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Is Regime Change Possible in North Korea?

Ben S. Malcom with Ron Martz, White Tigers: My Secret War in Korea (Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1996).

Jieun Baek, North Korea s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements, and the Case of North Korea (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).

Shepherd Iverson, Stop North Korea! A Radical New Approach to the North Korean Standoff (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2017).

The Kim dynasty in North Korea is a danger to its subjects, to the region, and to the world. A change in the regime would probably end the threat. But is regime change possible? The four books reviewed here present four different approaches to replacing the Kim regime: guerrilla war; subversion by information transfer; economic statecraft; and buyout. Each approach is difficult to implement and brings no guarantee of success.

Ben S. Malcom, who retired after Vietnam as a US Army colonel, was an adviser to some eight hundred Korean fighters known as the White Tigers who harassed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) forces from behind the lines in 1952. The Tigers' official title was the United Nations Partisan Infantry (UNPIK). An intelligence officer to the 8240th Army Unit of the US Eighth Army, Malcom was responsible for the operations and intelligence gathering activities of eleven partisan (light, irregular force) battalions. He was the only American assigned to the 4th Guerrilla Battalion and joined it on many raids.

Malcom's recounting of these partisan warfare operations is quite detailed and makes for riveting reading. It is based not only on Malcom's memory and notes but also on official US Army records and other histories. By the time the Korean War ended, according to a foreword by Maj. Gen. John Singlaub (retired), more than 22,000 partisans were operating behind the lines in a variety of covert activities.

The greatest success of the White Tiger battalion advised by Malcom was to destroy a North Korean heavy artillery bunker they reached by boat from their redoubt on Wollae-do, an island in the West Sea a few miles from the North Korean mainland. Had such efforts received greater financial and logistical support from the US Army, they might have had more impact on the course of the war. But Malcom and his troops received only modest support. The regulars had little confidence that irregulars could achieve more than pinpricks. Despite what Malcom saw as the inherent value of a partisan unit's attacking the edges of enemy strongholds and keeping them off balance, the US Army leadership showed little concern for the welfare and military assets of the partisans. Not just food and clothing but also weapons and munitions were in short supply. Outlays for each partisan amounted to somewhere between $250 and $400 per month (p. 117). To reach the mainland the partisans had to use slow, cumbersome, lightly armed Chinese junks. A squadron or two of fast-moving, heavily armed PT boats driven by Republic of Korea (ROK) naval personnel working in tandem with partisan units on the ground could have created more havoc with North Korean coastal defenses. Neither Malcom nor his troops received much thanks or honor. Lessons from their efforts get little space in official US writings. Now retired from a successful career in business, Malcom continues in his eighties to lecture about his White Tigers. (1)

While in the early 1950s in the early years of the DPRK, outsiders such as Malcom could recruit and mobilize North Koreans to fight against their own government, conditions have changed over time. If South Korean decapitation missions penetrated the DPRK in the twenty-first century, it seems unlikely that the atomized subjects of a totalitarian society unable to forge links with one another would be a source of support for their efforts.

Yet, as Jieun Baek shows, information banned by North Korean censors does flow into the country due to the secret activities of some North Koreans. Baek tracks nonmilitary operations aimed at regime subversion from within, analyzing the impact of this information to assess the potential for information warfare to destabilize the North Korean government. Previously a research fellow at Harvard working with the late US ambassador Stephen Bosworth, Baek is now a doctoral student at Oxford University. Brought up in California but fluent in Korean, Baek bases her book on interviews with hundreds of defectors (including military officers and diplomats) who describe the effects of information transfers and on talks with agents in South Korea and China who send electronic equipment and software into the DPRK. Baek details an information underground--a network of North Koreans who take huge risks by circulating illicit content such as South Korean and other foreign films, television shows, soap operas, books, and encyclopedias.

Baek analyzes the electronic and other technologies that subvert DPRK propaganda images of the outer world. Smuggled films and TV shows from the South suggest life in the Republic of Korea is far more comfortable than in the North. Even the paper on rice cakes stealthily brought into the North reveals standards virtually unknown in the DPRK. Baek argues that the information flowing into the country via the information underground is transforming this relatively closed society and making it eager to learn more about the outside world. Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on a bus tour from Pyongyang, Baek encountered a DPRK army officer who tried to ask her questions about the United States without attracting his comrades' attention. He wanted to know how his appearance compared with Baek's father--probably about the same age. She finessed an answer and tried not to hurt his feelings. When Baek's tour bus departed, the officer feigned disinterest but when she winked, he managed to wink back (p. 52). Whether such interactions and processes can shake the foundations of a totalitarian dictatorship with eyes and ears in many places is unknown. While the regime cannot monitor every citizen, the DPRK system of internal security and rigid social norms helps keep most citizens in line. Still, Baek observes, "If a sufficient number of people become disillusioned with the regime, especially those who have political sway inside the country, then the possibility of organized resistance does not seem far off." The regime "will pummel any modicum of resistance until it disappears." Baek writes that this scenario has taken place repeatedly throughout the history of brutal regimes (p. 49), but she does not state what kinds of outcomes resulted. Regardless of the difficulties ahead, one defector offered an optimistic forecast: "If mountains can change, humans can change. North Koreans are human too" (p. 239). The defector's opinion, of course, may reflect wishful thinking. Change in a political culture may proceed very slowly, as we see in post-Soviet Russia.

