How to Free North Korea

The time to topple the criminal government in Pyongyang is now. Here's how to do it.

Yuri Irsenovich Kim, known to most as Kim Jong Il, died on Saturday, reportedly of a heart attack, ending a 15-year reign over the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Kim's 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, was declared the "great successor" by state media, in a choreographed and rehearsed move three years in the making, since the elder Kim's 2008 stroke first raised the need for a proper succession plan.

With the elder Kim's death, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea enters a critical phase, with a unique, once-in-a-generation vulnerability. With a formidable state apparatus, North Korea has watched the revolutions of the past few decades closely, each time learning from the weaknesses of other dictatorships and avoiding their mistakes. Corrupt leaders like Nicolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and others rose and fell while the Kim dynasty seemed to only grow stronger. North Korea would not have announced the death of Kim Jong Il publicly had they not been supremely self-confident that they were prepared for any resulting instability. Amidst the spread of the Arab Spring, North Korea reportedly moved tanks, barricades, and military units to pre-positioned locations in Pyongyang, just in case.

Veteran North Korea watchers have resigned themselves to the cyclical, predictable nature of North Korea's allegedly unpredictable behavior. Here's what will likely happen: The regime will launch an aggressive provocation of some sort, calling attention to itself. Then it will express a willingness to engage, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, in exchange for sweeteners, usually in the form of released sanctions, humanitarian aid, fuel, or other resources. The regime will negotiate dismantling or removal of whatever the key problem was -- missiles, nuclear facilities, etc -- and claim to have done so, before revealing months later yet another provocation. It goes on and on. The short-range missiles test on the morning North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong-Il fit this pattern well.

But there is a critical opportunity here. In recent years, cracks have begun to show in North Korea's previously flawless presentation. A famine in the mid-1990s took the lives of over one million North Koreans, while economists proved the nation had enough food and resources to provide for its own people. Botched currency reform efforts and poor harvests coupled with international aid shortages led to increasing dissatisfaction among the masses. As South Korea's government switched parties to a less appeasement-minded President Lee Myung Bak, North Korea launched a missile test (April 2009), an underground nuclear test (May 2009), sunk a South Korean warship (March 2010), and shelled a South Korean island and debuted a secret, previously unknown uranium enrichment facility (Nov. 2010). The resulting slew of sanctions and international pressure raised a level of unprecedented pressure on the regime, including aggressive American, European, and U.N. sanctions on key figures and off-shore accounts.

But most of this key progress has been abandoned as the world's attention focused on the U.S. recession, the Euro debt crisis, and the Arab Awakening.

For the past few years, North Korea has been making big plans for 2012. The regime claims that the suffering and hardship of the North Korean people will be rewarded with a "year of prosperity" in 2012 -- the 100th anniversary of birthday of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung (Jong Un's grandfather). Accordingly, North Korea began hoarding food and resources, and asking close allies, namely China, to help provide significant aid and assistance for the occasion.

It is thus likely that Jong Un will consolidate power and begin gifting these resources to the people, claiming that his leadership brought newfound prosperity. North Korea will not likely launch international provocations in the next critical phase -- Jong Un knows very well that South Korea is not likely to take a third provocation in just over a year sitting down, particularly with Lee in office. Pyongyang thus will embark on false attempts at engagement and dialogue, while taking bought time to consolidate Jong Un's rule, before entering again in North Korea's tried-and-true cycle of provocation, conciliation, and provocation again.

But this is not merely some geopolitical game; North Korea is more than a nuisance in international policy. It is home to some of the most widespread human rights violations in the world today. Nearly every freedom enshrined in the free world -- speech, religion, assembly, movement, dissent, and more -- does not exist north of the 38th parallel. Those perceived as disloyal are sent to a network of concentration camps claiming more than a quarter million prisoners. Public executions serve as a chilling effect for dissent and misbehavior, and tens of thousands of North Koreans fleeing to China and Russia face torture if captured and repatriated.

Simply put, North Korea represents the very worst of humanity -- a nation ruled with impunity, where several thousand key leaders live at the great expense of 24 million or so others. It represents atrocities and human suffering on a staggering scale.

The international community is thus presented with a rare opportunity. The next year, beginning now, is likely to bring a carefully coordinated show -- a show of paternal generosity and domestic strength, while Kim Jong Un showers his people with gifts and begins to consolidate more completely his authority -- and perhaps a show of friendliness and hints at reform internationally, à la Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.

