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Pyongyang Pressure Points

December 23, 2010

As mentioned in an earlier post, a second Korean War, even in light of escalating tensions here on the peninsula and the continued belligerence of North Korea, appears unlikely (though not impossible). North Korea isn’t seeking such a conflict. Neither is South Korea, nor the USA, nor China. The North Korean regime is no doubt interested in self-preservation and, although the rogue state has been described as being the most perfect totalitarian system in human history, it nonetheless remains perpetually vulnerable on the grounds that neighbouring South Korea represents an exponentially more attractive place to live for North Koreans, in terms of how much more free, wealthier and healthier a society it is. North Korea, for its part, has a long-term dependency on foreign aid due to its utterly shitcanned economy and its inability to feed the population. Attacks like the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong are aimed at extorting further concessions and aid from the surrounding powers on the understanding that preserving the status quo, and preventing collapse in North Korea, is broadly preferable to whatever uncertain crisis would occur otherwise. However, some analysts and commentators have been arguing in favour of an approach that differs from rewarding bad behaviour and which would instead punish North Korea for its continued aggressions and provocations. Some have suggested that North Korea would not have been so emboldened as to attack Yeonpyeong Island had it been sufficiently penalized for sinking the Cheonan in March of this year. Now, analysts have begun highlighting the unique weaknesses that can be exploited in order to gain leverage over the government of Kim Jong-il and family.

Kang Cheol-hwan, a North Korean defector who survived ten years of imprisonment in the Yodok concentration camp as a child and who now works as a staff writer for the Chosun Ilbo, recently published an interesting article on this subject.

S. Korea Must Use Its Own ‘Asymmetric’  Warfare

The South’s retaliation must be effective in preventing further provocations, and it is not using the weapons the North Korean regime is most scared of to their full potential. It is not only the North that has so-called “asymmetrical” military powers like nuclear weapons and missiles. The South, too, has such asymmetrical advantages. Whatever Kim Jong-il dreads most is the most effective weapon.

The Kim Jong-il regime is most scared of two things. One is mass defections. If the people simply flee one by one, the regime will crumble very quickly. That is why the North Korea-China border is regarded as a second front and guarded by regular troops. The other is that knowledge about outside world through South Korean radio broadcasts, propaganda leaflets and TV programs can shake the North Korean system at the root. The South’s most powerful asymmetric weapon, therefore, is information that can enlighten 20 million North Korean people.

The propaganda leaflets Kang mentions have been sent into North Korea via the novel method of packing them in garbage bags and floating them on helium balloons. This is carried out by groups like Fighters for Free North Korea. Consisting mainly of North Korean defectors, they often include DVDs and even American dollars in the packages they send into North Korean territory and they have been carrying out these operations since around 2003. Previous South Korean government administrations discouraged such activity in keeping with their engagement/appeasement policy towards North Korea but, in light of this year’s steep increase in North Korean aggression, there are now calls for the government to directly support and massively increase these propaganda efforts. It has been suggested that even the time wasted by North Korean forces in having to scour the countryside to collect and confiscate these materials is worth the operations alone. As mentioned in the post below, NGO groups that broadcast radio from South Korea aimed at North Koreans (again, usually operated by groups of defectors) have also requested the South Korean government support their activities by expanding their access to medium wave frequencies. In addition, although a mere theory at this stage, the idea has also been proposed that it would be technologically feasible to transmit a mobile phone signal from South Korea into North Korea thus providing dissidents with a greater means of communicating with one another and the outside world.

Alongside this proposed intensification of propaganda efforts there have been calls to exploit Pyongyang’s glaring financial weaknesses, including concerted effort to enforce existing sanctions and apply more where possible. As such routes would be undermined by the continued existence of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the largest inter-Korean venture of its kind, commentators are now advising that the complex be closed altogether and all remaining South Korean workers based there returned home, not least for the fear of them becoming hostages in any future conflict. From the JoongAng Daily –

It’s time to close Kaesong complex

The Kaesong Industrial Complex is the most prominent of inter-Korean ventures. Despite the political and military standoff, cumulative revenue from industrial activities there exceeded $1 billion as of September. Many say we should maintain our stake. Once we leave, it would be hard to go back, and it could send the wrong message that we want an all-out war. Chinese funds could quickly replace our investments, and Beijing would further consolidate its influence over the North Korean economy. But the time has come for us to consider whether we have overestimated the importance of the effects of the Kaesong joint venture.

In establishing the industrial complex, which is just an hour’s drive from Seoul, we had hoped to ease tensions on the border. But the North’s fierce attack on a frontline island proves we have been wrong. The goal of improving the lives of North Koreans is also questionable. The salaries we pay to the North Korean workers first go to the North Korean authorities. The money could be used to support the military buildup, not the workers’ households for all we know. Our original goals have gone off target, and the complex has instead become a bargaining chip in negotiating with the Pyongyang regime. The argument that the joint venture could help reduce future unification costs is no longer effective. We also cannot demand international sanctions while we go on supplying money and products to operate businesses there.

There is also the consideration of ceasing all food aid to North Korea. Currently, there are no guarantees that any of the food aid given to North Korea actually reaches the people that need it most and, in a state run on a “military first” philosophy, one can make educated guesses as to where that food most likely ends up. Despite being given this food for free, the North Korean government fiercely resists attempts to monitor the distribution of such aid and donors have cited a massive lack of transparency resulting in them having very little idea if such actions are benefitting the hungry of North Korea in any way. Instead, food aid may be little more than another prop for the despotic regime which, if it manages to keep its army and security forces fed, can maintain its iron grip on the populace. Seen in this light, an end to such aid (financial and food aid), in weakening the government of Kim Jong-il, would be a far more effective tactic of humanitarian intervention than the misjudged continuance of handing support to the bellicose gangsters that control North Korea. Alternatively, as Kang Cheol-hwan noted in the article above, food packages could be floated directly into North Korean territory as a means of subversion to further undermine the regime.

Arguably, South Korea, the U.S. and even China ought to consider exploiting these North Korean pressure points as a means of deterring further deadly attacks and, in the long-term, of hastening the end of a vile and brutal system that is increasingly likely to collapse anyway. In a region of increasing economic development and cooperation, an isolated, anachronistic, rogue state serves no one’s interests but its own and, if a recent Wikileak is anything to go by (China ready to abandon North Korea), then it is possible that even China is finally waking up to that reality.

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