Both Malcom's book and Baek's can be evaluated by comparing North Korea with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Eastern Europe during their own travails with totalitarian rule. Attempts by dissident Russians and other Soviet nationalities, some of them backed by the National Union of Russian Solidarists (NTS in Russian) and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to stir up revolts within the USSR got nowhere. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanian guerrillas harassed Soviet occupiers from the end of World War II to the mid-1950s, without altering the structure of occupying power. Indeed, they probably intensified repression.

Information transfers, on the other hand, stimulated discontent and helped energize campaigns for liberalization of the Soviet economy, the education system, and the media. The process got under way with the World Festival of Youth and Students held in Moscow in 1957, the Pugwash conferences of scientists also begun in 1957, and the multifaceted US-Soviet cultural exchanges launched in 1958, which brought twenty US graduate students (including me) to Moscow and Leningrad for two semesters. One of the champions of perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s, Aleksandr Yakovlev, studied the New Deal at Columbia in 1958-1959. While such exchanges were approved by top officials in Washington and Moscow, the Kremlin often jammed broadcasts by Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle, making it difficult for listeners in the Soviet Union to hear them clearly. Granted that the information transfers contributed to the erosion of communism in the Soviet Bloc, but the process took decades--from the mid-1950s to 1989-1991--to topple authoritarian rule. These transfers were not decisive in themselves but added to pressures arising from other factors: economic stagnation, a public health crisis, defeat in Afghanistan, and the sheer inefficiency of communist systems. Some analogous pressures exist in the DPRK, but Kim Jong-un runs a much tighter police state than did any Soviet leader after Stalin.

The real costs of reunification are unknowable. Baek estimates that reunification would cost $500 billion to $1 trillion--largely paid for by South Korean taxpayers. She notes that younger people are much less ready to pay such taxes than older ones. As time stretches on, resistance to such burdens will probably increase as the proportion of older South Koreans declines.

Discussing both sanctions and positive engagement (variants of the Sunshine Policy), Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland rightly point out that the DPRK is a hard target. Sanctions are supposed to punish while engagement implies incentives and rewards for the target country. But the DPRK leadership seems not to care if the masses suffer. Its policy changes in response to a severe famine have been quite modest. The regime tolerated some market activity, then tried to restrict it, and then allowed it fitfully to proceed. If mass starvation did not bring the Kim dynasty to its knees in the 1990s, Haggard and Noland infer that this is "not a regime that is likely to fold under pressure" (p. 22). But a more liberal orientation is also unlikely. The regime has relied heavily on under-the-table illicit moneymaking. Those in power are skeptical about the gains from "reform and opening" on the model of China or Vietnam. Indeed, the regime fears that the collapse of communism in Europe and the USSR was triggered by such opening. Meanwhile, outsiders who favor sanctions or rewards cannot succeed unless they act as a united front, as happened with regard to Iran. Coordination of US, ROK, People's Republic of China (PRC), Japanese, and Russian policies cannot be presumed. Indeed, "the acceleration of the regime's nuclear and missile programs has had the perverse effect of driving deeper wedges between China and the United States, South Korea, and Japan"--on missile defense and other issues (p. 249).

Haggard and Noland warn against wishful thinking. They are probably justified in concluding that the capacity of economic statecraft--whether by sanctions or by engagement--is limited (p. 249). But this conclusion may not weaken Baek's analysis showing that information transfers can create internal pressures that may promote greater liberalization and perhaps even militate for unification under South Korean leadership. Information warfare and economic statecraft could work in tandem to weaken the regime. When and whether the tipping point will ever be reached is uncertain.

Shepherd Iverson, who was on the faculty at Inha University in Incheon for eight years, makes the case for a far different kind of economic statecraft as a source of political chance. He proposes a buyout of North Korea as if it were an underperforming corporation controlled by a board of shortsighted, rent-seeking bosses. Doubting that partial engagement or partial sanctions (loaded with exceptions and loopholes) can work, Iverson thinks far outside the usual boxes and makes the case for total engagement. One could debate all the specifics--who puts up and who receives what funds and on what terms--but Iverson's principle remains: the transfer of billions of dollars to the "enemy" to achieve both unification and denuclearization.

Like Baek, Iverson describes the expansion of knowledge in North Korea about the outside world and concomitant disillusion with the regime. The information underground could facilitate a grand buyout strategy. Iverson suggests that the South Korean government and its Bank of Korea, joined by chaebols and other private investors, create a multibillion-dollar Reunification Investment Fund to rescue and integrate the North. The buyout would cost $175 billion spread out over seven years (though Iverson grants that it might be accomplished for less). Less than 20 percent of this money would go to elites and military officials who benefit from the existing dictatorship, while the rest is distributed widely. All this could stimulate a new political economy in which most North Koreans would benefit.

