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Cracking the Hermit Kingdom By: Gordon Cucullu and Joshua Stanton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 24, 2006


The twin fizzles of North Korea’s attempted long-range Fourth of July rocketry and its semi-successful nuclear test encourage those who favor procrastination as a viable foreign policy. In the long run, it affords little comfort that North Korea’s weapons don’t work well, because it cannot stop Kim Jong-il’s patience and marketing of more and better rockets. After 15 years of stalling, lying, and cheating his way through nuclear negotiations, Kim Jong-il could be the subject of a Country & Western song. We must accept the fact that he is faithful to his nuclear weapons programs, and unfaithful to anyone who would take them away from him. As Ambassador Christopher Hill put it, “North Korea can have nuclear weapons or it can have a future.” Kim Jong-il has chosen; he means to build the Arsenal of Terror. Now, we must choose whether we will let him.

Can we disarm Kim Jong-il at less risk of a catastrophic war than the risks of continuing with the present course?  We think so, but not through conventional diplomatic or military means.

 

Some analysts talk of military strikes directed at key facilities. Newt Gingrich has suggested that the Kim regime be told privately, on unequivocal terms, that every time he stands a missile up for testing it will be killed on the pad. Some suggest reacting against any movement toward another nuclear test with a strike against the deeply dug-in, highly protected test equipment. Strikes might set some of those programs back but probably could not destroy his underground nuclear facilities. The other side of the cost-benefit ledger is heavy:  domestic forces might compel Kim Jong-il to respond, and that could escalate into a second Korean War and the destruction of Seoul, which lies within artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

 

Economic sanctions have the benefit of attacking Kim Jong-il’s economic vulnerabilities. For the past year, the Treasury Department has been constricting the financial arteries that support Kim Jong-il’s palace economy:  illegal weapons, narcotics, and counterfeiting. These measures have shown some promising results. Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, just added his muscle to the squeeze by denying North Korean merchant ships access to Japan’s ports and by vigorously attacking one of Kim’s great sources of foreign cash: Korean Yakuza operations in western Japan. UN Resolution 1718 (which, by itself, justified John Bolton’s confirmation) freezes or cuts off funds for his WMD-related assets and accounts, and even bans him from purchasing luxury items, such as his French Cognac supplies. The object of this goes beyond the inducement of derelium tremens. Louis XIV said, “L’État, c'est moi,” but Kim Jong-il has perfected it in practice. He stands atop a precarious pyramid of faction-riven Party hacks, intelligence service thugs, and what former Ambassador Jim Lilley calls “hard-faced generals.” Kim Jong-il knows that too many missed payments to these men, whose endemic corruption requires constant care and feeding, puts him a trigger squeeze from oblivion.

 

Others have proposed a naval blockade, but Kim’s protectors, including China and South Korea, might help diffuse the effect of the more onerous sanctions. Another less risky option could be almost as devastating:  the Treasury Department could designate North Korea itself as an “entity of concern” for money laundering, under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. That would instantly sever all of North Korea’s connections to the international finance system, but would have collateral effects in other countries whose cooperation we would prefer to obtain through polite requests.

 

All of these measures will have an effect, but they will take time. They might also cause Kim Jong-il to squeeze his suffering people even harder, and in the end, they might mean little more than replacing one evil tyrant with another. They might force Kim Jong-il to negotiate, but not in good faith. They might weaken the regime, but they won’t necessarily replace it with one that will live in peace.

 

We still have not spoken of North Korea’s greatest vulnerability: its citizens’s disapproval. We think of North Korea as a stable, opaque, Orwellian monolith, but recently we have seen cracks in the façade. Refugees and defectors report a recent wave of uprisings and expressions of dissent. A few of the disturbances, such as the rising in the Onsong Concentration Camp and the planned mutiny of the Chongjin garrison, were significant. Most, however, were localized, and the regime was able to keep them that way by taking great pains to isolate its subjects from outside world and compartmentalize them from internal communication among themselves.

