How to Weaken Kim’s Grip
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

How to Weaken Kim’s Grip


Last week, South Korea’s Unification Ministry included Kim Kyong-hu, sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, in its diagram of the country’s power structure. Given ‘Dear Leader’ Kim’s health, which has reportedly been deteriorating, this announcement has fuelled speculation about the timing and nature of a leadership succession. Such speculation has followed much discussion centred around Kim’s sons and his brother-in-law.

In fact, no one outside of North Korea knows what will happen when Kim becomes incapacitated. However, one reasonable conclusion is that there’s no heir apparent in Pyongyang who has the same mix of skill and ruthlessness as Kim. This doesn’t foretell a collapse of the regime when a transition occurs, but it does point toward an opportunity to apply pressure on it as it begins experiencing additional internal tension.

In recent months, there have been two limited but real signs that regime decay is accelerating. The first came in the wake of an exchange and devaluation of North Korea’s currency on November 30. The plan required an exchange of old won bank notes for new ones worth only 1 percent of the old value, and capped exchanges at the equivalent of $40 per person. Foreign currency transactions were also banned. Given the collapse years ago of the state-run food and retail goods distribution networks in North Korea, a growing, informal private economy had emerged, one that at times appeared to be tolerated by the government. Some North Koreans thus acquired a modicum of economic independence and private wealth, which the regime set out to destroy with the devaluation.

The notable decay factor implicit in this act was not as much the economic pressure that caused it, but the reaction. For what appears to be the first time during Kim’s reign, North Koreans protested and were not met with total repression. Even more significantly, the regime backed down somewhat, relenting on its ban on foreign currency possession and with a Kim apology to boot. Both were unprecedented.

News of these developments seeped out of North Korea via clandestine information networks that mostly did not exist until recently. These have been developed in recent years by a diverse collection of North Korean refugees and South Korean human rights activists in Seoul–often persisting through the grudging acceptance or outright disapproval of the Pacific’s democratic governments.

At the heart of this effort are half a dozen shoestring news organizations that broadcast information and commentary into North Korea and gather information inside the world’s most opaque state. They transmit radio signals from a variety of locations around the western Pacific–except for South Korea. There, despite the abandonment of Seoul’s appeasement-oriented ‘Sunshine Policy’ after the election of Lee Mung-bak in 2008, institutional hesitancy to do more than pay lip-service to Korean unification persists. Determined efforts to bring a non-violent end to the North Korean regime remain largely taboo.

August 24, 2010 at 09:59

One way to weaken them; work out an agreement amongst the Pacific powers to take in NK refugees, now and in the future. That would remove China’s biggest fear, North Korea-wise, and remove an obstacle to defections.

H. Margolit
May 13, 2010 at 21:06

Wake up and smell the coffee – New Zealand is CRAWLING with North Korean students, scions of the elites there are THOUSANDS of them here, they are learning English and learning how normal people live in a normal society.

Jens W
May 1, 2010 at 23:25

“Pacific democracies including Japan and the United States should open missions in Pyongyang–but only on the condition that any North Korean may access them, and that anyone issued a visa will be given permission to exit the country. Existing foreign missions in Pyongyang should make this demand or depart.”

So, if Pyongyang refuses to accept such a scheme (which they will), the solution is to withdraw all foreign contact from the country (perhaps apart from aid agencies)? This would only benefit Kim and his cronies, for whom total isolation is the means to stay in power. Foreign embassies and agencies are in fact very important. They provide exchange opportunities for North Koreans to go abroad. They help attract development funding to the UN agencies/NGOs in the country, whose projects are vital for helping the human rights of North Koreans. Of course, embassies also gather intelligence. Our loss of these functions would be a victory for Pyongyang.

Additionally, accelerating the state’s collapse through broadcasts etc. is a risky policy that would likely exacerbate the humanitarian disaster that already exists. Additionally, the unpredictability of such a collapse would pose a huge strategic challenge to South Korea and the US. There is a high likelihood that China would move in to take de facto control of the North, which would be highly undesirable for both Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. And as PBAR said, they do not want to deal with the economic implications. Whiton’s proposals are neither sound human rights policy nor sound security policy.

March 7, 2010 at 21:58

The problem with all this is that the dirty little secret is that South Korea doesn’t want reunification-at least until North Korea has brought its economy out of the dumps. They would rather see the North Korea adopt Chinese-style reforms, fix its economy, and the reunify after that. So, we can’t do anything like releasing balloons or have 24/7 radio broadcasts but they just might work.

February 26, 2010 at 20:15

A satellite can’t remain stationary over Korea. However, it can remain stationary at Korea’s longitude over the equator. That might work pretty well.

February 26, 2010 at 13:33

In my opinion, there are two relatively inexpensive things that the U.S. could do to accelerate the demise of the odious North Korean system: 1) regularly launch high altitude balloons over North Korea filled with hundreds of freely-tunable transistor radios (with batteries) which are timed to drop those radios in groups of three or four every two or three minutes. Even if the North Korean government succeeded in confiscating 90% of them, over time a great many would make their way into the hands of ordinary North Koreans 2) Station a communications satellite in geo-synchronous orbit directly over North Korea broadcasting Korean language radio programming 24/7, perhaps even offering internet connectivity as well.

a Duoist
February 25, 2010 at 07:11

Eminently reasonable suggestions. Additionally, the growing spread of the Philosophy of Human Rights into South Korean universities ( could be accelerated, especially if the philosophy if made available in Korean in all the libraries of the numerous embassies in North Korea.

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