Secretaries Rex Tillerson and James Mattis recently wrote that the U.S. is not seeking regime change in North Korea. Depending on whether they meant it or not, this policy has enormous implications for the success of their putative policy, which is to remove the North Korean nuclear threat.
Their statement is clearly designed to calm down the North Korean communist regime. It is certain, however, that the regime will not calm down. This is because it is an illegitimate regime whose principal fear is of its own people. As George Kennan said of the USSR, it fears us not for what we do but for who we are — a democracy with a competitive and threatening legitimizing concept of state authority: the consent of the governed. Nothing the U.S. does, short of renouncing our political system, will diminish North Korean, or for the same reason, Chinese, fears of the U.S.
Of one thing we can also be sure: The Tillerson-Mattis statement sends a comforting signal to the Kim regime. It assures it that its nuclear threats are succeeding in their purpose, which is to show the North Korean people that it is so powerful that it can intimidate the U.S., so how can they even contemplate resisting it? This message is central to the internal security system of totalitarian states: It is designed to keep the people in a psychological state of “futile resignation.” Simply put, the regime will never renounce its nuclear weapons. They are an essential element of its internal security.
While reassuring Kim Jong-un that his nuclear threats are succeeding, and absent other messaging, the Tillerson-Mattis statement also signals to the North Korean people that we don’t really care about them. Everyone knows that the real problem here is not the nukes, but the people who control them and the genetic code of their regime. So, by refraining from a call for political change that would benefit the North Korean people, their human rights, and their physical health, we are telling them to accept their fate. This is a message that demoralizes.
All foreign policy has two dimensions: relations with governments (traditional diplomacy) and relations with people (public diplomacy). The tragic condition of U.S. foreign policy ever since the Reagan administration is that public diplomacy has consistently occupied a tertiary status in the scale of national priorities.
So what must be done? It is OK to send messages like the Tillerson-Mattis one only if we reassure the North Korean people that we haven’t abandoned them. The Tillerson-Mattis message can thus serve a psychological disarmament purpose, at least to a limited degree. But we must have a parallel track of diplomacy — with the North Korean people. We must give them hope.
How is the people’s hope suppressed? How does the regime prevent them from resisting its tyranny? It does so by maintaining a monopoly of communications and information, and by using propaganda to promulgate a Party line to which everyone must conform. This is the North Korean version of “political correctness” — their method of thought control, speech control and, ultimately, behavior control. Meanwhile, its system of internal secret police informants creates such a climate of fear and mistrust that society becomes atomized: Every individual is separated from all others and stands alone against the all-powerful state. The result is that there is too much fear and too little opportunity for people to organize to resist the regime.
What is remarkable about the policies of successive U.S. administrations is that however much the North Korean regime consistently conducts Cold War policies toward us, we do not reciprocate. Is this because we think that by doing so, the chances of peace will increase?
We should remember the counsel of the great Soviet scientist, Andrei Sakharov, who said that there can be no peace between the U.S. and the USSR without respect for human rights. He explained that the Kremlin could never have peace with the West until it had peace with its own people. That, of course, by definition, could not happen so long as the regime remained communist.
Our policy, then, must be to help break the Kim regime’s monopoly of information and communications by increasing our broadcasts via every medium. We must harness the digital revolution in broadcasting by initiating DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) shortwave broadcasts over the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which transmit not just sound, but text and video. The advantage of these broadcasts is that they can be heard and seen anonymously, in contrast to the internet. This means that we should flood North Korea (and other parts of the world) with DRM receivers, as well as information and communications technology of every type. By giving the North Korean people information, democratic ideas and technology, we can help them communicate with one another and, as we did to help the internal resistance in the Soviet empire, give them the courage and the means to resist one of the most toxic tyrannies on earth.
• John Lenczowski, Ph.D., is President and Professor at The Institute of World Politics. He formerly served as President Reagan’s Soviet affairs adviser. He is the author of “Full Spectrum Diplomacy and Grand Strategy: Reforming the Structure and Culture of U.S. Foreign Policy.”