A Pragmatic Approach to Collapsing the Regime: A Critique

By | July 15, 2014 | No Comments

US-DPRK relations are largely defined by the engagement and containment camps. | Image: Huanqiu Shibao

US-DPRK relations are largely defined by engagement and containment camps. | Image: Huanqiu Shibao

US policy positions on North Korea appear polarized, with proponents of engagement facing off against those who favor containment. But this is highly inaccurate; there are many complexities at the heart of the matter, and most of us know it. In her June 16 op-ed in the New York Times, Sue Mi Terry advocated for expediting the collapse of the North Korean regime, but she also called for a greater degree of radio broadcasting into North Korea; a more comprehensive attempt to engage the broad mass of the North Korean people directly would be hard to find.

Regardless, Iraq War veteran, American University graduate and self-confessed “public diplomat” Michael Bassett was dissatisfied with the piece, and opted to respond. In this essay, Bassett discusses his own vision for engagement with North Korea. Reflecting the complexities of the issue yet again, his position is not sunshine, but neither is it darkness.- Christopher Green, Co-editor.

A Pragmatic Approach to Collapsing the North Korean Regime: A Critique  

by Michael Bassett

“North Korea is a threat that keeps on threatening,” writes former CIA analyst and Columbia University Senior Research Scholar Sue Mi Terry in her recent New York Times op-ed, in which she also argues that the world should “accelerate the collapse of the Kim regime.” Terry criticizes what she sees as the current “soft containment” policy, which is imposed on North Korea by stakeholders driven by fear, and argues that stakeholders are reluctant to go harder on the regime out of fear that doing so would pose unacceptable risks to the stability of Asia.

Terry states that focusing on the short-term is “a blinkered view” that ignores the long-term strategic and economic benefits of bringing about collapse, which she assumes would eventually be realized after offensive forces simply “secure [North Korea’s] nuclear weapons and demobilize their vast army.” She speculates that security and stability would soon emerge. The void in Terry’s logos to the canon of North Korea scholarship appears filled by pathos defined by media narrative rather than academic rigor.

The following counter argument will highlight select logical fallacies within Terry’s op-ed to demonstrate why a nuanced perspective is necessary for regime change strategists and policy pundits alike. Further, I will explain the often-misunderstood strategic agenda of engagement, arguing why a containment strategy is not only a poor strategy, but also counterproductive. Those fluent in the canon envision solutions to the regime’s strategic calculus through the lens of engagement, knowing with confidence that over time it chisels away at their ideological power to bring about peaceful collapse in which the people revolt in a way that does not push the region into chaos.

Signs in Pyongyang (2013) propagates ideological unity (left) and stresses the three revolutions (technology, culture, and history) on the right. | Image: Michael Bassett/Sino-NK

Signs in Pyongyang dating from 2013 propagate ideological unity (left) and stress the three revolutions (technology, culture, and history) on the right. | Image: Michael Bassett/Sino-NK

Knowing the Unknowable: The Dangers of Speculation | Philip Tetlock states in his award-winning book Expert Political Judgment that, in short, “Political assumptions are about as likely to be accurate as the dart-throwing chimp.” The dart-throwing chimp was an experiment in which economists pitted major investors against a caged chimpanzee, which tossed darts at a board with the names of stocks taped to it. They then compared the outcomes. In most cases, the chimp came out marginally ahead. In much the same vein, it is safe to say that accurately making predictions about what would happen if regime collapse were induced is impossible.

Calls to contain North Korea take less imagination than pragmatic strategizing. Terry argues that the international community should use the “lock-them-tightly-in-a-box-and-blare-propaganda-inside” tactic until the regime falls apart—as if the regime would not opt to do something suicidal with their nukes; a plausible scenario in an unpredictable situation where senior leaders are boxed into a corner, their way of life at stake, and with nothing to lose.

Accelerating regime collapse via hard containment could also destabilize Asia for an unknowable length of time and in unpredictable ways. Although there are contingency plans developed for rapid collapse, inducing such collapse should be treated as a last resort because of the unpredictable breadth of destruction that could result. This tactic could open up a Pandora’s Box of problems that cannot be resolved cheaply, contained easily, or thoroughly prepared for in advance.

Additionally, to claim that an accelerated collapse should occur because it would lead to political prisoners being freed is dubious; there is the probability that prisoners would be killed by their guards at the first sign of collapse. Furthermore, as Paul French points out in State of Paranoia, collapsing the regime “carries a very real risk that the situation could become irretrievable. The military may decide that its role is to safeguard the nation and push Kim Jong-un aside.”  The chimp could land a dart on an outcome whereby the Korean People’s Army slaughters everyone deemed disloyal enough, in order to continue the revolution.

North Korea’s threats are driven by one goal: regime survival. And while those threats perpetually agitate the international community, they are designed to fall short of leading to international responses that result in the regime’s demise. Pyongyang’s strategic calculus is incredibly frustrating to persons in favor of unification and changing the status quo. The desire to induce regime collapse is quietly the agenda of many practitioners connected to the conflict—but those desires should be tamed in favor of pragmatic methods.

