Since taking office, the Trump administration has been working hard to derail Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Learning from the mistakes of previous leaders, the president has eschewed the policies of appeasement and Obama’s “strategic patience.”
Instead, Trump has taken a decidedly stricter approach to the Kim regime. He has convinced the United Nations and China to join with the United States in imposing the harshest sanctions that have ever been levied on North Korea.
New Sanctions on North Korean Officials
On Tuesday, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC) announced that they had imposed penalties on two senior North Korean officials who are involved with Pyongyang’s nuclear program. According to the announcement, “any property or interests in property of those designated by OFAC within U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and transactions by U.S. persons involving the designated persons are generally prohibited.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that the new sanctions are part of the Trump administration’s efforts to stop Pyongyang from continuing its nuclear weapons program. This move is designed to “isolate the DPRK and achieve a fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”
The two individuals who are being targeted by the Treasury Department are Kim Jong Sik and Ri Pyong Chol, both of whom work for North Korea’s Munitions Industry Department.
Are Sanctions Really Useless?Kim Jong Sik and Ri Pyong Chol
Many believe that sanctions are mostly useless when it comes to halting North Korea’s nuclear advancement. This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that multiple U.S. presidents have used them to no avail.
The Kim regime appears to be immune from any adverse effects. They have no qualms about letting their people starve while they pour their remaining resources into their military and weapons programs. However, it is possible that the latest round might be having an impact.
After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, the United States and the United Nations imposed the harshest penalties ever implemented against the North Korean regime. In an unprecedented move, China also imposed sanctions against Pyongyang that would block oil, fuel, iron, coal, lead, and other vital resources.
The full impact of these will put the North Korean regime in a precarious situation — one that neither Kim Jong Un or his predecessors have previously faced. With its greatest ally now cutting off essential supplies, Pyongyang will find it increasingly difficult to fund its nuclear and military programs while maintaining control over its citizens.
It is possible that the most recent measures will weaken Pyongyang enough to halt its nuclear program, but if we are going to bring about a solution that doesn’t necessitate military intervention from the U.S., we will need to do more.
Could Information Bring Down the Kim Regime?
Aggressive sanctions — if effective — could go a long way toward weakening the Kim regime’s hold on power. However, with a populace that is accustomed to living under totalitarian control, Pyongyang’s leadership could still maintain the illusion that they are still powerful, making it less likely that the average North Korean citizen would be brave enough to defy them. However, there might be a way for the west to get around this obstacle.Ho
Recently, a Thae Yong Ho, a high-ranking member of the North Korean government, defected to the United States and addressed the House Foreign Affairs Committee. During his testimony, he suggested that the United States should focus more heavily on distributing information to North Korean civilians. By infiltrating the country with this information, we can change minds through more education.
“We cannot change the policy of terror of the Kim Jong Un regime,” he said. “But we can educate North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information.”
The North Korean defector also lamented the fact that the amount of money the U.S. spends on this information campaign pales in comparison to the amount of funding directed at addressing Pyongyang’s military. “The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to cope with the military threat,” he told Congress. “And yet, how much does the U.S. spend each year on information activities involving North Korea in a year? Unfortunately, it may be a tiny fraction.”
Thae Yong Ho may have a point. Over the past few decades, we have tried bribery and appeasement — both of which were flawed strategies. Perhaps it would be wiser to adopt an aggressive, though still subtle approach. It could be a longshot, but if it works, we could dismantle the current North Korean government without resorting to an all-out war.
Tom Malinowski, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, discussed the potential for an information campaign against Pyongyang in a piece written for Politico. In the article, he provides a glimpse at what happened in North Korea when civilians had to endure famine. “As the state-run food distribution system broke down, North Koreans became less trusting of and dependent on their state,” he writes. “Eventually, private markets sprung up around the country.”North Korean black market
According to Malinowski, individuals began sneaking over the Chinese border to find food and to bring back other items to sell in their black markets. Along with food and supplies, however, they also returned with stories detailing how people in other countries lived. They learned that even Chinese citizens, whose government also has oppressive tendencies, were living better than the average North Korean.
Malinowski also emphasizes the fact that many North Korean defectors were exposed to information about the outside world before deciding to escape. While North Koreans previously learned about the rest of the world through word of mouth, now they are receiving information through USB drives and SD cards. These are easily-hidden devices that carry a wealth of valuable information.
The testimonies of those who have escaped are evidence that information campaigns have been useful. While pursuing sanctions and potential military action, the Trump administration also needs to put more resources into funneling information into North Korea. While the Kim regime is weakening under the weight of our restrictions, the people can finally see the horrific treatment their government has inflicted upon them.
A more robust information campaign isn’t guaranteed to work, but it’s certainly an option worth considering. The Trump administration should be pursuing all available measures to bring down the Kim regime. Perhaps USB drives and SD cards can help topple the Kim regime faster and with less loss of life than missiles and bombs.