[Viewpoint] Offering North Korea an exit strategy

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[Viewpoint] Offering North Korea an exit strategy

The media has been dominated over the past few weeks with stories about North Korea’s dynastic succession process that offers little hope for change.

As a business professional, here’s my take. When faced with this kind of dilemma, I don’t have the luxury to wait out the competition or the market to make my products and services viable. Rather, one of the axioms of marketing is “if you don’t like the game, then change it.” To do that, one must first consider what other games may be possible. It’s not an idealistic quest. The goal is to devise a new scenario, necessarily compromised by reality, taking into account the competition, potential allies and ultimately the customers.

Looking at this decades-old stalemate with North Korea, the main game players are North Korea, South Korea, the U.S. and China. The secondary players are Russia and Japan. The rest of the world falls in the last, inconsequential group of essentially non-players which act mostly as observers.

During most of this Northeast Asia stalemate, questions have essentially revolved around what the players want from North Korea. A game change asks a different set of questions. For example, what kind of North Korea regime can the primary players live with? (To ask what kind of government North Korea should ideally evolve into is a non-starter because it does not take into account other primary players.)

Chinese, South Korean and U.S. representatives need to come to an agreement as to what is an acceptable form of North Korean governance. The three parties could then agree to work toward a regime change. The result could be North Korea having something similar to a single-party state capitalist system with a socialist facade, with the capacity to evolve in time to a multi-party democratic free state.

Even so, how realistic is that from a North Korean perspective? As much as many North Koreans would wish to see a better form of governance and enjoy improved economic well-being, most still believe that the Kim dynasty is protecting them from a hostile world. The Kim clan largely bases its rule on xenophobia to continue its hold on popular support.

Recalling how much of North Korean propaganda is based on the templates devised by wartime Japan, we should recall how the U.S. and its Allies dealt with the Japanese emperor in 1945. Most Japanese, at least until the very last moment of the war, remained fanatically loyal to their emperor.

Most North Koreans have a psychological need to remain loyal to the Kim dynasty rather than being forced to come to grips with the totality of the needless suffering they have been forced to endure for more than half a century.

At the same time, the extended Kim family and its political dependents fearfully resist any change since there is no avenue for retreat. Ultimately, this clan and its related families must find some kind of safety for any change to happen.

If the three parties were to borrow from Gen. MacArthur’s 1945 playbook, Kim Jong-un and his family would be enshrined in some kind of protected class of revolutionary leaders with the same amount of governance as Europe’s constitutional royalty.

The group would be honored, respected and pampered, but they would be required to relinquish day-to-day governance of their country to another set of officials with term limits similar to China’s political leaders.

The challenge, of course, would be effecting this regime change. The ideal would be a bloodless coup, staged by the North Korean military with the unequivocal backing of China, quickly recognized and protected by Beijing and acknowledged by Seoul and Washington. Moscow and Tokyo would be quickly informed after the coup had taken place and requested by the three parties to recognize the new regime. The new regime’s immediate challenge would be to effect positive change quickly. The common people would certainly figure out pretty fast what would be going on. Without immediate, tangible improvements, a coup could fail in the face of a reactionary uprising.

Though the U.S. and South Korea may be less than happy with the newly installed regime, a change of government should enable North Korea to escape from its mire. With a more secure regime in place, new talks on denuclearization of the peninsula may begin in earnest.

But even after a verifiable denuclearization, we may be facing a Chinese “Mini-Me” government in Pyongyang. If so, we may need to resist the easy temptation to reduce U.S. forces in South Korea as Seoul and Tokyo could be facing a new set of China-related hegemony issues.

If anything similar to the above is to be attempted, now is the time. North Korea is entering a period that offers as good an opportunity as any we may see in a generation. While China, South Korea and the U.S. may have disagreements regarding the Korean peninsula, there may be enough consensus for all three to cynically collude in this kind of endeavor.

The North Koreans realistically cannot see a genuine future given their current predicament. All recognize something significant must occur to serve as a catalyst for real change. According to visitors, at least some North Koreans have resigned themselves to an eventual war. That is because their leadership and, to an extent, the surrounding powers, have not offered North Korea an exit strategy.

As Sun Tzu famously stated, “To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape.” This strategic error of isolating Pyongyang needs to be addressed. The coming months offer our best chances to make that correction.

*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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