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

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With regards to outputs, the DPRK strengthens its position by ensuring that the international community knows little about the internal developments of the country. With this limited knowledge, nations are forced to form effective strategy towards the regime based on little more than estimates or, at best, guessing. Furthermore, the government does not allow its citizens to move freely into or out of the country. Those that do escape, as has been well documented, are often caught and returned by the Chinese government. This crackdown on immigration contributes to the lack of information coming out of the country, as well as the outside information filtering back in.

The goal, then, should be to turn Pyongyang’s own isolationist strategy against it by cutting off all remaining “inputs” (finances, trade, assistance) and slowly opening and delegitimizing its government by encouraging “outputs” (transmission of news both into and out of the country, escaped refugees). This strategy, as was noted, will not force regime change within an allotted time-frame, but it will create the necessary conditions for a change of regime to occur over an extended period of time. All strategies towards fostering regime change in the DPRK should be derived from this goal.

The Strategy: “Inputs”

To cut off the DPRK’s “inputs” is to starve the country financially. Since the early 1990’s, American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Nicolas Eberstadt has been predicting the collapse of the DPRK’s economy.[iv] However, surprisingly to Eberstadt and others, this has yet to occur. The regime has managed to survive all this time; even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main trading partner and subsidizer, as well as when struck by an extreme famine that killed an estimated 1 million people in the late 1990s.[v] This survival is the result of Pyongyang’s shrewd tactics and the disorganized and diplomatically insufficient strategic approach of the West.

The first step towards halting inputs lies with the ongoing nuclear weapons situation over the past twelve years. The threat Pyongyang has been able to pose over the region with its perceived nuclear weapons program, has allowed it to gain a superior negotiating position from which to collect on (some would say blackmail) incentives from the international community. While the traditional consensus is that the DPRK receives a large portion of its funds from China, the extent to which the United Statesand other democracies aided the continuation of the DPRK cannot go unnoticed. Over the past decade this record of assistance has become clear. According to Nicholas Eberstadt, between 1997 and 2002 the DPRK increased its merchandise trade deficit with non-Chinese countries from an estimated $50 million to $900 million.[vi]

Although this upsurge can be attributed to a number of different factors – including weapons sales, drug trafficking, and counterfeiting – the most notable explanation can be attributed to the policies embraced during this period by the United States and South Korea. Under the guise of the Clinton administrations “engagement policy” the US channeled $1 billion worth of food aid, fuel, and medical supplies between 1996 and 2002 – $350 million of which was transferred under the George W. Bush administration. What the USsent in basic supplies, the South Korean government made up for in cash payments. One example of this includes the widely reported story that, in order to coax North Koreainto attending the 2000 Korean Summit, South Korea transferred the North an estimated $200 million.[vii]

In our plan to starve the North Korean economy we must call for an end to concession payments and blackmail negotiations. Indeed the DPRK understands that by acting belligerently, it can further its position at the bargaining table. The real threat, therefore, does not lie with the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program and its threat to use such weapons, but rather how we, as a country, react to these threats.

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