Information Might be the Key to Dealing with North Korea’s Nuclear Threat

Information Might be the Key to Dealing with North Korea’s Nuclear Threat

By David Slinn

Dealing with North Korea is not easy. Dealing with a dictatorship never is. It took the West 45 years to overcome the challenges posed by the Soviet Union.

North Korea has now developed into a serious threat to regional and global security. Hiding the file at the bottom of the “Too Difficult” tray is no longer an option, but for an increasingly concerned international community there are no easy answers.

For Pyongyang, an independent nuclear capability remains a strategic objective — the ultimate guarantor of its security. I lost count of how many North Koreans tried to convince me that this was the right way for them to go and also of how many times I tried to convince them that it was a bad option for a small, underdeveloped country. Pyongyang has long believed that one day the U.S. would accept North Korea as a Nuclear Weapon State, as they perceive Washington did with Pakistan.

With no signal from North Korea that it is serious about a nuclear or a missile deal with real verification, there is little point in negotiation for negotiation’s sake. Under the circumstances, the U.S. approach of strategic patience has made sense.

If North Korea changes its mind, it already has the links to reach the U.S. Administration without fuss or publicity. Maybe the secret contacts to choreograph the beginning of a negotiation process (as with Iran, Libya, and Cuba) are already underway. But I doubt it. The mood music does not seem right. For now, the regime seems set on continuing confrontation rather than co-operation, challenging the international community to react.

International failure to react now would send a strange signal to Pyongyang as they try to gauge the level of international resolve. So what to do?

Maybe it is time to look at the North Korea threat rather than just the nuclear threat. After all, it is the regime itself that is the root of the problem. Following the latest nuclear test and the satellite/ICBM launch, the arguments for looking at wider options for dealing with the regime are getting stronger.

Such an approach would aim to pressure the North Korean leadership, for so long unaccountable to anybody but themselves, into change. Although no two cases are identical, recent experience with Iran and Burma shows that international pressure can help drive policy change from within. It could work in North Korea too. Where might the international community push?

The vehemence of the Pyongyang response to the 2014 Kirby Commission of Inquiry  suggests that North Korea might now feel some vulnerability on human rights. Follow up work to implement Kirby’s recommendations is crucial, perhaps with a particular focus on the linkage to the International Criminal Court.

The issue of sanctions is inevitably gaining new attention. Without a Chinese change of policy (not excluded but maybe not imminent), U.N. sanctions are unlikely to make much impact, especially when implementation is so patchy. But bilateral sanctions can. Those already in place have had some success. Several foreign companies have told me that they would not go near North Korea for fear of jeopardizing their U.S.-linked business. Recent Washington initiatives suggest more, tougher measures are on their way. Their impact would be enhanced by a major U.S. initiative to ensure implementation and to encourage their friends and allies to follow suit.

There is one other potentially crucial way to build the pressure on the DPRK leadership that has so far received little systematic international attention. It involves increasing the flow of external information to the population of North Korea. It is an area where the regime might be especially susceptible.

The traditional system of disseminating and reinforcing the regime’s version of the truth — and then  ensuring that nobody had access to alternative sources of information — worked remarkably well for decades. The compartmentalization of society was an important factor in ensuring the success of this approach. Not only did the citizens of a town not know what was happening in South Korea, let alone further afield, they did not even know what was happening in the town down the road. The regime ensured that communication was vertical, not horizontal.

This is now slowly changing. Information from the outside world is beginning to permeate North Korean society: smuggled USB sticks, South Korean movies, external radio broadcasts, defectors getting information back to friends and family, as well as more North Koreans travelling. Reports suggest that USB sticks are passed around and copied — a modern form of samizdat for old Cold War Warriors like me.

This might be making the regime nervous. Anecdotal evidence suggests attempts to enforce harsher punishments, including public executions, for those found watching illegal movies. Restrictions on contacts with foreigners seem to have been tightened, while even senior officials are under closer surveillance. And looking back to last summer, Pyongyang’s reaction to the South Korean loudspeakers booming news across the DMZ seemed to betray unease at what the population near the border might hear about their system and its leadership.

These reactions suggest external information could be an Achilles’ heel for a regime not used to worrying about public opinion and accountability. Supplying the information for more, better-informed horizontal communication within DPRK might well be an important tool for fostering the conditions for change from within.

There are precedents, both older and more recent. Information was an important tool in opening up the Soviet Union, and developments in Iran and Burma show the value of providing information to a population willing to start asking questions of its leaders.

As a closed society, North Korea is of course a massive challenge, but evidence suggests a developing appetite to learn more about the outside world. Modern IT offers new technical possibilities to help feed that appetite. It is an opportunity those looking for new ways to address the growing threat posed by North Korea might want to consider.


David Slinn is a CIPS Senior Associate for 2015–2016. An international diplomat and strategist, he has worked on some of the world’s most challenging files, from North Korea to Kosovo, Afghanistan to Croatia. See his full bio here:

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