North Korea is a mistake of history created by outside forces. It has nuclear weapons, improving missiles and the world’s most brutal totalitarian regime. It is a threat to its own people, to its neighbors and to the stability of East Asia. Its regime limps along despite an impoverished population and a critically inefficient command economy, which it refuses to reform. American policy on North Korea gives the pervading sense that the US is merely treading water, trying only to prevent the situation from getting worse while hoping that the problem will be solved internally. As a nation which claims to lead the free world, to defend basic human rights and to stand for nuclear non-proliferation, America has a responsibility to do more.
The US needs a greater sense of urgency in its approach to the North Korean regime’s human-rights abuses, weapons programs and exports, and aggressive behavior against US allies. The 372-page United Nations investigation into human rights violations in North Korea, issued on February 17th, 2014, is the most damning and comprehensive report to date. It details North Korea’s extensive prison network, which holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners subjected to inhuman conditions, torture, and the constant threat of execution. The Chairman of the UN commission releasing the report, Michael Kirby, compared the Kim regime’s atrocities to the Nazis’ in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, as its 25 million citizens live in squalid poverty under the threat of incarceration for deviant thoughts, the Kim regime – living in luxury – directs state resources towards a massive military, including advancing missile and nuclear programs. In addition to threatening US allies South Korea and Japan, North Korea shows an alarming enthusiasm for shipping weapons and technologies to other rogue regimes and to terrorist groups. The Kim regime maintains close ties with Assad’s Syria and has sent arms to Hezbollah and Hamas via Iran, and has a history of threatening nuclear proliferation. The international community and the US have a responsibility to end North Korea’s nuclear technology and weapons trafficking, to protect stability and vulnerable civilian populations in East Asia, and to stand up for the basic human rights of 25 million North Koreans.
Regardless of US policy, the Kim regime is on a road to ruin, as its economy rots and citizens learn about free exchange and the outside world through black markets. North Korea wears the scars of an inefficient, crumbling Stalinist economy. The country’s food rationing system has not worked properly since environmental factors, government incompetence and the loss of Soviet support brought between 600,000 and 2.5 million deaths in the 1994-1998 famine. Today, most North Koreans live in extreme poverty; a 2013 UN investigation found that food consumption is “borderline or poor” in 84% of North Korean households, and malnutrition and even starvation are widespread. This economy could only find new life in market-oriented reform, which is off the table. Any hope that Kim Jong-un would adopt such a path suffered a critical blow when he publicly executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was the chief North Korean envoy to Beijing and an advocate of Chinese-style economic reform. The regime fears, perhaps correctly, that any reform might begin a fatal loosening of its political grip. Informal liberalization through black markets has already increased North Korean citizens’ willingness to express dissent. These markets emerged during the 1990s famine when, for survival, North Korean citizens had to turn to market exchange instead of the broken government food-distribution system. Ever since, this activity has become entrenched throughout the country, decreasing citizens’ dependence on the government and providing extensive opportunities for smuggling goods and information from the outside world. The regime has tried to curtail this activity, most notably in 2009 with a “currency reform” which wiped out the private wealth of trading citizens. Instead of silence, citizens responded with anger and riots across North Korea, forcing the government to take an unprecedented step back. It offered some subsidies as compensation for losses, and even publicly executed the official identified as having come up with the idea. This event proved to the regime that any economic liberalization, which will increase free trading, could bring serious challenges to the regime’s political authority. As a result, the regime does not appear to be considering a change in course even though its current path is unsustainable. This state of affairs, and the Kim regime, cannot continue indefinitely.
