by Enea Gjoza
For years the United States has been at a loss on how to effectively deal with North Korea, a pariah “black hole” for U.S. intelligence. Although crippled by economic malfunction and a chronic inability to feed its people, the North Korean state has been able to survive and continue its belligerence for decades because of mass repression, isolation, and the steady support of China. Due to a lack of a foreign intelligence presence in the country, developments in North Korea often come as a complete surprise to the West, and the U.S. has little leverage to use against the regime. Even the death of Kim Jong-il, the country’s longstanding dictator, was not known abroad (except likely in China) until it was officially announced on state media two days after the fact.
In this climate, defectors and refugees fleeing North Korea can provide an invaluable source of both information and public pressure, assisting the United States in better understanding conditions in- country, while also isolating the regime from its allies internationally. By partnering with South Korea and local NGOs to create an “underground railroad” of sorts that helps defectors and their families escape, U.S. intelligence can help encourage the defection of increasingly high ranking officials, a group that has thus far been mostly impossible to reach because their families are used as hostages. This would help shed more light on the inner workings of the Kim regime, change the international dialogue on North Korea, and also hopefully provide valuable details about its intentions, military and cyberwarfare capabilities, and nuclear weapons program.
Despite the considerable difficulties associated with leaving the totalitarian state, an informal underground railroad already exists. It is facilitated largely by Christian organizations, humanitarian NGOs, and for-profit traffickers. Although North Korea's border with South Korea is heavily militarized, the border with China remains relatively porous, and despite government attempts to seal it, tens of thousands of refugees have escaped through it. Most of those who flee North Korea through China make their way to Southeast Asian countries before eventually ending up in South Korea, and occasionally the West. Churches, particularly in northern China, have served as safe houses, working with organizations like Seoul-based Helping Hands North Korea to assist refugees on their journey in defiance of Chinese law. However, due to a chronic shortage of resources, the Chinese government's hostility to refugees and their sympathizers, and the difficulties of smuggling refugees with no legal status or documents, the impact of these efforts remains relatively small.
The U.S. intelligence community, which has considerable experience assisting Soviet defectors fleeing to the West, can serve an important role in helping scale this operation through covert support and diplomatic assistance. This would take the form of: providing funding for organizations like Helping Hands and Liberty in North Korea, which are already established and possess local knowledge, while avoiding the direct involvement of U.S. agents in China; facilitating information sharing among humanitarian organizations to establish who on-the-ground is reliable, and minimize the involvement of third parties (such as brokers or locals working for-profit) to prevent infiltration; and provide diplomatic support for travel to South Korea for those who successfully make it to Southeast Asia, particularly in Laos, a major destination for refugees. This assistance would be provided in exchange for access to high-value refugees and defectors, and would serve U.S. interests both for the hopefully valuable intelligence gained, and by encouraging greater numbers of defectors once news of a reliable network makes its way back to North Korea.
A second task for U.S. intelligence and the State Department would be to identify those among the refugee population who possess the willingness and ability to be effective speakers against the regime in global forums. This would particularly include regime insiders who could both provide strategically valuable information and evidence for the atrocities the Kim regime currently denies. Incidentally, these individuals are also among the least likely to defect now, both because the difficulty of the journey makes it hard to have any degree of confidence that they and their families will successfully escape, and also because the humanitarian organizations currently facilitating the journey find it hard to morally justify deploying scarce resources to help defectors with blood on their hands. It is ironically the defectors who would be most valuable politically (regime insiders) who are most likely to be turned away by humanitarian groups because of their participation in brutal crimes. It is here where U.S. intelligence could add the most value by contributing its resources towards facilitating the successful escape of high-value defectors.
The next step would be assisting these defectors in conveying their stories in large scale forums, where they can generate global attention and create diplomatic pressure for the regime’s allies. The efforts of individuals like the Dalai Lama and Malala Yousafzai on behalf of those in their home countries highlight the potential for sympathetic individuals with an important message to focus the global conversation, if provided access to the means to do so. The United States could help notable defectors disseminate their story to a global audience by inviting them to speak at diplomatic gatherings and the UN, allowing them to testify them before Congress, and (if there is a strong value proposition), providing funds to assist with things like publishing memoirs or producing documentaries. This would raise international pressure on the regime, counter the propaganda it has been disseminating abroad, and raise the costs for China of continuing to prop up the North Korean state.
North Korea itself is unlikely to change policy because of negative publicity from refugees and defectors. However, China, which is actively seeking to boost its image and garner respect as a responsible great power, is much more susceptible to the global outcry that would be generated by effectively publicizing powerful personal accounts of North Korean abuses. Chinese assistance, particularly its support in the UN and its provision of the bulk of North Korea’s food and fuel, is vital to helping the regime survive international sanctions and its own failed economy. China has strong interests in preventing the rapid collapse of the North Korean regime, but by continually raising the price of sponsoring the Kim dynasty, there will eventually come a point when Beijing finds its ally too much of a liability.
There have already been signs that the relationship between the two states is starting to degrade. After North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, China supported the UN Security Council resolution implementing sanctions. China responded to further nuclear tests in 2013 by imposing diplomatic pressure and further trade restrictions, reducing the amount of energy it supplied. More recently, the executions of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle and his supporters were believed to have been a blow to the pro-Chinese reform faction within the North Korean leadership that might have set the country in a direction of gradual reform.
The combination of an opaque and brutal dictatorship, nuclear weapons, and great power interests make a painless solution to the problem of North Korea unlikely. However, given the improbability of reform from within and North Korea’s destabilizing effect on the region, the increased international pressure exerted by helping more refugees escape and tell their stories might well change China’s calculus. In the face of a steady stream of refugees making their way to South Korea, of vocal survivors of the regime taking their case to international bodies, and of high level defections that expose internal fractures in the leadership to the outside world, Beijing might well lose the appetite to accommodate the Kim regime any longer. Although this would not necessarily mean the immediate collapse of the North Korean state, it would make it unsustainable in its current form, and either force reform or help speed the state’s disintegration and reopening to the outside world.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.