The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
In Pyongyang’s telling of the Korean War, the United States, an imperialist nation on a quest for world domination, invaded North Korea on June 25, 1950, and inflicted untold chaos and suffering. As former North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung wrote in 1981 in his account of the war, the Americans were out “to make the Korean people their slaves and turn Korea into their colony.”
As is well known, the actual version of events unfolded quite differently. Following a series of border skirmishes, North Korea invaded South Korea, a move the United Nations immediately condemned. After the UN called for member states to come to Seoul’s defense, the United States dispatched air and naval forces to the peninsula. But to this day, North Korean life is centered around the other version of reality. Citizens are called upon to protect the nation at all times against the “evil Americans.” Children’s math lessons include counting figures representing dead U.S. Marines. And all across North Korea, billboards and posters deliver the message that the United States will soon invade North Korea “once again.”
As the Trump administration approaches the June 12 summit, it must remember that what keeps current Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in power is not simply nuclear weapons but also the powerful narrative that is spun to keep the North Korean people from rebelling. From the perspective of the North Korean regime, propaganda plays a large role in the Kim family’s survival. Its members have held on to power for seven decades largely because of their airtight control on information. This has enabled the Kims to enforce their own version of history in support of their draconian policies. North Korea's Songun, or military-first, system compels the people to devote their time and resources to building up the military in case of a U.S. attack. Because of its aggressive conscription effort, North Korea now has the world’s fourth-largest standing army. To keep everyone in line in pursuit of the Juche ideology of self-reliance, North Koreans must live according to the allowances of their songbun classification, North Korea’s sociopolitical caste system. A nationwide system of political prison camps and detention centers, coupled with broad surveillance and fear-based policies, helps ensure zero dissent.
In this regard, while in Singapore, U.S. President Donald Trump must be mindful of how Pyongyang will use the negotiations for propaganda in order to further bolster the regime’s legitimacy. Trump should refrain from making outlandish threats against Kim. Past calls for “fire and fury” against North Korea, for example, fed into the narrative of the ever-villainous U.S. leader. This is a role that the North Korean regime wants Trump to play. What is critical to understand is that North Korea needs the United States to be an existential threat in order to justify its systems of domestic control, surveillance, and punishment.
At the same time, Trump must not be too soft on Kim and downplay the fact that the regime has committed unparalleled crimes against humanity. Trump should demonstrate his support for upholding human rights norms and commend efforts of the civil society groups led by North Korean defectors to try to break through Pyongyang’s information blockade. As I described in my 2017 Foreign Affairs article, for over two decades these groups have been pushing foreign information into North Korea through small-scale campaigns, sending movies, news, and textbooks through media storage devices. Defectors’ testimonies reveal that North Koreans’ repeated exposure to foreign information—information that enables them to question their state media—is crucial to laying down the groundwork for a more informed citizenry. Citizens who come to realize that there is absolutely no justifiable reason for them to live under such repressive conditions may find ways to revolt and call for change. A “Pyongyang Spring” is of course nowhere on the horizon in the short term, given how risky it is to dissent, but it is certainly possible in the long term.
America’s soft power is one of its strongest foreign policy tools and it should be used more effectively to combat North Korea’s domestic propaganda.
Kim knows better than anyone else that foreign information and media have been trickling into the country. In an attempt to cauterize the inflow of forbidden material, the regime has been devising more innovative and technical methods to surveil, censor, identify, and punish individuals who consume foreign media. In addition to “traditional” forms of deterrence, such as using brute force to deter citizens from gaining access to these illicit materials, the regime has rolled out automated device- and software-based systems to identify individuals who consume forbidden information. And given how sensitive Kim’s regime is to external influence, his efforts to crack down on the dissemination of foreign media are ramping up.
To strengthen the efforts of getting foreign information to North Koreans, the U.S. government should, as a first step, increase funding for existing radio-broadcasting stations and civil society groups that send content specifically to North Korea, especially those that target North Korean military personnel, intellectuals, and political elite. Second, Washington should fund the research and development of techniques for disseminating large quantities of materials through air and space using satellite and other technologies. Third, Washington should subsidize initiatives to distribute digital devices that are permitted in North Korea, since they are essential to facilitating the circulation of foreign content.
Finally, there should be an open honeypot to fund moon-shot ideas for significantly increasing the distribution of information into North Korea. Many robust and innovative ideas are stunted merely because of a lack of funding: developing solar-powered media devices to hold large amounts of content and sending in satellite receivers that can access media streamed over satellite channels, for example. America’s soft power is one of its strongest foreign policy tools and it should be used more effectively to combat North Korea’s domestic propaganda.
If Washington allocated merely $25 million annually to these efforts, which is an insignificant amount compared with the costs of alternative policy options, the information landscape inside North Korea would evolve dramatically, to the benefit of ordinary North Korean people. Since North Korean citizens do not have freedom of movement inside their country—let alone the right to leave their country without permission—the least that the United States can do is to bring the world to them.
No matter what happens at the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, increasing pressure on the regime by significantly ramping up support for foreign information campaigns is a must. This option is low-hanging fruit: relatively cheap and easy while actually impactful. It will provide North Korean citizens with alternative sources of information and help to counter Pyongyang’s propaganda by presenting the United States in a truthful light. Despite the tremendous resources the North Korean regime has invested into maintaining an airtight information blockade, this blockade is eroding. Human ingenuity and curiosity have pushed and pulled foreign information and media into this closed country, all against the regime’s ironclad will. The United States must step up and help in this effort to provide alternative sources of information and media to the North Korean people so that they might one day know that there is another version of reality to the one in which they are living.