The logic of engagement practitioners (or “engagers”) follows that capacity-building practices foster mutual understanding, generate independent and critical thinking with counterparts, and teach North Koreans a way of life contrary to the façade indoctrinated into them for generations. Pragmatic methods are designed to corrode ideological indoctrination over time, resulting in democratization of the general population and the desire for factions to reform from within their political circles.

Analysts who warn policymakers “not to be careful what they wish for” should consider what happens when the candles go out in a dark country, where nobody really knows how loyal the population is to the regime, and which may have nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Policymakers should remember that knee-jerk reactions to the spread of communism were based on the same fears and frustrations that Terry’s are, and recognize that more than half a century later the US has still not found a silver bullet solution to the peninsula strategic calculus. For these reasons, pragmatism is the only approach worth following.

A “public television” in Rajin-Sanbong, North Korea (2013) displays itself frozen on Korean Central TV’s test channel at certain points through the day when the signals are blocked. | Image: Michael Bassett/Sino-NK

The display of a “public television” in Rajin-Sonbong (2013) is frozen on Korean Central TV’s test channel. | Image: Michael Bassett/Sino-NK

Brief Case Study: The Tale of Two Teenagers | When it comes to inducing regime reform, North Korean defectors could serve as force multipliers of a pragmatic strategy. By utilizing their unique life experiences they can identify cracks in the North, develop capacity to chisel the cracks open, and then strategize subsequent operations to ensure the cracks run far enough to cause agitation and discord in the highest echelons of power.

A litany of defector testimonies in the UN Commission of Inquiry Report document the unimaginable hardships they have experienced. These experiences are so tragic and painful that no one would expect defectors to advocate for anything less than the immediate destruction of the regime. But again, these desires should be recognized partially (and quite understandably) as emotionally driven, and countered with pragmatic approaches.

Rushing to cause immediate destruction is risky and unpredictable; as likely to exacerbate the conflict as to resolve it. Focusing on pragmatic methods and armed with unique knowledge, defectors could instead serve as a strategic, cultural, and operational bridge that, in the near-to-medium term, could serve as a means of inducing a coup d’état or counter-revolution. Such an outcome would be less threatening to Asian stability because the takeover of North Korea would play out from the inside—a preferable way to induce collapse as it lessens the likelihood of destructive retaliation inside and outside of North Korea’s borders.

Being attentive to children’s lives in North and South is one way to identify cracks in either system—as the experiences of children in conflicts can highlight social problems and underscore spaces where informational bridges could be built upon. For example, in South Korea thirteen-year old Kim Seo-yeon recently published an animated book about North Korea’s prison camps—sadly one of the few issues that those in the South are well-informed about. The education system in the South suffers greatly from politicization. Yeon-mi Park, an escapee of the oppressive regime in the North, has been focusing on these spaces for capacity building—feeding watchers with information regarding markets and how they have (in many cases against the “rule of law”) emerged out of the requirements of survival.

This insight provides a focal point for strategy, bridging cultural divides, and designing operational capacity to exploit these cracks in the system. Ju-yeon, as a North Korean teen, started her own “7-11” in rural Chongjin where she sold everything from socks to homemade moonshine. She is one of many examples of North Koreans learning to think independently as a means of survival. Independent thinking is a crucial element of regime reform because it serves to counter political indoctrination from the bottom-up. North Korean defectors could bridge the disconnects between analysts and activists to exploit opportunities to induce change from the bottom up. “Once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself,” said Yeon-mi in a recent talked hosted by LiNK. “And that is a really big problem for a totalitarian government.”

Like Ju-yeon, many teenagers in the North are currently operating black market ventures to survive, yet many teenagers in the South, like Seo-yeon, are unaware of the potential to end human rights abuses through defector mediated strategic capacity building. This tale of two teenagers represents the space where defectors could operate—coaching activists and stakeholders how to chisel away at cracks which they know exist in the North. Hypothetically speaking, a defector could identify a market in the North and then arrange support for infrastructure, or identify an area where political dissent has occurred and support information and activities operations (IAOs) in such strategic locations. Defectors know where the cracks are and could advise on how to open them more–if an environment were created for that.


Two girls in North Korea (2013) purchase foreign-made candy from a street vender. Evidence suggests the youngest generation of North Koreans are the ones with the capability and know-how to effect real and lasting change. | Image: Michael Bassett/Sino-NK

Conclusion | Neither engagement nor containment approaches have resulted in political reform. Terry’s argument that tighter containment will result in a hard but speculatively “manageable” collapse is dubious. The pragmatic engagement approach to regime collapse may lack operational development, but exposes untapped grassroots capacity to influence change from within. Utilizing their unique experiences, defectors could exploit ideological cracks in North Korea by facilitating information and activities operations designed to split those cracks wide open.

Although engagement is traditionally thought of in the Western world as achieving little more than enabling the North Korean regime, the regime views engagement with extreme paranoia due to the fear that every bit of outside influence that makes its way into the country has the potential to contradict the ideology long used to maintain the regime’s survival. Contrary to mainstream thinking, engagement threatens the regime’s survival more than containing it does, and is thus the pragmatic approach to collapse.

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