It’s Time for the Lights to Come on in North Korea, says FPI Policy Analyst Evan Moore

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The death of Kim Jong Il provides an opportunity for the United States and the international community to dramatically advance the cause of human freedom by ending the brutal and bizarre regime in Pyongyang.

The situation for the Hermit Kingdom’s rulers is grave.  Recent attempts by the regime to revaluate the country’s currency and uproot small-scale barter markets (which many North Koreans need to survive) ended in failure.  Meanwhile, the piecemeal dissemination of radio and cell phones, as well as the burgeoning flood of North Korean refugees to neighboring, has created a small core of dissidents able to report the North’s reality on the ground to the West.

As the United States and our East Asian allies deal with the transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Eun, they should steel themselves for further brazen provocations from Pyongyang—such as the initiating military skirmishes, testing a long-range ballistic missile, or even detonating a third nuclear explosive device—as it attempts to reassert itself internationally.

The revolutions of 2011 have irrevocably upended the global order.  One year ago, a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire in a governor’s office, precipitating not only a popular uprising there against President Ben Ali, but also the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain.  Russians have recently taken to the streets to protest their own fraudulent parliamentary elections, and discontented Chinese citizens have protested against their domestic situation more often than is popularly known.

After a year of hesitancy and half-measures, the Obama administration should now champion the ideals of freedom and democracy throughout the world, and ensure that this dramatic wave of reform and revolution finally comes to the land of North Korea.  Our long-term goal should be a Korean Peninsula that is whole, united, and free.  Toward this end, the Obama administration should bring military, economic, diplomatic, popular, and moral pressure to bear against the rulers of North Korea by:

  • Persuading South Korea to establish a comprehensive missile defense system to neutralize the threat posed by North Korean mortars and missiles.
  • Engage in a comprehensive campaign to shut-down Pyongyang’s proliferation of conventional weapons and nuclear and missile technologies.  Furthermore, Washington must rally its allies and partners to find and freeze all of North Korea’s finances abroad.  The case of the Banco Delta Asia funds during the Bush administration demonstrated the North’s extraordinary sensitivity to the seizing of these accounts.  By continuing to target Pyongyang’s international revenue streams, the Obama administration could secure significant leverage to alter the regime’s behavior, or undermine the regime’s rule altogether.
  • Create and provide money for a North Korean reconstruction fund, in conjunction with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and our democratic allies across the world.  By doing so, the United States would be demonstrating its solidarity with the North Korean people, softening the future cost of rebuilding, reintegration, and unification, and sending the clear message to other rogue states that Washington is committed to upholding and advancing its values in the international community, even in times of fiscal austerity.
  • Promote popular pressure against Pyongyang by disseminating as many radios and cell-phones into the North as possible; increasing funding for broadcasts like Radio Free Asia, and improve the quality of that programming to give North Koreans badly-needed news and international perspective, provide hope for the future, and inspire revolution against the Kim regime.
  • Work with South Korea and other regional partners to ensure that escaping refugees from the North are not repatriated, but instead helped to enter the South, or wherever else they would like to live.  The flood of North Korean refugees has dramatically increased in recent years.  Nearly 3,000 defectors successfully escaped in 2009, whereas only 9 did in 1990.  By rallying the world to this effort, the United States would serve a noble humanitarian objective, and help make North Korea again a pariah state in the international community.  By encouraging these refugees to appear before government and international forums–even under the veil of anonymity–the true depths of the horror of everyday life in North Korea may be more broadly and keenly understood.  The testimonies of these refugees may be the most effective means of rallying international pressure against the North and their patrons in Russia and China.

There is an infamous nighttime orbital photo of the Korean peninsula.  While the South gleams with light, like any other urbanized country, the North is almost entirely veiled in darkness. While the South is now a major world power in its own right, the North continues languish in backwardness and totalitarian repression.

It is time that the United States and international community irrevocably turn away from its two decades of appeasement towards the North.  It is time for the Kim regime to finally come to an end.  It’s time for the people of North Korea to rejoin the fellowship of man.  It’s time for the lights to come on.

- Originally written for The Commentator

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