On September 9th, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) celebrated the 69th anniversary of its independence. Since its inception, the totalitarian regime has been focused primarily on nuclear weapons development, neglecting other aspects of effective governance. Intercontinental missile tests and aggressive rhetoric have been synonymous with North Korea since the 1990s.
Kim Jong-un is determined to portray North Korea as a formidable nuclear state, at any cost. The residual anger – from the Korean War – against the capitalistic US is arguably driving the nuclear ambitions. Some commentators suggest the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are a ‘”bargaining chip” for preserving the current regime. Whatever the driver, it is the people of North Korea paying the price. 25.4 million voiceless souls are subject to abject poverty in the Communist state.
They have silently and fearfully endured decades of ill-treatment, guised as normal behaviour, by their supreme leaders. Essentially, it is a sad tale of power versus need. The collective has unmet needs, but one single man – who makes the decisions – wants power. This dichotomy of an all-powerful despot working towards nuclear capabilities, while its citizens lack access to necessities is hugely problematic. Change in the status quo is essential.
In the last seven decades of struggle, the United Nations (UN) – and assorted sovereign states – have tried to stop the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. Unfortunately, the triad of international policy designed to counter the weapons development have been abject failures – diplomatic pressure proved to be ineffective; economic sanctions were futile; military muscle failed to perturb Kim.
Yet, the powers-that-be continue to employ these same tired tactics to this day. Interestingly, America is divided on what policy approach to take regarding North Korea. The official stance of the US Government is imposing increasingly tougher sanctions to choke the DPRK. The Secretary of State – Rex Tillerson – wants to keep trying the diplomatic route. The US President has been explicit in his militaristic approach. While America wants even tougher sanctions, the Russian President has admitted that diplomacy is the only answer. There is simply no consensus on how to formulate effective policy. One thing is clear: current circumstances – both in the DPRK aggression and retaliatory policy – must unquestionably change.
The problem with the present policy approach – by sanctions or with arms – is its punitive nature. They just want a pound of flesh from Kim Jong-un. The measures imposed on North Korea adversely impact the people infinitely more than the regime. These measures exacerbate their present suffering and further alienates them from the international community. Sanctions might work against a truly democratic country, as the masses would demand the resignation of the executive, when life becomes unbearable.
However, that is extremely unlikely to transpire in a totalitarian regime, where the people are characteristically submissive to their supreme leader. If current tensions escalate into military intervention, Kim will remain unscathed in his nuclear bunker with his imported spirits. The average man, woman and child in the DPRK will not be so fortunate. North Koreans have no choice but to live with the ramifications of Kim’s actions. Policymakers need to bear this in mind. A fundamental change in policy – from punishing Kim to prioritising national welfare – is needed. A radical rethinking of the North Korea policy is therefore necessary.
The triad of international strategy tried to date has been about slowing the nuclear programme. Policymakers have fundamentally failed to recognise that the weapons development, although dangerous, is merely a by-product. The primary issue is that of a close-minded power-hungry despot, ruling over a stagnant economy with a people deprived of even basic human rights. The punitive policy response – aimed at the leadership – is detracting from the underlying self-imposed isolation and perdition of the people.
Reformed policy must instead target healthcare, infrastructure, education, social mobility, opening borders and increasing trade. The citizens of the DPRK must be at the centre of policy considerations moving forward. An all-encompassing humanitarian approach is the only feasible solution to solving the North Korean stalemate. This shift is named ‘Option Four’, with reference to the failed three-pronged policies of the past.
Option Four begins with a total cessation of the draconian measures used to date. More topically, nations must stop calling for even ‘tougher’ measures against the DPRK. Studying the commentary from world leaders on the North Korean crisis is revealing. They have discussed everything from economic sanctions to full-scale invasions. However, there is a shocking lack of humanity in their deliberations. Rarely do any of them even mention the people of North Korea.
There needs to be a shift in focus: from attacking the regime to the welfare of the people. However, halting punitive measures is only the first step. Stopping there would leave a dangerous vacuum, that Kim would undoubtedly exploit to further his nuclear programme. The next logical step is introducing policy that reverses decades of isolation for the reclusive state. New strategy must be implemented that includes the DPRK in every appropriate respect in international affairs.
Kim has convinced his people that the world is against them and threatens their way of life. Consider for a moment why it is so hard to enter or exit North Korea? What is the regime hiding from the world and why is the world hidden from the people? Is it as simple as the autocratic ruler fearing the enlightenment of his subjects? Admittedly, it is not currently impossible for people to leave the country.
Thousands flee to neighbouring China and South Korea each year for a better life, but most do so illegally. While these fortunate souls found freedom, it changes nothing for those still inside. The self-imposed isolation being orchestrated from Pyongyang must be countered. New policy must transform North Korea into a place where people flock to, not try to escape as they currently do.
Such change must happen from the inside, and the world outside must help to achieve this. The freedom of people to travel in and out of countries is fundamental to their social and economic development. The global populace must show North Koreans their unique way of life is accepted. Their communist views do not preclude their integration with the rest of the world. Diplomats need to work together to enable people to enter and leave North Korea freely. The DPRK will at first hesitate to be overly accepting of outsiders. Therefore, the international community must lead by example, by welcoming North Koreans with open arms.
As outsiders travel into – and the insiders leave – North Korea, a shift in ideology will naturally transpire. As they experience the new world outside, they will realise how tolerant it is. North Koreans will know the world is not against the country, as portrayed by Kim. Furthermore, the people will understand they have been denied basic human rights – such as the freedom of expression – in the DPRK. Consequently, it will become increasingly difficult for their supreme leader to keep them hostage in their own country. Opening international borders could be the catalyst that liberates North Korea.
