Illustration by Michael Willis
Illustration by Michael Willis

Let’s start with the bad news: The North Korean problem has no simple or quick solution. The North’s weapons-grade plutonium and nuclear devices have already been manufactured, and are now safely hidden in underground facilities. China, and to a lesser degree Russia, remains unwilling to support a truly rigorous (read: efficient) sanctions regime. More narrow financial sanctions that target the money used to reward regime insiders with perks, like bottles of Hennessy cognac and Mercedes cars, won’t have much impact. Most of the North Korean elite believe that regime stability is a basic condition for their survival. No doubt, they would be willing to put up with locally produced liquor and used Toyotas if the alternative was being strung from the lampposts.

More international aid would be most welcome in Pyongyang, no doubt -- but not enough for the regime to give up its nuclear program. Once the money was spent (and it would be spent quickly), a nonnuclear North Korea would be just another impoverished country, competing for attention with places such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. A U.S. security guarantee -- another carrot held out by some in Washington -- wouldn’t be any more enticing. North Koreans don’t believe in the value of foreigners’ promises, especially when such promises are made in democratic systems where leaders and policies change every few years.

“Benign” Neglect

There is thus a great and growing temptation to say that North Korea is better off forgotten and ignored. This reasoning is attractive, and utterly unrealistic. North Korea has not the slightest desire to be left alone. Whilst being “benignly” neglected, North Korean leaders would work hard to improve their nuclear and missile arsenal. They would then try to sell their technologies abroad, both as a way to be troublesome and to earn extra cash.

All of North Korea’s most destructive policies -- the nuclear and missile programs, the unwillingness to reform, the determined efforts to maintain a police state, the penchant for fomenting regional tensions -- are designed to keep the regime afloat. The only way to alter North Korea’s behavior is to change the nature of the regime. The question is how.

What brought about the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? Certainly the desire for national independence among ethnic minorities, as well as a longing for democracy among better-educated sections of the population, played a significant role. On balance, though, the fate of communist regimes was sealed by their economic inefficiency, not their political repressiveness. In order to become a political factor, this economic inefficiency first had to be recognized by the majority of the population. Had the Soviet leadership been willing and able to maintain a North Korean level of isolation and repressiveness, the Soviet Union might still be in existence today.

For a long time, Soviet agitprop tried to cushion the impact of news about Western prosperity by insisting that only the cruelty of historic fate, and not the ingrained problems of the communist system, prevented the Soviet people from enjoying the same consumer delights as Americans. Russians couldn’t compare themselves with the lucky inhabitants of North America, who had never suffered a foreign invasion and were free to exploit the entire world for their selfish purposes.

North Korean propagandists face a bigger challenge. They have to explain the stunning prosperity of South Korea -- a country populated by members of the same ethnic group, who share the same language and culture as the destitute inhabitants of the North. The more that knowledge about the fabulous success of South Korea spreads among ordinary North Koreans, the less tenable the status quo will become.

Three channels can be exploited to provide the North Korean populace with unauthorized information about the outside world. First, academic, cultural and other interpersonal exchanges, endorsed by North Korean authorities, will open the gates to potentially dangerous knowledge. Conservatives in Washington, Seoul and elsewhere may question the value of these exchanges, and no doubt the top functionaries in Pyongyang and their spoiled children will be the first to take advantage of overseas study trips or international student exchanges. Yet these are exactly the type of people who matter most. Changes to the North Korean system are most likely to be initiated by well-informed and disillusioned members of the elite.

American Dream

History shows the power of even controlled and limited exchanges. In 1958, an academic exchange agreement was signed between the U.S. and the USSR. In the U.S., diehard conservatives insisted that the program would merely provide the Soviets with another opportunity to send spies into America. Indeed, the first group of four exchange students included a rising KGB operative, as well as a former soldier who later joined the Communist Party central bureaucracy. Within a decade, he had become the first deputy head of the propaganda department -- in essence, a second-in-command among Soviet professional ideologues.

The KGB operative’s name was Oleg Kalugin, and he turned out to be the first Soviet spy to criticize the KGB’s role as a party watchdog. He initiated a campaign aimed at its transformation into a regular intelligence and counterintelligence service. His fellow student, Alexander Yakovlev, became Mikhail Gorbachev’s right-hand man. Yakovlev made a remarkable contribution to the collapse of the communist regime in Moscow (some people even insist that Yakovlev, rather than Gorbachev, was the real architect of perestroika). Both Kalugin and Yakovlev said it was their experience in the U.S. that changed the way they saw the world.

