Seeing N. Korea as it really is
By Oh Kongdan
This year will soon enter the history books, and at this time of the year it is customary for the media to select the year’s top news stories.
For Koreans, 2010 was a year of highs and lows. Hosting the G20 summit in Seoul was a high point, as it presented South Korea as a successful and responsible medium power in the global arena. The torpedoing of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were low points. The two attacks are a vivid and sad reminder that North Korea has not changed.
Ten years of political, economic, and social engagement have blinded many people to political reality. During the decade of engagement, not even the North’s continued hostile rhetoric and the revelation that the billions of dollars that the Kim regime demanded and received, for everything from the first summit meeting to everyday business deals, were sufficient to persuade people that the underlying political dynamic on the peninsula is zero-sum. A North Korea with nuclear weapons is incompatible with a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. A centrally controlled socialist economy is incompatible with true economic exchange. A dynastic dictatorship is incompatible with peaceful unification.
Foreigners were quicker to see the reality of the underlying conflict than were many South Koreans, who emotionally long for a happy ending to a half-century of national division. The sad events of the past year are simply an extension of decades of attempts by the Pyongyang regime to have its way with the South. Recall the commando raids into South Korea; the killing of South Korean cabinet members in Burma; the bombing of a South Korean airliner; the kidnapping of fishermen; the killing of an innocent tourist on a Mt. Geumgang beach; the attempted assassination of defectors; not to mention the crimes the Kim family regime routinely commits against its own people. How can anyone ignore or argue away such an extensive criminal history?
So what should South Korea do about its self-centered, murderous neighbor to the north? Over the years, all options have been on the table at one time or another. In books and articles, my research partner, Ralph Hassig, and I have taken a hard line, which, at the end of 2010, I feel is fully justified. I do not expect that the regime in Pyongyang will ever change its nature. Embracing reconciliation would mean signing its own death warrant. Nor do I believe that launching military attacks against such a regime is ever justified except in self-defense.
What I do believe is that the rotten regime is, first and foremost, a problem for the North Korean people, who suffer at its hands every day of their lives, not just a few times a year. The millions of ordinary North Koreans live and breathe like people everywhere. Although they have been duped by a lifetime of lies, they will finally seek the light of truth.
As Abraham Lincoln famously said, ``You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” When North Koreans finally recognize how badly they have been fooled by their leaders, including by the ``great fatherly leader Kim Il-sung,” I believe they will take matters into their own hands. Many of them have already done so, either by fleeing the country or ignoring the regime’s politics and economy, but the masses remain politically inert.
It is high time to empower them. Lincoln also said, ``Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." The North Korean people have withstood much adversity; I believe that if they can gain power over their leaders ― and are given time to readjust their values ― they will reject the military-first politics they have lived under and prove to be as peace-loving as their compatriots in the South.
The policy of the American ― and to a lesser extent ― the South Korean governments has been to devote most of their resources to convincing the Kim regime to give up its nuclear weapons, as if a nuclear-free North Korea would be a peaceable North Korea. I have advocated devoting more attention to giving the North Korean people information to encourage them to get rid of the leaders who feel they need nuclear weapons. The nuclear negotiators say this approach would take too long, but if it had been adopted 16 years ago, instead of rewarding the North for pretending to freeze its nuclear program, the regime might already be gone.
South Korea now has over 20,000 refugees who understand how the North Korean people think. Some of them are already sending information by radio and other means to those they left behind, but much more could be done if they had greater financial and moral support. It is not too late to go after the regime with information rather than guns. This is the asymmetric advantage that South Korea holds. If information warfare makes the Kim family angry, we will know we are on the right track.
Oh Kongdan is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She is an expert on Asian affairs. Her recent publications include the report, ``Moving the U.S.-ROK Alliance into the 21st Century" and the book ``The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.