves.
Communicate to North Korean elites: When the Kim regime approaches its end, much will depend on whether key regime officials decide to stick with their leader or hedge their bets. Working with South Korea, we should find ways to convey to these figures that there can be a place for them in a reunified Korea (with at least their safety and wealth protected), so long as they are not personally tied to the regime’s crimes and make the right choices when it matters.
Talk to China about reunification: The Chinese government is terrified of regime collapse in North Korea. It does not want to concede the possibility by talking about it. Yet somehow, we must find a way to have an honest conversation. Does China really believe that the status quo can be sustained forever? If not, would China prefer to work with us to prepare for and shape a transition in ways that are realistic (i.e., U.S. troops would not leave the southern part of Korea), but that would take China’s interests into account? Or would it rather that the United States and South Korea act unilaterally in that scenario? If the latter, how do we avoid a confrontation—for example, if South Korean troops move north to secure nuclear facilities as Chinese troops move south?
While German unification was not perfectly analogous to what we may face in Korea, we did face similar challenges then, and managed to find the common ground with Moscow that we will need with Beijing. The Cold War analogy applies in a broader sense, too. For decades, we managed the risks of our confrontation with the Soviet Union through deterrence, diplomacy, arms control and occasional military moves—these were the traditional methods of statecraft that occupied Western officials on a daily basis, and rightly so, since they prevented catastrophe. But these methods did not end the confrontation. That happened only when the people living behind the Iron Curtain took matters into their own hands. And when we looked back after 1989, we recognized that soft power—the spread of democratic ideas and culture, aided by people-to-people ties and communications technologies, and our principled insistence on respect for human rights—did more than hard power to bring this about. One day we may look back upon the end of Korea’s division and say the same—if we see the cards we actually have, and play them well.
Tom Malinowski served as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2014–2017.