Thursday, April 4, 2013

A New Strategy for North Korea: Let the Wookiee Win

There is a famous scene in Star Wars - R2-D2 and Chewbacca are playing a game and Chewbacca is losing. After Han Solo points out that wookiees are known for pulling people's arms out of their sockets when they lose, C-3PO offers this advice: "I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the wookiee win."

We have a similar situation in North Korea. We all know that North Korea is losing this contest. Famously, satellite images taken at night show North Korea as an area of darkness surrounded by the lights of South Korea, China, and Japan. North Korea has only one ally - China. That ally is growing impatient. In any sort of military contest, North Korea would lose. Badly.

But North Korea is not harmless - it would lose any military contest, but their army could still hurt a lot of people. The government also has domestic problems. After the famine of the 1990s, and years of information slowly trickling in via China, the North Korean people are beginning to be vaguely aware that life is better almost anywhere else, and they are gradually slipping away from central control. The governing class there knows it has to reform their economy, but they don't know how to do so without ending up dead. Kim Jong-un did not create this monstrosity - he inherited it. The same can be said for most of the rest. We consider the damage North Korea can do to the outside world, but the ruling class there has that tiger by the tail and they dare not let go. South Korea and China are also concerned about domestic problems in North Korea, because they will inevitably spill across their borders, disrupting the status quo with millions of refugees in need of food, shelter, and services. To make matters worse, due to decades of malnutrition, many of these refugees will not be merely uneducated but will be mentally retarded and difficult to integrate into society.

Naturally we wonder what to do about this. Our natural sense of justice inclines us to send in our military and smash the North Koreans - but military force would mostly affect people who aren't responsible for these problems. It would also force a response which would likely hurt our friends in China and our allies in South Korea. The military option should not be on the table.

Our best response may be quite unintuitive: let the wookiee win. Give North Korea what they need, though not necessarily what they want. Food. There is a good strategic reason for this: the more dependent North Korea is on outside nations for food, the less capable they will be to wage war on their benefactors, because victory would mean death.

Much of this should enter via official channels, allow the governing officials to save face and giving them a chance to introduce gradual change - but perhaps most should enter via other channels. Already the lack of food has weakened central control by forcing the development of a black market and an alternative economy - but it is unclear whether a sudden collapse of central control would be in anyone's interest. A gradual change would be safer, and might be accomplished with slowly increasing amounts of smuggled food and other goods.

This strategy does not even require a government to accomplish it. With advancing technology, private groups could smuggle in food directly to individuals, without being tied to any state.

Consider the development of drones. If this drone could be scaled up (or range extended), imagine tens of thousands of them dropping supplies all over North Korea where needed, their sheer numbers overwhelming the ability of the North Korean military to stop them. Launched from platforms in international waters, by loose-knit groups without ties to any state, who would stop them?

In the longer term, other factors will bring down the North Korean government, but for now our best choice might be to let the wookiee win.

(Other factors? as I wrote on this topic at Google+):
You really want to know the end game in North Korea? 
In less than twenty years, but probably more than five years, private parties from around the world will decide to end the North Korean regime, and do so quickly and quietly. 
They will do this with the deployment of massive numbers of miniature and untraceable, autonomous or semi-autonomous drones. 
If you have read "Escape from Camp 14", consider this scenario: 
A small drone announces in the ear of every prisoner in their native language "It is time to leave this camp. Walk to the front gate." It sounds just like the voice of the guards, and the prisoners do so in mass. 
Other small drones project a display onto the retinas of the guards, and nullify some sounds and emit others so that the guards do not notice anything unusual happening. They stand there with their eyes open, unseeing and unaware, as the prisoners leave the camp. 
One of the guards makes a sudden movement with his head and the drones projecting the image on his retinas are suddenly out of position. He sees the prisoners escaping and aims and attempts to fire his rifle. The rifle does not work: it has been sabotaged by other drones. The guard, only knowing his rifle does not work, pulls out his concealed revolver which had passed unnoticed by the drones. He fires at the prisoners closest to the gate. The bullets speed through the air only to stop, flattened into lead disks, a few feet from the prisoners - halted by a utility fog. 
When the prisoners reach the front gate they find it open and they walk out. Or, perhaps, they discover that the gate - and the entire fence around the periphery of the camp - has fallen to the ground. They step over it and are on their way. A little way down the road tables are waiting with good shoes, decent clothing, and adequate food and water that have been delivered by larger drones by air. The prisoners may now go where they wish. 
A billion people, linked together on seven continents and habitats on the seas, monitor a hundred million incidents at once, and occasionally point out an area of interest to the swarm of drones.
Not one of those people has been authorized to do so by their own government. Their own governments are terrified.


  1. If the DPRK's rulers ever initiate any kind of reform - the same Glasnost which was the final bullet in the head of the Soviet Union - it will be the result of the leadership's incompetence and weakness, and not the desire to save their people from starvation and retardation. So long as they are ideologically rigid, they will allow no reforms willingly.

    But what gives me hope is the degeneration of their ruling class, and the levels of drug-addicted, alcoholic, aristocratic inbreeding which has produced this dictator and the last.

    Kim Il Sung was a true Stalinist: a cynical, joyless, obsessive prude who understood the needs of an Orwellian dictatorship. But Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are merely pigs. These new leaders are busy drinking bourbon and raping actresses while their subjects smoke meth and watch smuggled South Korean soap operas. The order of their totalitarian society is degrading rapidly. They have lost their ability to govern efficiently.

    Do not count on the Kims' concern for humanity. Count on their incompetence.

    1. I am not counting on their humanity, but consider that they might wish to improve their country along Chinese lines for their own benefit. Certainly they understand that if they do not improve conditions soon they will be murdered by their own people, but they are also doubtless concerned that if they DO improve conditions they will be murdered by their own people.

      That is something of a quandary, whether the new generation has any scruples or not. For the sake of the North Korean people (and ourselves) we should make it easier for them to make the right decision.

    2. If they remain ideologically strong, they will not be murdered by their subjects. For decades, North Korea's civilians have endured a worst of all possible worlds - frequent and catastrophic famine, universal poverty, concentration camps, forced abortions, medical experimentation, execution of entire families and communities, perpetual fear of the Thought Police, and complete cultural stagnation. Besides the military installations, North Korea is a mostly empty, barren country. So I wouldn't count on them for a revolution.

      And the ruling class is quite content with this locked-in society. Their atrocities were planned and carried out with intended effects. The only question is whether or not this decaying hereditary monarchy can stave off their own loss of confidence and ability, or a coup by younger, less ideologically pure generals.