The international community cannot be fooled again. Before Jong Un is able to solidify his rule; before the people of North Korea lose the glimmer of hope sparked by rumors of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria; before they resign themselves to another generation of yet another Kim enslaving them; the world must act quickly, deliberately, together.

A coordinated effort can open North Korea, weaken the regime, and lead it to a soft landing that benefits all of its regional neighbors, while helping the North Korean people to rise up and take ownership of their nation.

If Qaddafi's assault on Benghazi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's attack on his own people precipitated international sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and condemnation, why should North Korea not receive the same or more many times over? A collaborative slate of full sanctions, particularly targeting luxury goods, technology, weapons proliferation, offshore bank accounts, and key regime figureheads would cause critical damage to North Korea at the precise moment when it most needs financial stability. Key to this effort are two pieces: first, finding and freezing the labyrinthine network of offshore bank accounts the regime has developed throughout decades (at least $4 billion dollars are reportedly in Luxembourg alone). Second, full compliance and sanctions by China and Russia are necessary to ensure North Korea does not have a backdoor undermining the rest of the world's efforts.

The United States, European Union, South Korea, and Japan should lead a diplomatic offensive seeking global isolation of Pyongyang -- beginning with breaking bilateral ties across the board for those that have them. The United States should stop pursuing a reboot of the repeatedly failed Six Party Talks -- a useless effort of talk for only the appearance of progress. It's clear that North Korea will never, ever give up its nuclear capacity -- its leaders have seen what happened to Hussein and Qaddafi and will not make the same mistake.

That said, pressure is still the key. Western nations, in conjunction with China and Russia, should overtly offer senior DPRK leadership asylum in exchange for defection, while pursuing action at the International Criminal Court against senior leadership implicated in crimes against humanity. Although distasteful, efforts should be made to pledge immunity from prosecution for key leaders in exchange for going into exile.

Parallel to this effort is shining a light on the country's heinous record. Governments should release better-than-commercial grade satellite imagery of North Korea's vast network of death camps, and support efforts to obtain footage of the same. Such potent evidence will go a long way towards helping public sentiment understand the gravity of what is happening in North Korea, and help strengthen thousands of eyewitness and personal testimonies by defectors, including former prison guards.

A central piece to the puzzle, and to any future destiny of North Korea, is China, its patron state and lone, true ally. China is not married to North Korea's leadership or political system. It is simply looking out for its own interest and leveraging North Korea's misbehavior for increased political capital. The solution here is straightforward: cut a deal with China. Beijing is hedging, in characteristic fashion, much like the Imperial court did centuries before. Whenever China's dynasties invaded a neighboring kingdom, they would simply extract fealty and annual tribute, and largely leave the neighbor alone to its own affairs -- with the collateral of bringing heirs to the throne back to China to intermarry and remain under Chinese protection or control.

China today has adopted the same approach with Tibet and North Korea -- kidnapping the Panchen Lama and sheltering Kim Jong Nam, oldest son of Jong Il, in Macau. Such behavior is an implicit threat -- misbehave too much, and we will install our own puppet king.

Yet China can be reasoned with. With the right inputs, a North Korea free of the Kim regime would bring about increased stability in the region and opportunities for economic development, investment, and trade. United Nations Development Program studies have for years noted the economic benefits that developed North Korean ports, pipelines, and rail could have on the entire region. Guaranteeing that Chinese investments and real estate contracts made there would be honored is critical.

In addition, a pledge by the United States to either leave the Korean peninsula entirely -- or to keep U.S. soldiers no higher than the 38th parallel -- would help. Leaked U.S. government cables confirmed suspicions that China would accept a reunified Korea under Seoul's governance, so long as it was not hostile to Beijing or Chinese interests, even in a "benign alliance" with the United States. 

Mass defections are always a precursor to revolution and regime collapse. To help promote change within the country and refugee outflows, funding for radio broadcasts and other communications into North Korea must be improved from the current tragic lows. Beefing up efforts to support external communication to, from, and among the North Koreans would be a critical blow to Pyongyang's control, enabling citizens to organize amongst themselves.

