North Korea is an irrational, out-of-control and unpredictable dictatorship. To most people this seems like an apt description. If you think this, you are wrong.
The truth is that the North Korean leadership, headed by the Kim family, is very rational, very predictable and very much in control of their actions. For decades, they have conducted a successful foreign policy based on threats to achieve rewards. They have cowed their neighbors and every major power that has encountered them. This is not the work of a bunch of nut jobs who like launching test missiles that crash into the Pacific Ocean. This is a coordinated policy of intimidation.
The cyber warfare generated against Sony over The Interview is a continuation of the decades-old policies of the North Korean government to make the world think that North Korea is unpredictable. This policy is designed to create instability on the Korean Peninsula and make the United States, South Korea and Japan perpetually nervous.
The North Koreans never go so far as to provoke an actual military strike against them. Their actions are outrageous, as with the cyber attacks on Sony or shelling of South Korean islands a few years ago. Yet, their actions are limited, followed by boisterous threats, then they get a few concessions and go silent for awhile.
A small elite rules North Korea. They must keep the country on a perpetual war footing in order to propagandize the destitute populace. They pretend that if they let their guard down, then their country will be overrun and suffer even worse than they do today.
If the international community is constantly wary of North Korea, then it is going to tread cautiously whenever the Kim regime stirs the pot. With nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel, North Korea has the largest military on earth. This is nearly 40% of the population. Add in the world’s largest submarine fleet, largest special forces, nuclear weapons and a likely chemical and, maybe, biological weapons capability, and North Korea is a real threat. The huge size overshadows the poor morale, inadequate discipline and Cold War era weapons that comprises the armed forces.
As long as the Soviet Union existed, North Korea could play off the Soviets and Chinese for favors and know that they were protected from an American attack. The end of the Cold War changed everything. The North Koreans developed the Songun or military first policy. This is partly responsible for some of the famines that have plagued North Korea as the entire purpose of society has been detoured towards the military. Recently, some privatization has allowed a flourishing black market and small-scale private farming.
It is only by comprehending this situation can the nature of North Korea’s attack on Sony be interpreted. For the North Koreans, the Sony attack has been an overwhelming success. It has upset the hated Americans. While they expect some retaliation, it provides another bargaining chip to achieve future concessions. It also reinforces their reputation as an unconventional and unpredictable foe.
The Obama administration has promised to respond appropriately to the North Korean cyber attack. That could be any number of things, none which holds much promise.
- Off the table is a military response. Seoul is just a few miles from the DMZ. Any war means its destruction, a destruction of the South Korean economy and quite a big problem for the world’s economy.
- Another option is pressuring the Chinese to do something. This is unlikely to achieve anything. The Chinese aren’t happy with North Korea, but they are even unhappier about the prospect of a unified Korean Peninsula allied with the United States. They might agree with a tepid slap on the wrist, but that is it.
- Another option that has little likelihood of success is for the U.S. to engage in counter cyber warfare. This idea is akin to a rich fellow who drives a Mercedes trying to bump someone who drives a $500 clunker off the road. The guy in the Mercedes is going to suffer the real damage. The U.S. is wired; North Korea has a barely functioning internet system. What kind of damage can the U.S. do? On the other hand, the North Koreans have a wealth of targets.
- North Korea could be added to the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. It was removed as recently as 2008 by the Bush administration. Essentially, that would limit trade and penalize people who do business with North Korea. Since most trade to North Korea is restricted anyway, that isn’t going to do much.
- More sanctions could be imposed, but there is very little to sanction that hasn’t already been sanctioned. Besides, most of the goods that do drift into North Korea come from China, where the U.S. has no control.
- Humanitarian aid could be cut or eliminated. Since this is done mainly by the U.N. and private organizations, there is little the U.S. can do. In this case, those who are going to suffer are going to be the poorest. Of course, North Korea probably hands out this aid as political favors anyway. The most destitute probably never see it.
- Americans could be forbidden from traveling to North Korea, and an international travel ban could be imposed by persuading other nations to join. This idea has some merit as the North Koreans are trying to lure tourists to vacation there and spend their hard currency. Yet, this remains but a small part of the North Korean economy.
