The End of the Beginning: Bringing About a Khrushchev Thaw in the DPRK


In the midst of Britain’s darkest hour, Winston Churchill famously remarked in 1942 that what the country faced was not “the end, it is not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

If there is anything to describe the events of what we have witnessed in the DPRK in the past week or so, Churchill’s words could not be closer to the truth. We seem to be at a bridge that has never been crossed in the history of the country, and no one is quite sure how long, or even how sturdy, this bridge actually is. The fact that this bridge is now in the horizon may also help some of us to rethink positions we have had in the past as well.

For many of us, from the perspective of observing North Korea from the “outside in,” the DPRK presents some unique and difficult challenges. It is important to note that it is in fact not even a fraction of the country that is responsible for the challenges that we are faced with; our quibble is with the people in Pyongyang who seem to hold the reins of power in that country.

With Kim Jong Il’s death, there has been a renewed interest in what we on the outside should be doing about those folks in Pyongyang we seem to have this quibble with. After all, we seem to be back at square one when it comes to dealing with the regime. Ten years of the Sunshine Policy brought very little in practical progress when it came to forcing the North Koreans to take off the proverbial Aesopian jacket. On the other hand, the last five years of hardline policies have produced equally dismal results.

One perspective on how we solve a problem like North Korea was passionately put forward by Adrian Hong, a long time North Korea hand who has been involved intricately in the process of ferrying North Korean refugees out of China. In the piece, Adrian presents a case for further isolating and pressuring the regime with such vehicles as sanctions and co-opting China in the process with such carrots as US troop withdrawal from the Korean peninsula. The underlying assumption in the piece is that the sanctions can work if the Chinese are bothered to adhere to them. After all, as Mark McKinnon wryly comments, Beijing pays to keep the lights on in Pyongyang.

Yet there are several practical issues with this approach that bring to question whether this mode of attack is really the most effective one.

First of all, as noted before, Lee Myung Bak’s hardline stance has hardly caused North Korea to blink. Instead, we have seen Pyongyang pushed further and further into China’s most welcoming hands. The country has become a pipeline for everything from legitimate trade to McDonald’s hamburgers. And isn’t this exactly what Beijing wants? Why would China shy away from being the one player in the region that has the most leverage over a country that has been a thorn in the side of every American president since Harry Truman?

Second, the sanctions imposed in UNSC Resolutions 1718 and 1874 were a response to North Korea’s nuclear tests, not its human rights record. But if the underlying assumption behind North Korea’s nukes is that it will never give them up (which in itself is a very persuasive argument), then are these particular sanctions really going to work? And is the UNSC going to really tailor sanctions geared specifically towards human rights? The same body that flew flags at half mast for Kim Jong Il and where China holds an overriding veto?

Third, I remain skeptical that China can be convinced, at least in the medium term, to join any discussion regarding the future of North Korea. The most likely Chinese position at the moment is one of keeping the status quo ante. Beijing more than likely has seen the writing on the wall: the way that North Korea operates, as it currently stands, is unsustainable in the long term. If it were so, the Chinese themselves would never have liberalized their own economy. But opening up the North Korean economy (let alone the political system) would mark, at least it seems from Beijing’s point of view, the downward slope towards Korean unification.

Of course, Korean unification would have several bumps along the road. Even disregarding the enormous cost to the whole enterprise, there are enormous social and cultural divides that need to be bridged before the two countries can operate as one. But on the flip side, there is also potential for net gain for a unified Korea after the dust ultimately settles.

That certainly does not bode well with a China that in the next decades (which in Beijing’s terms, is probably the “medium term”) wants to launch itself as the next superpower. The spectre of a neutral unified Korea, let alone one that is aligned with the United States, has caused some minor headaches for Beijing in the past few years. Even such issues as fishing rights and the widely publicized spat over Koguryo, issues in the large scheme of things seem trivial to the casual observer, have the potential to become faultlines in an increasingly tempestuous relationship. If fishing rights and historical claims over kingdoms long disappeared can cause a high degree of consternation between two nations, what kind of trouble will more diplomatically sensitive issues cause? Furthermore, if the Chinese expect to see the same amount of nationalism it has in its own country in a future unified Korea, then such a unified Korea becomes more of a liability than a benefit.

