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Confronting the North Korean Threat By: Yuri Yarim-Agaev
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 31, 2006


The recent nuclear test by North Korea has once again underscored how little progress has been made to curb that country’s bid for a nuclear program. Six-party negotiations and even a U.N. resolution unanimously passed by the Security Council have all proven failures.

The main problem with North Korea, however, is not its nuclear missiles, but its communist system. A democratic Korea, even with nuclear weapons, would hardly pose a threat. By contrast, Communist Korea, even bound by agreements and promises, remains a serious danger. From this premise it follows that the most realistic solution to the rogue state’s provocations is not to prevent that regime from producing weapons of mass destruction. It is to facilitate the rapid change of the regime.

The history of fruitless attempts to end the arms race with the Soviet Union shows us that no negotiations or agreements with a totalitarian state can stop it from pursuing a military buildup. Andrei Sakharov and other Russian human-rights activists realized very early that the only way to tame Soviet aggression was to influence public opinion in the West by exposing the system’s injustices to the outside world.

This was the goal that brought me into the ranks of the dissidents. Our position was supported most prominently by President Reagan. Uninterested in signing new accords with the Soviets, Reagan took a strong position against communism. This helped to open up the Soviet Union and to spur the development of the democratic movement. As a result, Soviet authorities were forced to make concessions in their arms programs that would have been unthinkable to Reagan’s predecessors.

The North Korean totalitarian state is a replica of the Soviet system. As it was with the Soviet Union, North Korea’s nuclear threat will end only with the end of the communist regime. How and when that regime goes may depend on us. Will North Korea’s leaders have enough time and resources to develop nuclear weapons and the will to use them, or will they depart before that with little resolve for resistance? Herein is the essence of the North Korean threat. This should determine America’s North Korea policy: Its goal should be to help weaken the Korean communist regime, thereby hastening its ultimate end.

Attempting to force out the ruling power through negotiations is not very realistic. Sanctions alone will not do the job, either. Trying to topple the communist dictatorship by military intervention is not only highly risky, but also hardly justifiable, morally or politically, as long as there are any alternatives to that approach.

In the case of North Korea, such an alternative exists. It lies in liberalizing and opening up North Korean society. Our goal should be to make the communist regime give in to the demands of its own people and international public opinion, and to leave peacefully, as happened in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.

Such a policy will certainly meet with resistance from the communist government. Nevertheless, the suggested strategy is feasible, because the North Korean communist system has weakened significantly and lost the totality of its control over the country. Consider that North Korea’s border has become porous and now allows more people to defect and more contraband, including modern electronics, to be smuggled in. The government has begun to lose its hold on information. Many people have mobile phones operated by Chinese companies. Information about goings on inside the country has also become more available. CNN recently broadcast a video shot by hidden cameras in North Korea, including some episodes inside a labor camp.

The increasing weakness of the communist regime is also evidenced by the very adventurous behavior of its leaders. Their nuclear program is suspiciously demonstrative. It looks as if its major goal is not to prepare for aggressive war or to defend the country, but rather to blackmail the United States and its allies into providing the regime with the economic and political assistance it desperately needs to maintain power.

Unfortunately, the blackmail has been working, since the current policy of the allies has helped Kim Jung Il to procure the many things that he needs: He receives ongoing threats from a powerful enemy, which helps him treat any dissent inside the country as treason; he attains legitimization of his fading system by sitting at six-party negotiations with the major world powers; and he secures economic assistance, which provides resources for that same nuclear program.

The irony of the situation is that the West is helping to prolong and embolden the North Korean communist regime, while it is in our best interest to do just the opposite. Instead of propping up the regime, the West should support the liberalization of Korean society through direct interaction with the Korean people against the wishes of their communist rulers. Three measures in particular should be implemented.

  1. Information and technology should be provided to the North Korean people. Flooding North Korea with portable TV sets and computers, launching direct satellites, and expanding television and radio broadcasting in the country will help to break the regime’s uncontested hold on the flow of information.
  2. Ideas of freedom and democracy should be vigorously promoted inside the country. Propaganda is one of the regime’s most useful weapons and undermining its influence is an essential first step toward loosening its grip on power.
  3. Maximum support should be given to North Korea’s dissidents. Establishing direct lines of communication will make it clear to the regime’s opponents that they are not alone in their struggle.

In short, the thrust of the West’s policy toward North Korea should be to shift from traditional diplomacy to public diplomacy. There have been some steps in these directions, but too few to constitute an effective challenge to the communist authorities. The National Endowment for Democracy allocates only a few hundred thousand dollars for all its North Korea programs, while American assistance to the North Korean communist government has exceeded one billion dollars over the last decade. To make the policy work, much more can and should be done.

Destabilizing the regime in this way will not be easy. Even so, the successful realization of a similar approach toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe suggests that it is possible. When we were planning to send the first copy machine, fax and computer to our fellow dissidents in Russia, few people believed that this would have any meaningful impact on the political situation. Before long, however, our information technology was aiding the cause of the democracy movement in all parts of the Soviet Union. North Korea’s secret police may be even more vicious than their KGB predecessors, but the informational revolution works against them. Even at the peak of the dissident movement, we could not dream of mobile phones or camcorders inside the labor camps.

Technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful regime change. Equally essential is expertise. That expertise is uniquely possessed by those who, in the 1970s and 80s, worked to weaken the Soviet Empire: governmental officials, Russian and East European dissidents, and the groups that supported them. The experiences of Chinese dissidents over the last two decades may also prove invaluable.

Even in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was regarded by many influential thinkers as a permanent feature on the international landscape. Pyongyang has benefited from similar fatalism. To end the tyranny in North Korea, the West must first reject this conventional wisdom.

Yuri Yarim-Agaev is a former leading Russian dissident and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Upon arriving in the United States after his forced exile from the Soviet Union, he headed the New York-based Center for Democracy in the USSR.

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