Moreover, there are tens of thousands of North Koreans living in exile, many of whom now have advanced degrees and skills that can translate into leadership abilities. Many of them are already engaged in dissident activity within North Korea, including efforts to smuggle in radios and printed material with outside news, or smuggle out refugees and key defectors. Still others have been able to bring out surreptitiously obtained footage from within, or even bribe guards at concentration camps to win release of family members.

Neighboring nations can be induced to offer safe haven to North Korean refugees and pledge not to repatriate -- Mongolia, for example, years ago entertained the idea of a semi-permanent refugee station for North Korean refugees. In exile, the North Koreans can begin to organize properly, build democratic institutions, and support internal efforts by dissidents to change the system. They will need training, shelter, and protection.

Thankfully, just south of the Demilitarized Zone lies the world's 10th largest economy and a highly developed, fully functioning democracy. South Korea happens to have one of the largest standing armies in the world (useful for stabilizing North Korea post-Kim), and also happens to be currently debating collection of a "reunification tax" to help underwrite expenses involved in absorbing a free North Korea into a Unified Korea. The importance of this good southern twin cannot be overstated -- South Korea's economy is an order of magnitude larger than that of the North, with double the population. It can handle, with international support, the absorption of North Korea, and provide reassurances to China and Russia that instability will not prove to be a problem. The concern with refugee outflows can also be mitigated with immediate and adequate deliveries of food, safety, and medical care into the country. There's no doubt that this will be difficult, but it would be nearly impossible without South Korean leadership.

But what of the most important question: Is revolution from within possible? Absolutely. Despite a lack of civil society organizations, North Korea's history is dotted with uprisings, including large armed clashes in the 1980s in Chongjin, Hamhung, Musan, and Sinuiju. In 1987, North Korea's Concentration Camp Number 12 in Onson reportedly saw a mass prisoner uprising -- with 5,000 inmates slaughtered by a military battalion in response. Since then, Pyongyang has witnessed uprisings and coup attempts almost every other year, to varying degrees. In 2005, during a World Cup qualifying match in Pyongyang between North Korea and Iran, a crowd of 50,000 began to riot, throwing bottles, chairs, and punches at police and soldiers. Displeased with their team's loss, the North Korean fans continued facing off with authorities for over two hours, resulting in stunning, inconceivable photos captured by international media there to cover the sporting event.

More recently, a disastrous currency reform effort in Dec. 2009 resulted in destruction of the personal savings of thousands of North Koreans, sparking widespread riots -- an act of open defiance that is perhaps, increasingly thinkable in the Hermit Kingdom. Stunningly, government backed off and made concessions, and even executed the official who had conceived of (or been blamed for) the idea.

* * *

This much is clear: North Korea will fall. It is simply a question of when and how. But it is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one's choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment. And a reunified, free Korea can be a powerful force for good in the world, and a potent economic engine.

But missing this opportunity to bring Pyongyang into the international community would be a grievous error. North Korea's crimes do not end at its own borders. Beyond state-sponsored acts of terror, kidnappings, and assassination attempts of foreign government officials, human rights activists, and defectors, it has also sold weapons, missiles, technology, and nuclear materials to a who's who of unfriendly countries, including Egypt, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It has engaged in the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, mass government-sanctioned insurance fraud, and the exportation of North Korean slaves all over the world.

North Korea is not a modern nation-state. It does not exist for the welfare of its populace, nor to safeguard the rights of it's citizens. It exists for the sole benefit of the king and his barons -- a ridiculously-scaled Mafia criminal state -- and must be treated as such.

The very progress of our global civilization is for naught if we continue to let the very idea of North Korea exist. North Korea is not a failed state, with warlords fighting for land and treasure. Its atrocities do not stem from factional fighting, crimes of passion, or mob violence. It is on another level entirely -- a staggering system entirely built and mastered for the express purpose of propagating human suffering and ensuring the continued exploitation of the people so that the very few can benefit.

It is a moral obligation of the highest order that the international community intervene. What can be done, we must do -- and now is the time.

Feng Li/Getty Images


The Real Mohamed Bouazizi

One year on, a team of researchers uncovers the man behind the martyr and the economic roots of the Arab Spring.

One year ago, on Dec. 17, a humble, cowed fruit-seller in a small, provincial city in Tunisia doused himself in paint thinner and set himself alight. The flames that eventually took his life had an effect he could not have foreseen, even in his wildest dreams: Less than a month later, his country's long-ruling tyrant had fled for his life and a democratic revolution would soon sweep across the Middle East. His death made him famous, an icon whose face adorns postage stamps and whose name -- Mohamed Bouazizi -- now stands for the hopes of a generation.

