How to take down Kim Jong Un — without firing a shot

Tom Malinowski writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

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