Apart from academic exchanges, one should encourage all activities that create an environment conducive to contact between North Koreans and foreigners (and especially between North and South Koreans). This is the major reason why the Kaesong Industrial Zone -- recently suspended by the North -- was actually a very good idea: Projects on which North and South Koreans work together are bound to produce many situations that involve uncontrolled and unscripted exchanges between the two peoples.

Additionally, for the first time in decades, it is becoming possible to deliver unauthorized knowledge directly to North Koreans. DVD players are common now in the North, and even computers are not unheard of anymore. Tunable radios, while still technically illegal, have been smuggled into the country in growing quantities. The information blockade can now be penetrated, and the North Korean public seems to be more receptive to critical messages.

Fortunately, there has been a dramatic increase in broadcasts directed at North Korea in recent years. According to a study conducted by the Intermedia Group, five radio stations - - not counting the government-run Korean Broadcasting System and some Christian stations in South Korea -- targeted the North Korean audience by the summer of 2009. The total broadcast time amounted to 20.5 hours a day (once again, excluding KBS). Given that a few years ago the total broadcast time didn’t exceed four to five hours, this is a remarkable breakthrough. Some estimates put the number of listeners at 1 million, or some 5 percent of the total population. These stations need more active support.

Digital Libraries

New technologies -- particularly the VCD/DVD players that have continued to spread inside North Korea -- are also creating opportunities. It is now possible to produce visual material -- essentially, documentaries -- specifically designed for North Korean audiences. Books, too, can now be easily scanned and converted into text files. Hundreds of such files can easily fit into one USB drive or DVD disk. In the 1970s, it would have taken years of typewriting (or days of photocopying) to reproduce such a large volume of text; now the job can be done within minutes. A digital book is also easier to hide or destroy than its paper equivalent. That means even one copy of a book (or rather a collection of books, a “digital library”), once smuggled across the border, can proliferate inside North Korea.

By their very nature, books will be more appealing to intellectuals and the lower reaches of the elite. Such scanned materials might thus include textbooks on major social subjects and humanities, as well as purely technical material (and special attention should be given to textbooks and manuals dealing with computers). It is important to introduce books that have different, even mutually exclusive, opinions; North Koreans should not be subjected to syrupy propaganda and anti-communist harangues. Instead, they must become accustomed to intellectual differences and arguments. They should read what is written by the left and right, zealous antiglobalists and stubborn libertarians alike. They should be exposed to the modern world, with all its complexity and uncertainty.

Finally, the world shouldn’t overlook the potential of those North Koreans who have made it out of the country. North Korean refugees are very different from those Eastern Europeans who fled to the West during the Cold War. To start with, they cannot be plausibly described as “defectors” since most of them were driven away from the North by starvation or other nonpolitical factors. Furthermore, Eastern European and Soviet defectors were well-educated, while North Korean refugees are largely farmers and manual workers.

Still, a small but not insignificant community of well-educated refugees has now built up in South Korea. Contrary to what is often assumed, they are not actively supported by the South Korean state; one shouldn’t be surprised by the sight of a former North Korean engineer working as a pizza deliveryman. Support systems and jobs for such people are crucial. For younger refugees, scholarships for master’s and doctoral studies are of special importance, since currently the government only pays for their undergraduate education.

Refugee Intellectuals

We need to train more former North Koreans to become professionals -- construction engineers, accountants, scientists, water-treatment specialists, and doctors. Nowadays, refugees stay in touch with their families and friends back in North Korea, thanks to Chinese mobile phones and a network of “brokers” who deal with people smuggling, money transfers, and letter exchanges. A refugee who has become, say, an accountant, is likely to channel back to the North information of much greater importance and impact than one who makes a living by waiting tables.

When the collapse or transformation of North Korea finally comes, some of these refugee intellectuals will probably go back to their native land. Some of them will become political and social activists, while many more will apply their technical skills in the reemerging North Korean economy. They will play a major role as educators and instructors, teaching North Koreans how things are done in the South and, broadly speaking, in the modern world. Investing in them now is one way to help speed that day along.

(Andrei Lankov is a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, and the author of “North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea” and “From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1960.” This is the last of three excerpts from his new book, “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia,” which will be published May 8 by Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Andrei Lankov at andreilankov@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net