How to change Pyongyang

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How to change Pyongyang


After announcing its decision to completely shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued an extremely cruel statement that included harsh insults aimed at President Park Geun-hye.

“She has lost her motherly love, as she never had a child,” it said.

It also called her a moron.

The rhetoric appeared to come from Kim Yong-chol, the new head of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party, in a likely attempt to display his blind loyalty to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

It is astonishing to see the country’s high-profile officials scrambling to please the young ruler.

Hwang Pyong-so, the politburo chief, even knelt before Kim and covered his mouth with his hand to prevent his saliva from accidentally spraying the dear leader.

Workers’ Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae behaved similarly, knowing that Kim hates the older officials’ bad breath.

This is how Pyongyang’s top military officers survive.

The generals with only field experience often are aware of these quirks and face cruel fates because of it. The defense minister changes about every eight months. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the third-highest position in the military - have faced even harsher realities. Among the past four chairmen - Lee Yong-ho, Hyon Yong-chol, Kim Kyok-sik and Ri Yong-gil - only Kim died in a hospital bed.

The rest were executed.

“Just like King Gungye of the short-lived Hugoguryeo state [901-918], Kim is purging officials on impulse,” said a senior official in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS). “It may be a way to strengthen his power, but it shows Pyongyang is oppressed by fear and madness.”

South Korea’s foreign affairs and security officials are also mostly hawks. The majority of them are former military officials, like National Security Office Director Kim Kwan-jin and Lee Byung-ho, the head of the NIS.

Meanwhile, the Blue House has moved toward decisions on a number of pressing issues, such as the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the possible deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system.

“North Korea won’t survive unless it gives up its nuclear programs,” President Park said, continuing a hard-line stance.

In both Koreas, reasonable aides have disappeared, and the officials in charge are merely trying to please their superiors.

Of course, North Korea will face serious consequences for its nuclear development. It is highly likely that the international sanctions will work. The North Korean economy is in serious crisis. The price of hard coal, which comprises about 40 percent of the country’s exports, has plummeted. And the United States, following successful resolutions to the situations in Iran and Cuba, now holds the stick.

Almost all the front-runners in the U.S. presidential race, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have vowed to punish North Korea. China also needs to watch Washington’s stance because its currency is under the attack.

If the U.S. Treasury Department pressures China to stop manipulating the exchange rate, since its trade surplus has reached $500 billion, China may face disaster. Russia, too, has no power to help the North due to plummeting oil prices.

But will harsh sanctions alone be enough to change North Korea? A dictatorship rarely collapses from outside pressure alone.

In a January 2015 interview with U.S. President Barack Obama, he called North Korea “the most isolated, the most sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on Earth.”

The answer, he added, is not going to be a “military solution.”

“Our capacity to effect change in North Korea is somewhat limited because you’ve got a one million-strong person army, and they have nuclear technologies and missiles,” he said. “We got South Korea - an ally of ours - right next door. If there were a war, it will be severely affected. The answer is not going to be a military solution.

“The Internet over time is going to be penetrating this country. Over time, you will see a regime like this collapse.”

Obama is perhaps the most informed person on North Korea.

In North Korea, the personality cult surrounding the Kim family is akin to religion. The residents there live within a feudal system. Its people have never experienced democracy, having lived through the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and Japanese colonial government (1910-45) and then on to a Communist dictatorship.

Even if international sanctions took away all the country’s money, it would not fall easily. It made it through the famine in the 1990s, in which hundreds of thousands of its people starved to death.

Just like Obama pointed out, there must be a different way to effect change in North Korea.

The regime’s biggest fear is that its residents will lose their faith in the Kim family and Pyongyang’s authority. That’s why North Korea fiercely resists the propaganda broadcasts from the South, referring to them as groundless slander against the regime.

This North Korean policy is cyclical. In times of sanctions, it is desirable to pressure North Korea as much as possible in cooperation with the United States and China.

But from a long-term perspective, we need to think about the future and what it means with the shutdown of the Kaesong industrial park. We must think seriously about how we can increase contact with the people of North Korea and how outside information can flow freely through the black markets, the Internet and mobile phones.

It is crucial for the government to allow the North Korean people to wonder why they don’t living as affluently as South Koreans and the Chinese. Exhausting public faith in the North Korean dictatorship - not cutting off the country’s hard cash supply - will be the shortcut to unification.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 15, Page 28

*The author is a senior editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho


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