If these are the assumptions that the Chinese are working with, then it remains difficult to see why the Chinese will move away from keeping the status quo ante. Rather, it seems the better play for Beijing is to attempt to manipulate North Korean political uncertainty to keep things running as they were. After all, Beijing has demonstrated in the past that when they believe the survival of a certain foreign regime is in their particular interest (Sudan, for example), they have had no qualms in propping it up, regardless of the international pressure that may stem from such a policy.

Finally, the proponents of isolation and pressure fail to provide a plausible answer to what happens if the isolation and pressure indeed succeeds in providing the change they desire in North Korea. Some of the biggest questions remain unanswered, including the big “what if” surrounding regime collapse.

Theoretically, we can certainly use all means possible to effect regime change in the DPRK. We can blanket the country with propaganda. We can even go to the extreme lengths NATO’s Libyan campaign demonstrated to us. But if we are to go to those efforts to topple the regime in North Korea, we must also take the responsibility of what may come after. Who emerges in charge? How do we ensure that chaos does not ensue in the aftermath in a country with nukes, a plethora of chemical and biological weapons, and a million personnel under arms? And if the curiously leaked (C)OPLAN 5029 is factually correct, what will China think about masses of ROK + US troops crossing into North Korea? The last time this happened, the Korean War was extended another sixty years. With all these factors in mind, dealing with regime change in North Korea makes the war in Iraq seem like a cakewalk.

To be frank, as many have said in the past, there are no good options with regards to North Korea. Nor are individual core members of the Pyongyang regime suddenly going to have a change of heart vis-à-vis human rights just because the international community suddenly cares about North Korea. These core members are far too tied to the status quo to really do anything. In this vein, I am in complete agreement with Adrian. Such human rights tragedies such as the prison camps are so tied to the raison d’etre of the regime that the inmates of these camps are not going to see freedom without a dramatic philosophical change within the regime itself.

However, the change that North Korea needs right now cannot come from an external shock. Isolation and pressure may only prove to force the DPRK to re-entrench itself. And with the likelihood of Chinese cooperation unlikely, such efforts could in itself backfire for the North Korean people, the very people we are trying to reach out to.

Ultimately, what North Korea needs is its own version of a Khrushchev Thaw. After nearly a decade and a half of rule under Stalin, Khrushchev, no democrat in any sense, took it upon himself to gradually open the country under a process of de-Stalinization. Although this was abruptly stopped by Brezhnev when he took over power, it is widely believed that this process of reforms ultimately opened the proverbial Pandorian box that led to the demise of the Soviet system.

A North Korea under Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il was impervious to such a thaw. The cult of personality and the authoritarian nature of one-man rule in North Korea prevented such a thaw from happening. Yet we seem to be at a critical juncture in North Korean history: for the first time, it is unclear whether this one man rule will continue to exist. With a twenty-something supposedly anointed as the new leader, one has to wonder whether a substantial behind-the-scenes power struggle has not already started.

Of course, advocating such change has its own problems. First of all, we can’t be sure if the North Korean version of Khrushchev even exists. Even if he did, he would require a large group of followers willing to carry out reforms within the country.

Second, waiting for a Khrushchev to emerge does nothing for those already suffering within North Korea itself. It does nothing for those already imprisoned in the camps, nor does it really help feed those who the regime has more or less neglected.

Yet the alternatives, which seem to be limited to continuing the status quo ante or isolating the regime, as seen above, are untenable. Continuing the status quo ante is akin to doing nothing towards a system that is both morally abhorrent and unsustainable. Isolating the regime without China’s assistance is, as the Korean saying goes, throwing eggs against rocks. And we have to ask ourselves what will really happen to those inmates in the prison camps if the regime does collapse. Is Pyongyang really going to leave evidence of the prison camps behind for the world to see? If we owe anything to those inmates, it is to see them walk out of those camps one day; not be entombed by them.

In this vein, we on the outside do not have to sit on our thumbs and simply wait for this Khrushchev to emerge. Rather, there are several crucial things that we can do to help along those who have Khrushchev like tendencies.

For example, politically, it is likely that North Korea will at least in the short term be governed by a group of individuals, not Kim Jong Un himself. This politburo (for lack of a better term) will certainly not be monolithic. There will of course be the Bowibu-types who will be more hardline. On the other hand, there will also most likely be more reform-minded members as well, especially within the Foreign Ministry but also within the military as well. What is important to note is that in the early stages of this politburo, everyone will be jockeying for position.

