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Information warfare: Best tactic against North Korea

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Information warfare: Best tactic against North Korea

Analysis: Could the secret to bringing down Pyongyang be as simple as spinning the radio dial?

  • A radio tower in Seoul, South Korea.
    xoxoryan/FlickrA radio tower in Seoul, South Korea.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Appeasement doesn't work with North Korea.

In the short-term it may yield diplomatic agreements, but in the longterm it only makes the country's political and military leaders increasingly arrogant, determined to be even more provocative so that they can extort still-larger concessions from their adversaries abroad and portray themselves at home as giant-killers.

The above statement, in rough outline, would now draw agreement from the majority of serious North Korea watchers — including quite a few of us who used to caution that it was important to give negotiations a reasonable chance before turning to a hawkish solution. The country's current series of provocations is a textbook illustration that the leadership wants and needs expanding confrontation and is not likely to decide on its own to reverse its militaristic thrust.

But even if everyone remembers Munich and agrees that in extreme cases it becomes necessary to stand and fight, the problem is that the people who would have to do the standing and fighting — and dying — aren't ready. Not only is the United States overstretched militarily with commitments elsewhere. More importantly, the South Koreans who would bear by far the larger share of blood sacrifice are not ready to risk the enormous casualties that would ensue once the North unleashed its artillery on the southern capital, Seoul.

Fortunately for policymakers, there is an alternative to using bullets and bombs. That's information warfare, to which the Pyongyang regime is increasingly vulnerable. A stepped-up campaign of providing accurate news about their own country and the rest of the world to a people who are no longer hermetically sealed off from such news could over time threaten the regime's domestic control.

Think of some recent North Korean policy decisions and how easy it would be to dissect them in unbiased fashion and show the leaders up for the self-seeking incompetents that they are.

Members of the North Korean public would hardly be able to get enough news and analysis regarding, for example, the ongoing effort by the authorities to cut off the legs of the spontaneously developed market economy, which is many people's only means of avoiding starvation following the failure of the state-run economy.

And Kim Jong Il's decision to promote a son in his mid-20s to the rank of full general, in preparation for the lad to succeed him, just begs for full public exposition. There are comic aspects — for example, the way chosen son Kim Jong Un was barbered and dressed up in period costume (Mao suit) to look the spitting image of his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of the dynasty, back in 1945 when Kim the First was young — that could make such exposition devastating to the regime's dignity. News organizations might even manage to find proof for what so far is only an amusingly plausible South Korean rumor — that Jong Un had plastic surgery and went on a reverse diet to develop the requisite round face and rotund body.

Fortuitously, the aforementioned market economy has made available radio receivers — basically capable of receiving foreign signals after modification even if the authorities have initially soldered their dials to limit listeners to the state propaganda frequency.

The markets also sell South Korean videos that provide visual confirmation that the claims of North Korean backwardness that intrepid citizens listen to on the forbidden foreign stations are basically true.

Meanwhile, largely non-governmental broadcasters staffed partly by defectors from the North have developed sources inside the North who tell them what's going on up there. Thus they can broadcast local news to listeners in the North. What doesn't get through by radio wave can be dropped from balloons as print fliers or passed along through a grapevine maintained by Northerners who possess mobile telephones.

Such organizations get little or no support from a South Korean government that fears Northern threats of physical retaliation in case psychological warfare efforts are expanded (and that also anticipates pressures to dissolve such efforts in case of any positive breakthrough in relations with the North). A change in the South's policy could show it means business.

Meanwhile, much of the money for Korean and Japanese non-governmental organizations waging the information war comes from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally authorized funnel of tax funds. Not much money is involved — $100,000 here, $40,000 there. Still, you wouldn't want to start throwing huge sums at such efforts, because the small organizations involved are just starting up their learning curves and could have difficulty using big bucks effectively at this stage.

But more money could be spent fruitfully on helping the NGOs — now often limited to shortwave or even to internet "radio" broadcasting — put their broadcasts on AM (medium wave) frequencies, which can reach the largest numbers of listeners in the North.

In the absence of South Korean policy change, switching to AM can involve finding transmission facilities outside the Korean peninsula, persuading their owners to let those facilities be used despite the certainty that Pyongyang will object and, finally, paying for that privilege — which is prohibitively expensive for small outfits without sufficient financial backing.

Choosing to emphasize information warfare would infuriate North Korea's leaders. Indeed, they threatened to shoot up South Korean propaganda speakers at the border if the Southerners followed through with plans to reactivate them after the North allegedly torpedoed a Southern warship last March.

Faced with increased information warfare initiatives from the U.S. and the South, the Northerners surely would plot further deadly provocations. Assuming the Northern regime did not collapse — and many analysts over the decades have lost bets that it would — it might become necessary sooner or later for the South, backed by the United States, to undertake serious military retaliation. But the interim effort using information could at least provide some time for acclimatization to the notion that such tough action might be required.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Editors note: North Korea has probably built more than one uranium-enrichment facility, significantly raising the proliferation threat posed by the secretive communist state, according to the U.S. officials who spoke today to the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

U.S. and European officials are pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency to increase scrutinization of Pyongyang's potential role in sharing its nuclear technologies with third countries. But the U.N. agency's ability to monitor Pyongyang is limited: North Korea kicked out the IAEA's inspectors in 2009.

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