Contain and Transcend: A Strategy for Regime Change in North Korea

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By Eric Sayers

Since its creation in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has simultaneously pursued a confrontational policy towards the international community and a repressive policy towards its own citizens. Internationally, the DPRK maintains a high-tension position. In the past this lead to adventurous foreign policy decisions, most notably the 1950 surprise attack against South Korea. More recently, the DPRK’s uncompromising pursuit of nuclear weapons has become a serious concern with regard to international security. Domestically, the regime has maintained its totalitarian posture, using any means necessary to consolidate its power over the populace. This has led to the institutionalization of both terror and brutality as state tactics. As a result, the plight of the North Korean people constitutes one of the worst human rights situations of modern day history.

Although both the North Korean regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the treatment of its own people present troubling security problems, they are not single issues that can be approached individually. Instead, these issues are the byproducts of a much larger problem: the nature of the totalitarian regime. Therefore, in order to address the security problems emanating from the DPRK, we must first address their roots. This paper will outline a strategy to accomplish this goal. It will begin by providing a set of brief suggestions for deterring the regime in the short term, and then continue with a detailed approach for changing (transcending) the regime in the long-term.


Short-Term Containment

When dealing with a volatile security issue, such as that presented by the DPRK, any successful long-term strategy must be supported by a tactically sound short-term plan. If our ultimate goal is to bring down the regime, then a short-term plan must effectively deter and contain the DPRK over the next several years. Such a plan should have two primary objectives: prevent the DPRK from taking aggressive military action; and deploy a fully functional ballistic missile defense shield so as to guarantee both our safety and that ofEastern Asia.

Since the Korean War (1953), the US has maintained a military presence on the Korean peninsula. Currently a force of about 29,000 is maintained – these troops provide reinforcement to the 600,000 man South Korean military.[i] This continuous defensive line has ensured that the North Korean army cannot take aggressive action. In the past several years the number of US forces has decreased (37,000-29,000), this draw down will continue over the next three years. This course of action is a correct one because – as will be discussed in full below – it is increasingly important to help make the DPRK issue a “Korean” issue and not the sole responsibility of theUS. By forcing the South Koreans to embrace their own security dilemma, the nature of the threat will become more evident and, in turn, afford us a better diplomatic position through which to apply pressure in the near future.




Eric Sayers is a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario, and a former research intern at the Center for Security Policy.

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