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The best weapon against North Korea's lies: information

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

SEOUL

In past elections for North Korea's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, authorities have reported 100 percent voter participation and a 100 percent approval rate for all the candidates. During the last election, however, the government admitted a 99.98 percent voter turnout -- though public approval held steady at 100 percent. Such are the increments of North Korean concessions to reality.

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The regime's constitution is deception. Everything, starting with the birthplace of its leader, is a lie. In more than 60 years, North Korea has never published an honest or complete set of economic indicators. Its history books simply make up events -- Americans who harvest organs of Koreans in hospital basements or missionaries who crucify Korean children.

So it is not easy to part the curtain on the regime's internal dynamics. But South Korean academics and government officials report recent glimpses. After much delay, Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Eun -- reputed to be a carbon copy of his father -- has been chosen as successor. The crown prince is young (27) and inexperienced, which seems to be the point. Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law has been appointed a kind of guardian or prince regent. In the event of Kim Jong Il's death, North Korea's old guard -- a few dozen faceless bureaucrats and generals in their 70s and 80s -- would remain in control.

The North Korean regime is part Stalinist political organization, part dynasty and part mafia family. The capos depend on the authority of the don for their survival and Rolexes, but they also seek to control him, especially during a transition of power.

The North Korean criminal enterprise has one main goal: the accumulation of hard currency, used to support its lifestyle and to purchase military hardware. It gains currency through narcotics trafficking, counterfeiting, the sale of arms and nuclear technology, and a successful extortion racket. The mafia muscle, in this case, is 1.5 million soldiers; chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; and some 13,000 artillery tubes aimed at downtown Seoul. From 1998 to 2008, South Korea attempted to buy protection with $2.2 billion in cash. This ATM policy was remarkably transparent on both sides. The Two Koreas Summit in 2000 was delayed for a day because $500 million in cash had not yet been wired to a North Korean account.

For a decade, this strategy was effective -- for North Korea. Periodic missile and nuclear tests and military provocations served as reminders to keep the checks coming. South Korean governments cooperated fully, hoping to avoid instability at nearly any cost. It was the perfect test of a policy of eager engagement and preemptive bribery. In practice, it rewarded and encouraged extortion, proliferation and destabilizing North Korean tantrums.

The election of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2007 marked a shift. The ATM policy ended. The south has promised large-scale payments only if North Korea abandons its nuclear program. While China still supplies most of North Korea's oil and food, hard currency is getting harder to come by. Arms shipments are watched. Funds from North Koreans living in Japan have dried up. South Korean officials estimate that Kim Jong Il is now getting perhaps $700 million a year in hard currency -- not a particularly good haul.

There are limits to the policy of isolation. Given that North Koreans did not revolt when millions were dying of starvation in the mid-1990s, it is difficult to imagine that economic pressure alone will bring down a committed, completely ruthless regime that cares nothing for the opinion of the world or the lives of its own people.

The most fragile thing about the North Korean regime is the structure of deception that supports it. Its main vulnerability is internal and ideological. Its propaganda appeals to nationalism and racial pride. But the regime has made North Korea a laughingstock while another Korea is the envy of the world. It pretends to socialism. But North Korea is ruled by a privileged class of unimaginable excess.

In addition to a policy of economic isolation, it would be worth trying a policy of ideological exposure -- an aggressive, patient, well-funded information assault by South Korea and the United States. Clandestine distribution of radios and cellphones. Video exposure of the gulags. History texts on flash drives for the educated. Information on the decadence of the elite for the common folk.

Other options have failed. We should test if the North Korean regime can survive the collapse of its lies.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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