Contain and Transcend: A Strategy for Regime Change in North Korea

First, there is the prospect that some type of internal divide could occur. This might happen in two ways. First, an opportunity for inter-rivalry could emerge with the transfer of power from Kim Jung Il to one of his sons. Unlike Kim Jung Il’s situation, in which he had several decades to consolidate and strengthen himself for the eventual takeover of the country, the next DPRK leader will only have about decade to do this – assuming Kim Jung Il steps down or passes away sometime before 2020. This divisive issue is amplified by the reported health problems of Kim Jung Il that could lead to a sudden death, similar to what occurred with his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. Although currently Kim’s son, Kim Jong-chol, appears the favorite to succeed his father, there has also been mention of sons Chang Song-taek and Kim Jong-nam within the past several years.[xxiv] While the North Korean government would have no problem building a strong personality cult around whichever successor is chosen, an opening could exist for a standoff depending on the strength of the regime at that time.

Second, there is the possibility of an internal coup d’etat should the regime become so unstable that all party discipline collapses. Should an internal divide occur, some type of moderate leader could emerge who favors either an institutional change of government or radical reforms. If this were to happen, the North Korean regime may transform from a totalitarian government to a more moderate authoritarian government – possibly favoring political and/or economical openness. Such a scenario may not appear to present the ideal situation for the North Korean people. The continuation of tyranny on the Korean peninsula should not persist one day longer then it needs too, but it would be a more realistic and stable long-term situation. A more moderate government could be pressured to reform gradually over time, thus absorbing some of the transition shock that would follow complete government collapse.

Finally, if over time our plan was able to weaken the government while simultaneously empowering the North Korean people with the knowledge of their situation, some type of internal revolution or civilian backlash could emerge that the government would not be able to control. Such internal uprisings have been reported in the past. For example, in 1998 a strike occurred at a North Korean Iron and Steel factory following the brutal execution of several factory managers. Several hours after the incident the factories workers decided to stop working in protest. The next morning the protest was put down by the army, where after it was estimated that hundreds had been killed.[xxv] This brave action in the face of danger serves as a small-scale example of defiance that could certainly be possible elsewhere should the right conditions arise.  In the event that a large scale revolt did occur, it would be important for the international community to assist the South Korean government with a plan to move in to the North and fill the leadership gap.

 

Conclusion

When analyzing the DPRK the famous description Sir Winston Churchill offered with regards to the Soviet Union comes to mind: “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” While world government unanimously accepts that the DPRK is a threat to both the international community and to its own people, few have sought substantial change by any means other than “diplomatic engagement”. After more then a decade of misguided approaches, it is time to recognize the threat for what it is and begin to implement a plan for fostering long-term regime change within the DPRK. At the center of this plan is a twofold process to cut off financial inputs to the country, starving it slowly from within, while also working to break through the state controlled barriers to transmit knowledge to the North Korean people, encouraging them to flee their slave state. Whichever unpredictable storyline develops in the coming years, it will surely present a challenging task: be it unavoidable war to stop the North Korean nuclear threat, or, more likely, a massive nation building project, following the collapse of the government, to help the North Korean people along the path to a reunified peninsula.