In return for outsiders' largesse, the North would join the South in a united Korea without nuclear arms. The Bank of Korea and other contributors to the fund would soon recover their investments. All Korea's neighbors plus the United States and Europe could profit from new business opportunities. Iverson expects that government and business leaders may see this as a workable plan with benefits to all stakeholders. Russia would obtain a gas pipeline and secure rail and energy profits. China would be freed from a perennial headache and could access Korean minerals and ports. Indeed, if the two Koreas merged and denuclearized, US troops might be removed from the peninsula--another plus for China. A unified Korea would gain peace and stability, more people and territory, more mineral resources, greater energy security and diversification, valuable Pacific ports, along with rail connections to China, Russia, and continental Europe. The greatest gain for all would be elimination of a serious security threat for every nation in the region and for the United States. An investment of $175 billion would be a trivial outlay if it prevented war and reduced defense expenditures.

Iverson does not address what the financial burdens on South Koreans would be from integrating North and South. Iverson expects that chaebols and smaller enterprises in the South would make huge profits from freely expanding into the North. But the experience of German reunification is not so encouraging. West German enterprises gained from cheap labor in the East but there has not been another Wirtschaftswunder in the East, where unemployment is much higher than in the West (over 10 percent versus 6 percent in 2017). There is every reason to expect that the burdens of integration on South Koreans would be even higher than those paid by West Germans to subsidize unification with the East. As noted earlier, some estimates say that unification could cost South Koreans from half a trillion to a trillion dollars. Adding to the challenges of unification, the ways of life in the two Koreas are far more different than in the two regions of Germany.

Iverson's plan requires many actors to act on a deep logic and with foresight rarely seen on the world stage. (2) Iverson counts on material incentives to mobilize all the concerned stakeholders in North and South Korea and beyond. His proposal, if implemented, could bring about peaceful unification of the two Koreas and denuclearization of the peninsula in a short time. But would the South Korean government and other potential donors put up $175 billion? This sum is less than the cost to rebuild Houston or Florida after a hurricane and a pittance next to the costs of war. Iverson asserts that even without financial assistance from the G-20 or other external players, South Korea has more than enough capital for reunification: half a trillion dollars in foreign reserves and sovereign wealth fund assets, plus another half trillion dollars in government-controlled banks. The South could expect a likely peace dividend of hundreds of billions of dollars. Iverson details the kinds of profits that could accrue to many South Korean industries if they could operate in the former DPRK.

But could Iverson's plan be adopted by the powers that be in Pyongyang? Iverson counts on pressure from elites and average North Koreans to support the buyout terms. Iverson contends that all that is necessary for elites and the public to desert the regime is that they count on a higher standard of living and better life in a reunited Korea. His proposal implies that most DPRK elites and the public give up any pretense that they believe in juche, which connotes not just self-reliance but also patriotic defiance of outside bullies. Once money is on the table, Iverson predicts that--whatever people think about juche or the present regime--pressures will rise for regime change and reunification. If the 10,000 top elites are promised a million dollars each and the palace guard can be bought off, perhaps the god-king and his family would choose or be forced to go elsewhere. Iverson proposes no money for Kim Jong-un, because he has plenty, but would grant an amnesty permitting him and his entourage to go free. His personal safety is probably more precious to him than power. Still, one wonders if Kim Jong-un would ever give up the perks and glory of leadership in exchange for life as a well-heeled playboy.

All the players in Northeast Asia need to think about how they could use their assets to create value--intangible as well as tangible gains--and forge a better future for all stakeholders. Rewards, not sanctions, could be key to peace in the region. If so, Iverson might be onto something.


Walter C. Clemens Jr. is associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University. He wrote North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (2016). He can be reached at

(1.) Having interviewed Malcom in Athens, Georgia, and several of the former White Tigers living in South Korea, the cable television Maeil Broadcasting Network (MBN-TV) broadcast a one-hour documentary on special operations during the Korean War on August 15, 2016. In a September 8, 2017, e-mail, Malcom told me that some White Tigers watched the program and told him it was excellent. Some 5,000 former partisans now live in South Korea. Malcom has been trying to get benefits for them, but the ROK government claims it needs their names and addresses. Still hoping for regime change, former White Tigers living on Baengnyeong Island, scenic but ten miles from DPRK coastal artillery, are sending twenty-five-pound helium balloons into North Korea with leaflets, Bibles, socks, and food. Kim Jong-un has threatened to wipe them out.

(2.) While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to bolster democracy worldwide and John Kerry worked on climate change, the New York Times (September 15, 2017) reported that Rex Tillerson was focused on improving email circuitry in the department and cutting its budget by 10 percent.
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Title Annotation:books
Author:Clemens, Walter C., Jr.
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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