 

Geography is also on the regime’s side. North Korea’s terrain is rugged. Its road and communications infrastructure is decrepit. (Its original dictator, Kim Il Sung, died of a heart attack, because ambulances could not negotiate the road to one of his mountain hideaways in time.) Today, even Kim Jong-il’s concentration camps are not, physically speaking, “concentrated;” they are really scattered networks of guarded hamlets where uprisings are easy to contain and from which escape is a formidable challenge. All information comes from tightly controlled Party outlets. Radios and televisions are pre-set with approved frequencies. Listening to any of the few sources of “unofficial” information – South Korean, Japanese, or “foreign” stations – is punishable with immediate exile of the suspect and his entire family to a labor camp.

 

Despite all of these countermeasures, the information blockade on which Kim Jong-il’s power depends is breaking down. Since the famine that killed 2.5 million North Koreans in the 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have voted with their feet and risked death by crossing the border into China. Some of these refugees later returned to North Korea and spoke of China’s comparative prosperity. China arrested others and ruthlessly sent them back to the North Korean gulag. A few escaped to South Korea or elsewhere. This refugee flow is Beijing’s recurring nightmare. China dreads the prospect of an imploding North Korea releasing millions of refugees along the countries’ 900-mile border. China, which barely suppressed the SARS outbreak, worries that North Koreans – whose immune systems are weakened by malnutrition and a lack of basic medical care – could bring a plague of diseases and burden its economy.

 

Some of these refugees are crossing out of economic desperation. There is an active business of smuggling goods and people across the Chinese-North Korean border. But most refugees are probably motivated by politics to some degree – because the government has put them in a low-priority category for food rations, because they have lost all faith in their government, or a combination of both. The moment they see the relative prosperity of China, they realize the magnitude of the propaganda barrage inside North Korea. Meanwhile, corruption, disillusionment, and societal decay have accelerated the corrosive effect on the information blockade. Cell phones, tunable radios, and South Korean DVD’s are now available, even in Pyongyang, to those who know where to find them, even though the possession of these items can be a death-camp offense. There is a growing network of underground churches inside North Korea, a remarkable phenomenon given the ruthless repression with which the Communists have attacked any religion other than the worship of the two Kims.

 

This below-the-radar decline of the Cult of Kim has led to some surprising results. Last month, Thai authorities arrested as many as 300 North Korean refugees who survived a dangerous journey across China, along a thousand-mile underground railroad run largely by Christian missionaries and sympathizers. On every inch of this journey, they risked forcible repatriation to North Korea if caught by Chinese authorities. Of these 300, half asked to go to the United States – a nation they had been indoctrinated since birth to hate and fear as an imperialist warmonger. Their remarkable yearning for freedom led them to choose America instead of South Korea, where they already share a common language and customs. According to a recent New York Times report, “$10,400 will buy a package deal to get someone out of North Korea and, armed with a fake South Korean passport, on a plane or boat to South Korea within days.” It is simply a matter of money; the bodies of those who try to escape without it wash up in bullet-ridden heaps beside the Tyumen River. Yet still, more make the risky crossing.

 

More also want to know the truth. The Broadcasting Board of Governors recently cited surveys from 2003 and 2004, which found that 28 to 31 percent of North Korean refugees had listened to the Voice of America, and that 18 percent had listened to Radio Free Asia. They tuned in to these forbidden broadcasts in spite of the terrible risk of being caught. The percentage of listeners is probably higher today. Yet two years after the North Korean Human Rights Act authorized the expansion of Radio Free Asia, along with more programs to smuggle information into North Korea, our government is only starting the process of expanding radio broadcasts to the North. North Korea’s hysterical reaction speaks volumes about the subversive potential of broadcasting. The letters North Korean refugees write to Radio Free Asia are inspiring. To be sure, survey samples based on refugees are skewed, but the North Korean people do appear to be an emerging market for such subversive ideas as tolerance, religious freedom, pluralism, free markets, and democracy.

 

There is another side to breaking down the isolation of the North Korean people that observers tend to overlook – getting information out of North Korea. In a land still described by popular media as the Hermit Kingdom, the factual vacuum about conditions inside North Korea partially explains why nations have failed to coordinate a common response to such issues as famine, food aid, human rights, crime, and weapons proliferation. Ask most Americans about conditions within North Korea, and you will elicit a shrug. In contrast, even closed societies such as the former Soviet Union and present-day China are open volumes compared to reclusive North Korea. The Great Famine was the most heartrending example of this. By the time international relief agencies gleaned through sparse information and agreed that a famine was killing millions of North Koreans, it was too late to save many of them. A German physician, Norbert Vollertsen, fled North Korea with photos of malnourished children in striped pajama uniforms. When he tried to tell the South Korean people this terrible news, he was beaten by South Korean police, threatened with expulsion, and threatened by pro-North Korean Stalinists determined to protect the South’s appeasement-based Sunshine policy from the truth about conditions in the North. In a more recent and highly suspicious incident, Vollertsen was attacked by a group of unidentified men on a street in downtown Seoul. South Korean Police dismissed the incident and accused Vollertsen of being drunk, although he proceeded to give a speech before an audience that can confirm otherwise.

