Fort Report: Resolving the Paradox of North Korea
I read a news report recently that Kim Jung-un “cackled” as he watched North Korea’s latest missile launch over Japan.
In our system of governance and culture, we have an unseen force, a central idea that guides us and the whole American project. It is the belief in human dignity, that the individual person matters, and that liberty and responsibility are indispensable to personal happiness. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea, makes a mockery of these ideals and continues to bedevil the best policy minds in the world. In the West, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the gravity of the situation. The country’s strange 33-year-old dictator’s cult of personality subsumes all else in North Korean society.
According to numerous reports, half of North Korea's 24 million citizens live in "extreme poverty.” One-third of the children are stunted due to malnutrition. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that DPRK holds as many as 120,000 people in its network of concentration and detention camps. Approximately 400,000 people have died in these camps from torture, starvation, disease, and execution since the regime’s founding several decades ago. Drained human potential is poured into military buildup, and now, advanced nuclear weapons.
As I indicated in a previous Fort Report, given Kim’s continued provocations, it is clear that the era of “strategic patience” is over. Yet, military options to stop the use of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal require difficult calculations that could easily cost tens of thousands of lives in North and South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, in American territories like Guam, and perhaps even our own mainland.
While most current debate is on international economic leverage and military projection, it’s easy to discount the possibilities for engagement. If not with Kim, then with the North Korean people. In his book, Building Bridges: Is There Hope for North Korea?, my friend and British Member of Parliament Lord David Alton argues for a way to peaceably bring North Korea back into the community of nations. In spite of the strong grip of a demigod—who, according to official propaganda, traces his family authority to a mountain myth in which a new star was created and winter turned to spring—there are, argues Alton, cracks in the surreal totalitarian façade.
Although Alton was writing in 2013, signs of this shift have since become transparent, as frequent media and defector reports surface of young North Koreans bucking official propaganda. Aided by smuggled “memory sticks” that show the stark dichotomy between their lives and those of their southern kin, perhaps more people are seeing the possibilities. After all, Kim himself was educated in Switzerland.
While we must prepare militarily and use every bit of economic leverage against the regime, demanding that friends and allies do the same, could a third front emerge from within the hermit kingdom itself, born of the North Korean peoples’ desire for liberation? Improbable, yes, but we should nurture this possibility. Along these lines, I believe it was helpful to hear Secretary of State Tillerson say that we do not seek regime change in North Korea, perhaps giving space for a counter-narrative to develop from within.
The fluke of its geographic proximity to South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia gives North Korea inordinate survival power. America, North Korea’s neighbors and the North Korean people are stuck in a form of Stockholm Syndrome, in which we have all become perversely aligned with the regime’s survival, lest a far worse fate—like a nuclear exchange--ensue.
Skillfully moving past this paradoxical stalemate is the only peaceable answer. And maybe, just maybe, may silence the cackle.