US policy on North Korea has settled into a safe but stagnant pattern, and must be reevaluated and reinvigorated. The US remains officially committed to using the “stick” of new sanctions and the “carrot” of aid to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, North Korea has a long history of signing agreements and breaking them later, while the aid and sanctions relief it receives in the meantime only help to prop the Kim regime up. Regardless of which tools the US uses, the Kim regime will not willingly give up its nuclear weapons. North Korean officials carefully watched what happened to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, whose falls suggest that giving up nuclear weapons programs surrenders the only effective deterrent against US-imposed regime change. The Kim regime will not give up this pillar of its defense. The US, meanwhile, cannot simply wait the regime out. The only way for the regime to cede power peacefully is probably through the unlikely route of long-term economic reform, and more realistic options – an internal uprising, a sudden regime implosion or even a conventional war – range from the dangerous to the disastrous. These outcomes will risk humanitarian crises and North Korean use of nuclear weapons. This unstable situation is one of the reasons the US has failed to take a more active policy position on North Korea, but doing nothing is not the answer. Encouraging broad-based change among North Korean citizens themselves could help bring about regime change, while gradual grassroots pressure from within will carry less risk than will sudden crises or the intervention of outside powers. North Korean citizens proved with their fiery response to the regime’s 2009 currency “reform” that they are capable of making the government change course, and the US can help them. First, the US should encourage defection from North Korea. Escaped ordinary North Korean citizens have proven to be extremely dedicated and effective in the battle to smuggle outside news into their country, weakening the regime. Elite defectors, if they could be drawn away by a combination of US guarantees and the occasionally lethal politics of Pyongyang, could also provide the US with essential information on the internal workings of the North Korean government. Despite the importance of this information to American policy, US officials have admitted that in this field they are far behind China. Second, the US should support non-governmental civil society organizations which smuggle pamphlets, radios, DVDs and even USB drives into North Korean black markets. These groups’ combined annual budgets do not exceed $1 million, and the US. can significantly expand their efforts to expose North Korean citizens to the outside world by increasing the organizations’ funding. It can also help these groups with diplomatic support, especially in China, where their activities are often illegal. Current US policy towards North Korea is ineffective, almost apathetic, and American policymakers need to take a fresh look at what can be done to affect the situation on the ground for the better.
Finally, the US’ most difficult but potentially most effective option on North Korea is to quietly bring China to the table. Providing essential aid and diplomatic support, China is a vital pillar of the Kim regime’s existence, maintaining North Korea as a buffer state between its own border and American troops in US-allied South Korea. US outreach to China on this issue would have to be entirely secret, would only be able to pursue limited goals – China will not help to topple the Kim regime, at least not under current conditions – and might be rejected outright. However, even a less tolerant Chinese attitude towards North Korea could have significant implications in forcing the regime to change its course. To pursue this outcome, the US should work to assuage China’s fears of losing North Korea as a buffer state. It should be able to promise that, in the event of a regime fall and Korean reunification, the US military will never establish any bases north of the current DMZ. It can also pledge that if American forces must enter North Korea to help South Korean troops secure the North’s nuclear weapons, those troops will stay away from China’s border and withdraw once their objectives are complete. For its part, South Korea can restate its policy that it does not have an interest in nuclear weapons, and it could promise that in the event of reunification it will end the North’s program and that it will neutralize the weapons already made. The US and South Korea could promise to bear a certain share of the cost and responsibility of assisting North Korean refugees, millions of whom China fears will flood across its border in the event of a collapse. In addition, any discussion between China and the US will help prevent disastrous miscalculation if, in the event of a sudden collapse, outside powers have to intervene quickly without time to communicate their intentions and coordinate their actions. As unlikely as it is to be met with a positive reception, the US must still try to open a dialogue with China on the future of North Korea. Any reduction in Chinese support, or prior discussion in case a sudden collapse requires rapid response, could help push events in a better direction and prevent disaster.
The North Korean regime is a threat to its own people, to East Asia and to the world. Inside the country, black-market activity is pushing North Korean citizens to become increasingly self-reliant and knowledgeable of the outside world, and less willing to take government abuse. If the regime continues to refuse change, its fall is inevitable; the only question is how many more years and how much more suffering must come to pass before that day. The US can push events in a positive direction by realizing the failures of its past policy, by encouraging defection from North Korea and by aiding civil-society organizations which smuggle outside knowledge into the country. Only by communicating with China, however, can the US constrain the Kim regime’s flexibility and create contingency plans in case a regime implosion necessitates rapid outside intervention. A diplomatic breakthrough with the Chinese, even in secret, may be unlikely. Nevertheless, with a moral imperative to end the Kim regime, the knowledge that the regime will inevitably collapse unless it rapidly changes its course, and a lack of unilateral options to create change on the ground, the US must try every option at its disposal. Anything less is a failure of American ideals and American policy.
Stephen Mettler (’18) is a sophomore in Saybrook College.
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