Redrafting the Script
Media exists to promote awareness of current affairs. It performs an incredibly important service, bringing unreported stories to global attention. Unfortunately, the coverage of the North Korean saga by the same media is becoming unhelpful. Journalists have simply exhausted what they can say. The script is well-rehearsed: another nuclear test, followed by international condemnation.
The regime is irate and claims the world is against them. Subsequently, the people of North Korea are further alienated, and resentment grows. The people (in and around the DPRK) live their lives in fear, being constantly bombarded with doomsday prophecies and war-simulation graphics.
The hysteria is unhelpful for any people, least of all North Koreans. The problem is worsened by the words and phrases used. Worldwide media frequently refers to North Korea as a ‘hermit‘ or ‘evil’ nation, with a despot at the helm. Additionally, that the souls living there are ‘brainwashed‘. The media should stop covering North Korea – in the manner they currently are – for benefit of the country. It goes without saying, the disparaging language currently used in reports must stop immediately before causing irreversible damage.
It must be stressed, this is not an attack on the mainstream media. Simply, the chronic doomsday narrative needs to change. Indeed, a drastic re-think of North Korean policy is heavily dependent on the world media. They will be vital in instigating a monumental shift in the discussion surrounding North Korea. The media can start by changing the discourse on North Korea from evil to emerging. This subtle change would send a powerful message to North Koreans about how the world sees them; that the international community is not them.
The people need to know the world is working towards the betterment of their country. After discarding the doom-and-gloom reportage, the debate should be centred around the positives of North Korea. What can the DPRK offer the world in trade, goods, services, skills, education, investments, philosophies and ideas? Along the same vein, what can the rest of the world offer them? What can be done to form a mutually beneficial relationship moving forward? This would foster an atmosphere of integration, rather than isolation. Importantly, the latter plays into Kim’s hands, giving him metaphorical ammunition to continue his weapons programme.
New media must refocus its content: more on the citizens, less on the leadership. With such a change in the discourse, the media can instil hope in North Koreans for a better future. The importance of the people in that country knowing that the world stands with them cannot be stressed enough. That is far more powerful than any diplomatic pressure or military threat raised against Pyongyang.
Imagine for a moment that North Korea developed cutting-edge nuclear weapons and had the most warheads in the world. The North Korean people would derive little to no benefit from it. Kim would argue the weapons programme is critical to defending North Korea from enemy aggression. In reality, no nation wants to attack the DPRK, least of all the United States of America. The DPRK is not known to be rich in many resources nor is it strategically important to the US. Admittedly, tensions in the Pacific Rim play to America’s benefit. That being said, starting a war in the Korean Peninsula would be extremely calamitous for all sides.
However, state-controlled media in the DPRK inundates the people with apparent aggression from America. This biased reportage poisons the minds of media consumers, who increasingly see the US (and most of the world) as enemies. Kim can thus justify his nuclear ambitions.
Under Option Four, as North Koreans venture out of their native land and consume new media, they will see there is no international conspiracy against them. The populace will then inevitably start to question why valuable capital is being expended on WMDs for the destruction of foreigners when their own people are struggling for necessities.
Kim Jong-un does not have superhuman power. He is only as powerful as the people allow him to be. Once the people of the DPRK fully grasp that the world wants to offer assistance in its development, they could decide that the nuclear deterrent is not only unnecessary but financially reckless. The Option Four approach will compel the North Korean people to view current affairs objectively. That will be the beginning of the end for the nuclear programme. Perhaps, even the totalitarian regime.
Rising from Ashes
The need for international cooperation in opening doors and breaking down borders is apparent. Increasing economic activity with the secretive state is equally important, as it has been chronically stagnant. The domestic GDP is approximately $40bn in North Korea. For comparison, South Korea has a domestic GDP of approximately $1.9trn. That disparity is startling, even after conceding the South has twice the population of the North.
There are dual causes behind North Korea’s bleak economy: zealous nationalism and international trade restrictions. Option Four emphasises the need to negotiate new trade deals with North Korea, to improve integration. Policymakers need to enable capital inflows and outflows. Steady economic growth would provide the country with the momentum it needs to rise from the ashes. Instead of succumbing to current calls for increased economic sanctions on the DPRK, the global superpowers need to do the contrary. They must encourage trade and facilitate the movement of goods, services and investments with North Korea.
Executing such a radical shift in policy would have long and lasting benefits for the DPRK and world outside. Capital flowing into the country could even improve infrastructure, healthcare, education and social mobility. These are aspects of effective governance that the current regime is grossly neglecting. Encouragingly, the economy is starting to show increasing growth, and this must continue. A legendary investor, Jim Rogers, suggests North Korea could even be an emerging nation. If the money saved from the nuclear programme is added to the public purse, the resultant development of North Korea could be life changing for its inhabitants.
With Kim or without Kim, the current version of North Korea cannot be allowed to continue for the sake of its people. However, attempts to diplomatically, economically or militarily coerce the regime have been nothing but incendiary. Instead, a radical human-centric policy – Option Four – is required to solve the special situation that is North Korea.
Option Four demands a shift in narrative from the evil country with a tyrant to an emerging nation with great potential. Furthermore, punitive measures must be immediately stopped, to be replaced with policies that encourage global integration. Such constructive policy could cause the people in the DPRK to question why WMDs are being aggressively developed. Especially, as they face no imminent threat from any country and that capital could be used for the development of North Korea.