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[Viewpoint] A sea change, requiring new thinking

Our propping North Korea up with aid and appeasement is only drawing out the pain. And military action will only galvanize their people.

Dec 07,2010
When a paradigm shifts, sometimes it is not immediately apparent. Pearl Harbor, the outbreak of the Korean War and 9/11, for example, marked indisputable paradigm shifts. But even with 9/11, it took days for the new reality to sink in as to how much had changed.

The recent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island may not be of the same scale as the above-listed paradigm shifts, but I will stick my neck out to say that a significant sea change is underfoot. The difference is that it’s going to take weeks for this sea change to be realized.

Intentionally or accidentally, on Nov. 23, North Korea crossed over the South Korean populace’s line of tolerance. South Koreans felt their honor and self-respect had been greatly violated by an indisputable act of aggression, which led to civilian as well military deaths.

At the same time, the South Korean government was exposed to be woefully ill-prepared to deal with an unexpected armed attack. Some people blame the “lost decade” under the progressives’ naive Sunshine Policy, during which defense readiness was allowed to weaken. Others think that South Koreans have long been intrinsically unwilling to acknowledge that most of them live within proximity to mortal danger and as such have relegated adequate defense to being a secondary priority.

In any case, the one thing of which we may be certain is that North Korea will strike again. And given the North’s historical and ideological underpinnings, we can expect that the next event will be totally unexpected. North Korea lives and acts like guerrilla warriors in the tradition of their founder, Kim Il Sung. Recognizing the superiority of its enemies, the North has consistently operated and prepared asymmetrically.

Which means the safest place in South Korea is now Yeonpyeong Island, regardless of the additional defense armament recently installed. While no one south of the DMZ knows how and when the next attack will take place, my bet is that it will not be an artillery attack, which could invite immediate retribution from the South Korean Air Force.

My guess is that it could be something different, as unprecedented as a bomb on a Seoul subway or possibly taking South Korean managers in Kaesong as hostages.

Given this kind of threat, it may make sense for the South Koreans to respond asymmetrically. For example, there are rumors of activating the large and expensive propaganda speakers along the DMZ. The South has hesitated because the speakers are within easy North Korean artillery distance.

But what if the speakers sported large portraits of Kim Il Sung as speaker covers? And what if there was continuous real-time Internet video coverage of those speakers so, should the North Koreans fire at the speakers, the entire world may observe the North Korean army desecrating images of Kim Il Sung?

Thinking asymmetrically, the South needs to attack the North in the two areas where it is most vulnerable - international finance and the truth about its rulers. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. should further shut down North Korea’s overseas assets and financial channels. Even food aid needs to be placed entirely on China’s doorstep. The South should release at sea propaganda balloon barrages aimed at Pyongyang.

At the same time, more funds should be given to nongovernmental organizations to send radio and Internet broadcasts into the North, detailing the ruling Kim family. It is critical to expose North Korea’s rulers as being weak. The North rules by fear, and what they fear most is their citizens viewing them losing their grip on power.

Uncovered Hungarian secret police reports, for example, disclosed that Stalinist cadres tolerated workers’ grumbling, but comments on perceived intraelite factional struggles or other manifestations of the leadership’s weakness were promptly branded as the “enemy’s voice.”

If intelligence can accurately detect such friction in Pyongyang, then it needs to be exposed to the North Korean populace. Furthermore, information on North Korea’s relationship with China, with its dependence on Chinese supplies and its willingness to grant Chinese investors quasi-monopoly rights, need to be widely disseminated to its people.

Ultimately, we need to learn from the Soviet Union’s example. The Soviets were not beaten by the U.S. and its allies. At best, Ronald Reagan hastened the inevitable with his Star Wars spending. The real cause for the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the arrival of a new generation of Russian intellectuals and leaders who simply realized that the current system was unsustainable and drastic reform was absolutely necessary.

It is this kind of realization that must be driven home to the incoming generation of North Korean leaders. Our propping them up with aid and appeasement is only drawing out the pain. And direct military confrontation will only galvanize the North’s population behind the Kim regime.

Going back to tried and failed policies, such as resumption of the six-party talks, will also prolong the suffering on both sides of the DMZ.

Regime change is necessary, and it is feasible. But this may only be possible if the South Koreans and their allies’ leaders have the capacity to think and to act asymmetrically.

*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting and vice president of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.


By Tom Coyner



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