North Korea’s regime has admitted its vulnerability to soft power “for the first time,” according to a prominent defector. An editorial in an official newspaper today conceded that information flows from outside could undermine the regime’s legitimacy, Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to Britain, told Democracy Digest.
The highest-level North Korean defector in two decades this week said the U.S. should bring about change peacefully through “soft power” by challenging the totalitarian regime’s grip on information rather than resorting to military action.
His comments coincided with reports that some defectors are moving to form a North Korean government-in-exile and that Chinese President Xi Jinping has sent North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un a rare message. But official Beijing sources downplayed its significance, suggesting that it was sent “out of politeness.”
China has lost patience with Pyongyang, Yong-ho (right) told the Digest, as evidenced by Beijing’s application of sanctions and the state-controlled media’s criticism of Kim’s regime. China knows that the status quo is unsustainable, but it fears the consequences of North Korea’s “disintegration,” he said in comments at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“On the surface Kim Jong-Un appears to have consolidated power through terror, but there are significant cultural and generational shifts taking place within North Korea,” he added.
“The US and West should continue the current momentum of maximum pressure and sanctions,” Yong-Ho told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “But in the meanwhile the West and the US should try every possibility to open the dialogue with North Korea in order to tell North Korea that they would be destroyed if they continue” in the current direction.
The US Treasury department has severed a small Chinese bank’s ties with the US financial system over its alleged support for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, The FT adds.
North Korea is a threat to the “entire world,” said National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, but the U.S. is open to readjusting its strategy.
“I think we have to be a little patient here for at least a few months to see what more we and others can do, including China,” he said. “I don’t think we need to reassess our strategy now. I think we have to give it a couple of months, a few months, and then see what adjustments we might need to make.”
A “civilian uprising” is becoming a distinct possibility as more pop culture and foreign news penetrates the Hermit Kingdom, Thae told the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this week.
“Some people do not believe in soft power, but only in military options,” he said. “But it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options before we decide that military action against North Korea is all that is left.”
“The free markets [aka jangmadang – right] are flourishing,” Thae said, adding: “As more and more people get used to free and capitalist style markets, the state-owned socialist economic system becomes increasingly forgotten about.”
The country’s welfare system has collapsed, and “millions of civil servants, army officers and security forces are dependent on bribes and state assets’ embezzlement for their survival.”
North Korean citizens “don’t care about state propaganda but increasingly watch illegally imported South Korean movies and dramas,” weakening the regime’s ideological hold.
“As more and more people gradually become informed about the reality of their living conditions, the North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or to face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction.”
The jangmadang are remotely monitored by a website called Daily NK, a Seoul-based operation staffed by North Korean defector journalists, Reuters reports today:
It said in a report released this August that there are 387 officially sanctioned markets in the country, encompassing more than half a million stalls. Over 5 million people are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on the markets, “solidifying their place in North Korean society as an integral and irreversible means of survival,” the report said.
Economic deprivation is also undermining the regime’s legitimacy, according to Andrei Lankov, a professor at the Republic of Korea’s Kookmin University:
Lankov described the per capita income gap between North Korea and South Korea, which is the largest gap in the world between two bordering nations. According to Lankov, the per capita income gap between East Germany and West Germany was between 1-to-2 and 1-to-3, but the gap between North Korea and South Korea is between 1-to-14 and 1-to-30.
“A surveillance state might look terrifying, but it’s terribly expensive, remarkably inefficient and probably not sustainable in the long run, even though the period when it can be sustained might be long enough for millions of people to die,” Lankov said.