As is so often the case with political martyrs, Bouazizi means strikingly different things to different people. To some he's a generic symbol of the resistance to injustice; to others an archetype of the fight against autocracy. Occupy Wall Street activists have even enlisted him as a spiritual ally of their struggle against the unholy alliance between Washington and corporate America.

It is hard to imagine that the real Mohamed Bouazizi would have recognized himself in any of these incarnations.

My colleagues at the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) and I recently spent some three months painstakingly reconstructing Bouazizi's life and world, conducting interviews with his family members and friends as well as exploring his hometown of Sidi Bouzid (population 38,000). The Bouazizi we uncovered is a far more modest and straightforward figure than many of his admirers would presume. He was an apolitical family man, respected by his peers.

Bouazizi wanted two things: to earn a living for his family and to accumulate capital (ras el mel). He was a young man, only 26, of no other discernible interests. His life was consumed by his role as the primary breadwinner for his family of seven -- a role he had played, according to his mother, ever since he started working in the market at age 12. His father died when Bouazizi was 3. He had five siblings. His mother later remarried, but his stepfather, also his uncle, plagued by health problems, was unable to support the family.

As those who knew Bouazizi tell it, he was the very opposite of an activist. "He never even watched the news," his mother told us. "People like Mohamed are concerned with doing business. They don't understand anything about politics." The $73 he earned each week was the family's main source of income.

Above all, he was a repressed entrepreneur -- which is why Bouazizi's death resonated so strongly and became a unifying force across the culturally, politically, and religiously diverse Arab world, from Morocco to Syria. For decades, market economies have been growing in the Middle East and North Africa, albeit in the shadows of the law. The ILD has estimated that 50 percent of the region's entrepreneurs operate outside the law. They share Bouazizi's desire to prosper -- and his despair in the face of the insurmountable obstacles in their way.

Bouazizi's talent was for buying and selling. Each evening he picked up fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market to sell from his street-side cart at a spot facing the office of the district administration. His dream was to buy an Isuzu pickup truck to get his supplies directly from the farmers. He was known in his neighborhood for his shrewd practicality. He was trusted by his peers: His colleagues in the wholesale fruit market sometimes hired him to do their accounts. "He also wanted a permanent stand at the wholesale market," his mother Manoubia told us. "If they had given it to him, it would have changed his life."

For years, Bouazizi had endured harassment at the hands of deeply corrupt petty officials -- most notably, the municipal police officers and inspectors who lived off street vendors and other small-scale extralegal business-people. The police officers helped themselves to the vendors' fruit whenever they felt like it or arbitrarily fined them for running their carts without a permit. Bouazizi complained about the greed of local officers for years. He hated paying bribes.

But on Dec. 17, 2010, this otherwise uneventful life took its place in history. That morning, Bouazizi got into a tussle with town inspectors who accused him of failing to pay a fine for some arbitrary infraction. They seized two crates of pears, one crate of bananas, three crates of apples, and his electronic scale -- worth some $225, the entire capital of his business. A municipal police officer, a woman named Fedia Hamdi, slapped Bouazizi across the face in front of the crowd that had gathered at the scene. With his uncle's help, Bouazizi appealed to the authorities for the return of his property. But he got nowhere -- a common outcome in a society where small-scale business-people were treated with contempt by local officialdom. One hour after the confrontation with Hamdi, at 11:30 a.m., he doused himself with paint thinner and immolated himself in front of the governorate building in Sidi Bouzid. Bystanders tried to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher. But it was empty.

Why did the suicide of one poor Tunisian in a town no one had ever heard of spark the political revolutions of the Arab Spring? It wasn't politics; it was economics.

To eke out a living, poor entrepreneurs like Bouazizi -- not just in Tunisia, but across the world -- have little alternative but to join the local extralegal economy with its own rules for making transactions and protecting assets. Bouazizi, for example, paid 3 dinars a day for the regular use of a location on the street -- what the ILD calls an "extralegal property right." According to our research, he had worked his entire life to establish a small place in the local market economy -- and lost it in a matter of minutes.

