There was a brief moment of hope when it seemed like North Korea might actually turn things around. The nation had a new, more youthful leader in Kim Jong-Eun, a photogenic First Lady and emerging hope that the social media revolution, so effective elsewhere in the world, might actually take hold organically without the need for foreign intervention. Flash forward to 2013, and it's back to the bad old North Korea that the world seems to love to hate — a place where the constant threats and taunts to the global community continue. The latest threat is thought to be a nuclear test and the broader revamping of the nation’s nuclear program.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Consider the recent high-level delegation to North Korea led by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and former Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson, who both surveyed the state of the nation and walked away amazed by how far North Korea now trails the rest of the world in terms of Internet access. What the people of North Korea need, said Richardson, was a lot more Internet connectivity and a lot more cellphones. The situation now is that only a limited number of people in North Korea have true Internet access, with the rest of the nation living under a virtual despotism where mobile phones are rare and most Internet connectivity is highly monitored. Mr. Schmidt’s teenage daughter Sophie, accompanying the delegation, wrote a much-discussed blog post ("It might not get weirder than this") about her experience in North Korea, including a staged encounter that purported to show real North Koreans enjoying the Internet. (They were not.)
North Korea is so cut off from the world right now that the nation is even starting to bite the hand of China — perhaps the one nation that’s single-handedly keeping the nation afloat. What the citizens of North Korea need now more than ever are all the tools of the modern Internet, the same way that the oppressed people of the Arab World took hold of tools such as Twitter to make their way to revolution. The modern world is no longer home to a struggle between ideologies (capitalism and communism), but rather, between open societies and closed ones.
This is not to say that the digital equivalent of airlifting hundreds of thousands of cellphones to North Korea will help in the short-term. But it certainly goes a lot further than the current solutions on deck, including more containment, more embargoes, and more threats. Just as the U.S. State Department is now working behind-the-scenes in Africa and the Arab World to bring the tools of the modern Internet to everyday civilians, the same type of effort needs to happen in North Korea. After all, the belligerent nation feels that it has been pushed into a corner so deep that it has no option anymore than to shoot its way out with potentially disastrous consequences for everyone involved.
“Make tweets, not war,” may sound like a slogan from the counterculture 1960s, but it’s actually more relevant now than the original version was then — the modern notion of 21st century statecraft. As applied to North Korea, this would mean more connectivity, more social media conversations and a big heaping of the Internet.
As one of the stars of “21st century statecraft,” Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss), recently pointed out at the Digital-Life-Design (DLD) Conference how America’s response to geopolitical events needs to change. As Ross noted, “Chapter 1, page 1 of the ‘how to be a dictator’ handbook says turn off social media and the Internet. On page 2 of chapter 1 it says that if you’re anticipating unrest, try to control what information is out there.”
Engage your enemy, keep him (or her) close, and keep the dialogue going across as many different digital platforms as possible. The approach favored by Schmidt and Richardson, while officially un-sanctioned by the U.S. State Department, may actually be the type of diplomacy needed now to crack open North Korea before the nation cracks up.
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