- The North Korean leadership could be targeted in ways that the Russian leadership has been targeted after it invaded the Crimea. Their ability to hide money abroad would be limited. Bans could be placed on the travel of these high officials. War or human rights crimes could be charged against the leadership as well. Again, there are some minor options available.
When it comes to reviewing the options, there aren’t many meaningful choices to punish North Korea. For the U.S. and its allies, that means the likely response will be some finger wagging and then more concessions down the line in hopes of placating the Kim regime.
All these options ignore the one thing that the North Koreans fear the most: Information. North Korea exists as the most brutal state in the world because it keeps a tight lid on what happens in its society. The Soviet Union crumbled because it instituted political, economic and social reforms, but also because it allowed information technology. Once a repressive regime opens the door a little too wide, the popular uprising is like a flood. It can’t be stopped. It is this that the international community must encourage.
Of course, China and Vietnam liberalized without collapsing. One of the reasons was that neither reformed the political system, which the Soviets did. This is important, but neither the Chinese or Vietnamese were under pressure from outside sources as the Soviet Union was or as North Korea is. The Soviet Union’s existence depended on a Cold War and threat of Western imperialism. That is very much the way North Korea is today. The other important difference is that the Kim regime does not appear to have the capability to pull of a sophisticated reform like the Chinese did that keeps the elite in power while improving the lives of the people.
Fortunately, the very limited efforts by the North Koreans to reform the economy opens the door a sliver. The leadership is increasingly split between the old guard and an emerging elite who enjoy Western or Chinese goods. Among the average people, the slow acceptance of capitalism in the marketplace is creeping forward. Both of these developments are twin wedges that can destabilize North Korean society.
In 2012, South Korean activists tried to release balloons over North Korea that carried pamphlets. The North Koreans threatened military retaliation. As recently as this fall, more balloons were released and more threats from the North Koreans bellowed. Releasing pamphlets by balloons has been common for years, but the balloons are almost always released from South Korea and probably never make it far into North Korea.
The apoplectic response from the North Koreans reveals just how threatening this tactic is. To destabilize and cause the collapse of North Korea requires dissension from within. Once the people realize that they are being lied to even more than they realize now, structured North Korean society will face its ultimate threat from within. The few thousand elite who rule North Korea can’t even truly trust the rank and file military who are kept in line by a horde of lies.
This plan of destabilization requires letting the people understand about freedom, democracy and the affluence of capitalism. One of the best means to do this is to fund North Korean exile groups based in China who smuggle literature across the border. These groups are often underfunded or even ignored.
The U.S. and its allies always respond the same way to North Korean provocations. It has had little impact. What would have an impact are massive pamphlet, video and audio releases from Wind Supported Air Delivery Systems over the entire country, counter-jamming measures on the airwaves so Korean language broadcasts can make it across the border and other efforts to spread outside information. This may include even some creative cyber warfare aimed at putting information into the North Korean internet system instead of disrupting it.
Basically, it is time to conduct massive strategic psyop operations whenever North Korea strays outside the international norms. The psyops don’t need to be loaded with propaganda either. Simple news from the outside world is adequate enough. Such an action will cause the North Koreans to once again go apoplectic. When they do, those releases and broadcasts should ease. No one wants the North Koreans to actually go to war. They may do that if they feel the influx of information coming into their country is coming too fast and overwhelming them. This is a long range plan that is going to take years to tame North Korea into being a more responsible nation or even to bring its downfall.
While this idea may seem silly or even weak-willed to some, psyops, including pamphlet dropping has a long history of success in military operations. The United States dropped pamphlets prior to the Iraqi invasion in 2003. During the Korean War, 60-80% of the nearly 200,000 North Korean and Chinese soldiers who surrendered were heavily influenced by psyop operations. These actions are effective in wartime and can be just as effective in peace.
If North Korea learns that every time they provoke the world by shelling South Korea, lobbing a missile into the Pacific or cyber-attacking a company that the response will be an influx of information breaking down their walls, then the North Koreans will begin to think twice about their deeds. Appearing to be irrational and dangerous will not be beneficial to them if their information-controlled society becomes a target. The leadership doesn’t care about political isolation or economic sanctions. They can get what they need even with sanctions. They don’t care about the people who are the ones who will really suffer. Yet, expose the lies behind the curtain they hold, and their existence is threatened. That is the only way to change their behavior.