The key, from the “outside in,” is to reward the reform-minded members of this politburo. Why would we go to what may seem like an abhorrent step of rewarding North Korea? Because by doing so, we strengthen the hand that these reform-minded members have. It increases the leverage of which these reformers have within the politburo and gives them ammunition against those who would want a more hardline policy, whether it be status quo ante or even (from the DPRK point of view) isolationist. If the international community spurns what may seem to be requests for dialogue, this simply gives the hardliners the excuse of a “we told you so.”

There are two other key things that we on the “outside in” can do to help thaw North Korea.

The first is to encourage the marketization that is already taking place within the country. From what we know, markets are thriving across North Korea, to the extent that they are even tolerated in the bastion of socialism itself, Pyongyang.

These markets are a key factor in shifting away the North Korean public’s reliance on the regime. Not only do the markets provide an alternative source of basic human needs, they also provide another powerful product: information. Furthermore, marketization also assists in creating a middle class within North Korea, a middle class amenable to reforming of a system that does not cater to them. As seen in examples from the French Revolution to the recent overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian dicator Hosni Mubarak, the middle class is a key component to any successful change in the ancien regime.

There is one way that we can encourage increased marketization in North Korea: increase trade. Dare I say, even loosen sanctions that do not seem to have any effect on what goes on in North Korea. Instead, what we should be doing is encouraging the flow of goods across both of North Korea’s borders, especially from the Chinese end. The ROK government should be encouraging businesses to set up shop in Yanbian and export goods into North Korea through private trade. After all, the North Koreans do not fear sanctions; they fear capitalists.

In fact, why stop at Yanbian? Why not allow more companies to operate within North Korea, showing the North Koreans how effective marketization can be? Kaesong and Kumgang were good experiments: but they were experiments of which the regime could exert their control. If you build enough Kaesongs  far enough away from Pyongyang, and if you have enough foreigners stationed at these industrial zones, the regime cannot control them all.

Of course, businesses will want the structural environment necessary to, well, do business. As such, we can assist the North Koreans in speeding up their efforts in expanding their already growing mobile phone networks across the country. The North Koreans will also have to build better roads so that commerce can travel through the country. To do this, they will require money, which can be provided through such vehicles as the UNDP. In other words, why should we not assist in expanding the infrastructure within North Korea that allows North Koreans to change their country for themselves?

There is one caveat to this. Marketization does not mean full blown no-holds barred capitalism. Without the existing rules and structures that would regulate a market, the North Korean public with no experience with the notion of wealth may have trouble managing it. If the experiences of North Korean defectors is any clue, such concepts as stewardship need to be self-taught early on in relatively safer environments before a full open market can come into place.

The final thing that we can do from the “outside in” is perhaps the easiest of them all: increase NGO participation in the DPRK.

North Korea has no civil society as we in the international community understand it. Therefore the key first step is to expose the North Korean public towards this novel idea. Already, certain NGOs, such as humanitarian aid groups and churches have established quasi-permanent operations within the DPRK. Exposure to these groups can only foster an environment where North Koreans become curious to what (and why!) these groups are in North Korea in the first place. This is especially true with NGO groups that are most likely to be authorized to establish in the more politically reliable parts of the country; these parts of the country are the least likely to receive information from the outside world. The more curious North Koreans are of such groups as First Steps and Samaritan’s Purse, the more likely North Koreans will be asking themselves why their own government doesn’t allow such organizations to exist.

In the end, isolation and pressure are indeed attractive methods to attempt to bring behavioural changes to a regime that has been responsible for oppressing its people for the past seventy years. However, this will most likely not be the way that the Pyongyang walnut is cracked. Rather, a sustained effort in encouraging a thaw from the inside is the best possible model for North Korea to have what may seem to many to be a “soft landing.” And as seen above, there are several things that we can do from the “outside in” to encourage this thaw to happen. By both encouraging reformers within the DPRK power structure, as well as building the environment were the North Korean people can begin taking things into their own hands, is the admittedly slower, but optimal way of bringing about this desired change for the North Korean people.

There is one thing to note, going back to the example of the Khrushchev Thaw. Stalin died in 1953; Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin’s decade and a half of misrule only came in 1956. It took three years before Khrushchev had consolidated enough power to publicly come out with what proved to be at that point the largest bombshell in Russian history. The lesson behind this is one of patience: in a country which was even more closed than the Soviet Union in 1953, if there is ever going to be a thaw in the DPRK, we must have the patience to see it through.

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