During our research we found hundreds of small enterprises like Bouazizi's, run by Tunisians with no legal identity, no legal address, and no legal right to their shack or market stall. Without legal documents, their ability to make the most of their assets is limited, and they live in constant fear of being evicted or harassed by local officials. According to our research, around half of the entire Tunisian workforce is employed by extralegal businesses of this kind. Around the region, the number is far larger -- over 100 million Arabs.

If committing suicide over the loss of $225 worth of goods and a regular location on the street for a fruit stand seems inconceivable to most people in the United States and Europe, Bouazizi's counterparts throughout Tunisia and in the extralegal economies in the rest of the Arab world understood immediately his desperation. In their eyes, Bouazizi had not been just the victim of corruption or even public humiliation, as horrible as they are; he had been deprived of the only thing that stood between him and starvation -- the loss of his place in the only economy available to poor Arabs.

Indeed, by running against the goodwill of the authorities he not only lost his fruits and scale, but also his access to property, credit, and future capital. His merchandise had been bought on credit; once it was confiscated, he couldn't sell it to pay his creditors back. Because his working tools were confiscated, he had lost his capital. Because the customary arrangement to pay authorities 3 dinars daily for the property right to park his vendor's cart in 2 square yards of public space had been terminated, he lost his access to the market.

The authorities not only expropriated his merchandise but also his potential. Take that Isuzu pickup truck Bouazizi dreamed of. Given his monthly income, the only way he could have afforded such an investment would have been by getting a loan. But banks won't lend without collateral, and all that Bouazizi could have offered was his small family home, where he shared one of the four rooms with his 14-year-old brother, Karim. That would have been near impossible, given that Bouazizi's father died in 1988 without leaving behind a clearly formalized title that could be transferred to his descendants. The only document that claimed ownership of the house was a 1985 land-sale contract between Bouazizi's father and the municipality -- which was never registered at the local deeds registry.

Bouazizi might have tried legalizing his business by establishing a small sole proprietorship. But that's easier said than done. We calculated that doing that would have required 55 administrative steps totaling 142 days and fees amounting to some $3,233 (about 12 times Bouazizi's monthly net income, not including maintenance and exit costs).

Even if Bouazizi had managed to find the time and money, a sole proprietorship still wouldn't have enabled him to pool resources by bringing in new partners, limit liability to protect his family's assets, or capture new investment by issuing shares in the business.

It is precisely these sorts of barriers that have kept the vast majority of entrepreneurs from participating in the mainstream economy as legally empowered actors.

Thus, when the news spread throughout the Arab street about Bouazizi's "martyrdom," his plight was shared by millions who took up his fiery protest. Our research found that in the 53 days after Dec. 17, 2010, at least 35 more extralegal businessmen throughout the Middle East and North Africa replicated his self-immolation, sparking the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi lingered for weeks after setting himself on fire. Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali visited him in the hospital, presenting the family with a check that, they say, presidential aides then took back after the cameras left. Bouazizi finally died on Jan. 4. Ten days later, Ben Ali, after 23 years in power -- nearly all of Bouazizi's life -- fled for Saudi Arabia.

Today, Bouazizi's body lies in a modest cemetery on the outskirts of Sidi Bouzid. His family has moved to the capital, Tunis. (According to rumors reported in the press, the house's rent is being paid for by a documentary filmmaker who wants to make a movie about Bouazizi's life -- an account fiercely denied by Bouazizi's mother.)

Initially celebrated for Bouazizi's role in triggering the revolution, his family has now become the object of envy from some of their compatriots. In Sidi Bouzid, some complained to us that "[Bouazizi's] mother is the only winner of this revolution." While it is true that the high expectations raised by the revolution have yet to be met, the insinuation that Bouazizi's family has somehow benefited from his death is a source of considerable anguish to the Bouazizis. However unfair, it can be seen as a typical expression of the disdain that many of the region's elites hold for the merchants of the casbah.

Bouazizi is, of course, not the only hero of the Arab Spring. There are thousands of them, if not millions. Neither is economics the only root of the revolution. But it is clear that the undercurrents of popular unrest -- what led the economic martyrs of the revolution to such desperate acts -- have yet to be resolved. Governments have been toppled, but the underlying economies still remain and are ignored at our peril.

We asked Salem, one of Bouazizi's brothers, what his brother in heaven might have hoped his sacrifice would bring to the Arab world. Salem did not hesitate: "That the poor also have the right to buy and sell."