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How to Realistically Solve the North Korea Crisis

Doug Bandow

Washington sees North Korea as a security challenge. Yet the North threatens
America only because the United States intervened in the conflict
between the two Koreas. The case for defending now populous and
prosperous South Korea expired long ago.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sees nuclear weapons as its primary means of regime
survival. When I visited Pyongyang in June, North Korean officials
pointed to Washington’s “hostile policy” and
“nuclear threats.” America’s enthusiasm for
regime change weighed particularly heavily on DPRK officials: they
cited Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Libya, whose dictator
negotiated away his nuclear and missile programs—only to be
ousted a few years later by his erstwhile friends.

The potential cost of America’s commitment will rise
dramatically once the North gains the ability to retaliate against the U.S. homeland. Yet
preventive strikes to take out North Korea’s deadliest weapons and/or decapitate the
leadership likely would trigger horrendous, full-scale war. While
Americans would die fighting, the Republic of Korea would become
the principal allied battleground and suffer mass casualties and
destruction. North Koreans, too, would die prodigiously.

With the North becoming a
genuine nuclear power, it is time for Washington to try something
new.

In fact, the chief victims of decades of hostility and
confrontation on the Korean Peninsula are the DPRK’s
citizens. The Kim dynasty, begun by Kim Il-sung and continued
through his son, Kim Jong-il, and grandson, Kim Jong-un, was never
likely to rule gently. But isolation—North Korea has few real
friends, not even China, which barely qualifies as a
frenemy—has left the North essentially under siege. The
result is a more repressive (and essentially totalitarian)
regime.

Facing the world’s sole superpower alone discourages
reforms that might unravel one of the world’s most formidable
national-security states. China long encouraged Kim Jong-il to
adopt the Chinese model and relax economic controls, but he paid
Beijing no heed. He was unwilling risk calling forth the genie of
change.

Kim Jong-un, despite a brief educational sojourn in Switzerland,
is no liberal. In late October the State Department released a
report on human-rights abuses in the DPRK. State noted
“extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged
arbitrary detention, as well as rape, forced abortions and other
sexual violence inside the country.” Brutality doesn’t
stop at the nation’s borders: “The government deploys
security officials on assignments overseas to monitor the
activities of North Koreans abroad and to forcibly repatriate
individuals seeking asylum abroad.” Workers sent overseas
often endure the status of de facto forced labor.

The Department’s more formal human-rights report stated
with sublime understatement that the DPRK’s “most
recent national elections, held in 2014, were neither free nor
fair.” The people could not choose their government, which
“subjected citizens to rigid controls over many aspects of
their lives, including denial of the freedoms of speech, press,
assembly, association, religion, movement and worker rights. The
government operated a network of political prison camps in which
conditions were often harsh, life threatening and included forced
and compulsory labor.”

The North usually tops the list of religious persecutors
worldwide. Explained State, “there was an almost complete
denial by the government of the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion.” The Kim cult is quasi-religious,
and the authorities see traditional faiths as a grave threat. Added
State, it appears that “the government’s policy towards
religion has been to maintain an appearance of tolerance for
international audiences, while suppressing internally all
non-state-sanctioned religious activities.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom targeted
North Korea’s “deplorable” record and rated the
DPRK as a Country of Particular Concern. Explained USCIRF:
“The North Korean government relentlessly persecutes and
punished religious believers through arrest, torture, imprisonment
and sometimes execution.” The State Department published a
series of factsheets on individual camps, each holding thousands of
prisoners.

Kim Jong-un, known as the supreme leader, is tougher than his
father and grandfather—at least toward his top officials. Kim
has executed some 140 members of the elite, including his uncle,
long at the center of power. Kim has tightened border controls in
an attempt to reduce defections.

Yet he offers one small reason for hope. Kim has implemented
substantial economic reforms. It is not capitalism, as his
embarrassed officials rushed to assure me on my recent trip. But
there are private markets and increased economic autonomy even for
state firms. The benefits were evident on the streets of Pyongyang
(the countryside remains far more primitive).

Apparently, Kim recognizes that a stronger, more successful DPRK
must use the power of market forces. While that does not guarantee
reform elsewhere, his father was right to worry that economic
liberalization tends to loosen state controls and empower
individuals. Moreover, Kim might come to recognize that human
creativity, exploration and entrepreneurship are all essential to
economic dynamism. Then he will have to choose between economic
development and political control, or at least make some
compromises, accepting greater risk of dissent.

While the United States has little leverage to force change in
Pyongyang—a regime determined to survive no matter what isn’t
going to change its political practices at Washington’s
request—engagement might create conditions more conducive to
an improvement in human rights. Taking steps which reduce the Kim
regime’s paranoia and insecurity would eliminate one impetus for
tougher repression. While a more secure Kim might feel freer to
abuse his population, he would face less pressure to do so from
fear of upheaval. Increasing the regime’s sense of security may be
a necessary—if not a sufficient—condition for
improvement.

Moreover, engaging the North diplomatically would create an
opportunity to talk about human rights. Although Pyongyang
routinely dismisses human-rights concerns, it has on occasion
engaged in talks with U.S. officials on the issue, including over
the return of Otto Warmbier, the college student jailed last year.
Washington could offer the direct diplomatic contacts which the
DPRK long desired, while insisting on a human-rights dialogue as
part of the process.

Such a conversation wouldn’t lead to dismantlement of the DPRK
police state, but still might increase outside access to North
Korea and greater exposure of abuses—and encourage at least
modest change. Creating an ongoing dialogue would give Pyongyang a
stake in the bilateral relationship and reason to consider
concessions.

The North Korean people deserve a transformed government.
However, the ability of outside states to influence the DPRK is
extremely limited. Refusing to talk to Pyongyang only increased its
sense of threat and corresponding incentive to oppress its people.
Engagement might fail to shift today’s seemingly hopeless dynamic,
but nothing else has worked. With the North becoming a genuine
nuclear power, it is time for Washington to try something new.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books,
including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed
World
and The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with
North and South Korea