 

To their everlasting shame, many in South Korea choose to live in cognitive dissonance and outright denial about conditions inside their northern neighbor. Many South Koreans dismiss reports of grave human rights abuses as “U.S. propaganda,” and dispute reports of conditions within North Korea’s gulag, to include the reported experimental poison gas chamber at Camp 22. Repeatedly, when the U.N. has considered resolutions condemning North Korea’s atrocities against its people, South Korea abstained or refused to vote. Now, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon, who presided over this shameful diplomacy, is about to become the new UN General Secretary.

 

While educating South Koreans and others is important, tearing open the bamboo curtain and allowing the light of truth to both penetrate and escape from the North is essential. North Koreans must learn what is happening in their own districts, provinces, and country, and the rest of the world should share this information. Already, this process has made a courageous start. Brave guerrilla cameramen recently brought out video of public executions, labor camps, starving soldiers sent home to die, South Korean food aid stolen by the military, and acts of dissent. A Seoul-based news site, The Daily NK, collects and publishes reports from defectors, traders, and clandestine journalists who cross the border between North Korea and China.

 

Our government can do much more to support the breaking of this blockade. It can start by breaking our own State Department’s blockade on the appropriation and distribution of funds already authorized under the North Korean Human Rights Act. It should also help to expand this network of clandestine journalists inside North Korea. Many of these journalists could be recruited from the same source that produced the concentration camp survivor, defector, journalist, and author Kang Chol-Hwan – the ranks of thousands of North Korean refugees in South Korea and in third countries. A select group of them, properly trained in clandestine reporting, could return to their homeland to tell their stories. We could provide them satellite telephones and cameras to transmit their reports without making the risky journey across the border. With enough money, it is possible to smuggle large quantities of i-pods, cell phones, and micro-radios into North Korea, so that the people could hear the news these journalists reported. Eventually, we could train other refugees in basic technical skills, the fundamentals of how democratic government works, and eventually, medicine, so that the underground could begin to provide essential services that the regime stopped providing years ago. Eventually, these volunteers could become the core of new civil society in a scarred, traumatized, and chaotic post-Kim Jong-il Korea.

 

Ultimately, the key rests with China’s treatment of refugees. China must realize that its refugee policy is earning the eternal enmity of the North Korean people for the sake of a dying regime. One day, North Koreans will make up one-third of the population of a united Korea, which will be one of China’s largest trading partners and trade corridors, and as an added bonus, might not require a large U.S. military presence for its defense. It must begin to accept North Korean refugees in large numbers, even if only in UN-run refugee camps along its border. The United States and a coalition of other nations could foot the bill for refugee care, something that is vastly cheaper than recovering from missile strikes. The establishment of these refugee camps, or “feeding stations” if you prefer, would be predicated on the notion that all inhabitants would eventually be repatriated to Korea or resettled outside of China.

From Washington, North Korea looks as stable as East Germany, Romania, and Albania looked in 1988. In reality, those regimes hung by tenuous threads, disguising political weakness behind statist omnipotence, waiting for the sword stroke that freed their subjects from oppression. By reaching out to the North Korean people with truth, hope, food, and medical care, we can do much to undermine the cult of hate and isolation on which Kim Jong-il’s grip on power depends. Diplomacy has failed, sanctions are only a partial solution, and military strikes carry an unacceptable risk of disaster. The root of the crisis is Kim Jong-il. We must help the North Korean people uproot him. We must help them achieve what Koreans and Americans have dreamed of for more than half a century:  a Korean that is united and free.

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Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu is a former Special Forces lieutenant colonel and author of the best-selling book Separated at Birth. Joshua Stanton practices law in Washington, D.C., and blogs at One Free Korea.


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