The United States’ strategy towards North Korea has depended on diplomacy, economic sanctions, or strategic patience. However, these forms of external pressure have proven to be ineffective against North Korea. The primary goal of the Kim regime is to remain in power, and with the United States as an immediate threat, the regime is not likely to give up their nuclear weapons program willingly.
Despite frequent setbacks in foreign policy, there may be an effective means to address the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Recently, there has been a discussion on the use of internal rather than external pressure, to force the regime to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Internal pressure would be created by increasing the flow of outside information and accessibility to communication systems in the Hermit Kingdom. These two factors would theoretically empower the Korean people by revealing the benefits of democracy and capitalism, the inadequacies in their political system, and creating a means for the people to assemble and hold their government accountable for their state’s poor economy and standard of living.
To see some photos of North Korea from the author’s visit, click here.
There is precedence for this reasoning; accessibility to outside information and having the ability to effectively communicate with one another played a critical role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. One reason the Kim regime survived the Cold War was that they effectively limited the people’s access to information and their ability to freely communicate with one another. Therefore, taking away this restriction imposed by the Kim regime could result in political changes in Pyongyang. However, the viability of this strategy is dubious. The Kim regime has proven on various occasions to be cautious and observant. Specifically, officials in Pyongyang have observed the mistakes that led to the fall of previous governments and created policies that would prevent the same outcome occurring in North Korea. For example, from the very beginning, the regime effectively banned religion in order to prevent its destructive impact on society and recently became adamant on maintaining their nuclear weapons program after the collapse of Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya. This is why the regime still continues to exist despite the odds.
In a recent op-ed, John Lenczowski argues that the United States could increase North Korean exposure to information and increase means of communication by establishing more broadcast frequencies, manufacturing and deploying “digital radio mondiale” technology, flooding North Korea with USB drives with subversive content, and providing the Korean people with equipment to communicate to a wide audience, among other tactics. Nonetheless, these tactics are doomed to fail. In the past, North Korea has been exposed to outside information through gadgets such as USB drives and multi-frequency radios from China. However, the regime quickly noticed the growing danger of Koreans crossing the border into China and increased border security at the Yalu River. This crackdown limited the amount of transactions between Koreans and Chinese and thus limited the amount of exposure that Koreans have to outside information. Additionally, in order to ensure that Koreans are only accessing state-approved information, North Korea may have begun developing their own streaming and downloadable content services. For example, the introduction of the
Manbang, North Korea’s Netflix-like streaming service, provided the Korean people with instant entertainment. At first glance, the Manbang seems like a harmless gadget. However, if everyone were to come into possession of one, people still in procession of USB drives would be under immediate suspicion. Why do these Koreans still have USB drives when they can stream all their entertainment needs? In other words, the growing accessibility to information and entertainment through the state’s intranet may be a means for Pyongyang to better control and monitor the flow of information throughout the country.
Eliminating the Kim regime’s greatest strength—its control over information and communication—would be the most effective means in bringing political changes in North Korea. However, implementing such a strategy is not viable now and most likely will never be. The Kim regime is likely implementing measures to mitigate the amount of outside information coming into the country and a more effective means to recognize citizens who are accessing outside information.
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Casey is a graduate student in the Masters of International Policy and Practice program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with a regional focus in the Asia-Pacific, particularly North Korea. He has experience in researching and writing about economic and developmental issues related to North Korea.