A soft response to North Korea nuclear test

The North Korea nuclear test may well bring tougher sanctions. But the US can use the lure of liberty – visas – to undercut the Kim regime and challenge China's support of it.

To help heat their homes, North Koreans wash coal cinders in a river at the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, Feb. 12. North Korea under its new young leader, Kim Jong-un, conducted its third-ever nuclear test on Tuesday.

North Korea tested a nuclear device Tuesday, the third since 2006. The underground explosion, which was more powerful and perhaps smaller in design than the previous ones, has sparked a critical mass of international alarm.

Has the regime of Kim Jong-un now perfected a bomb able to be launched on a missile toward the United States? Will it sell a device to Iran or terrorist groups? Can it now blackmail South Korea into submission?

These possible dangers are pushing the US and others to toughen sanctions against North Korean leaders. Direct threats, however, have not worked up to now, and for one simple reason: China still provides an economic lifeline of fuel and food to its ally in Pyongyang. Beijing doesn’t want a unified Korea on its border, one allied with the US. And the Kim regime itself has long thrived on isolation and adversity.

Given the world’s heightened concerns over this latest nuclear test, now may be the time to try a softer approach, one based on an invitation rather than added sanctions.

Since the passage of a law in 2004, the US has opened a door for North Korean refugees, offering asylum if they escape across the Amnok and Duman rivers into China and then on to other countries. One premise of the North Korean Rights Act is to use America’s strength as a nation of freedom to complement it being a nation of military might. If enough North Koreans knew of this opportunity for liberty, the regime would steadily lose its subjects as they make for the exits.

The idea of luring a suppressed people into the light of freedom has a recent precedent. The communist regime in East Germany collapsed in 1989 after thousands of its people crossed into neighboring countries. The exodus was the spark for the implosion of the Soviet empire.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have braved the crossing into China over the years. The physical and other hurdles to getting to the US would be huge. But what other tactic will work against the regime?

Sadly, both the Bush and Obama administrations have not used the 2004 law to induce many North Koreans to flee. Fewer than 200 have been accepted as refugees since 2006.

The US may not wish to upset China by encouraging a massive flow of migrants into the northeast region. Washington also hasn’t gone to the United Nations with an official complaint about the cruel way that China treats North Koreans who cross the border. With so many other interests with Beijing, the US may not have seen North Korea’s nuclear threat as an urgent matter.

Until now.

The latest bomb test should elevate US interest in attracting this flow of refugees. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of the 22 million North Koreans now listen to foreign radio broadcasts. According to defectors, more than half have watched foreign DVDs, usually South Korean soap operas. Such contact with the outside world has helped to shatter the illusion of a worker’s paradise.

The US could easily broadcast its invitation for asylum into North Korea. In the mid-1950s, for example, as Vietnam was being divided into communist and democratic parts, the CIA lured millions of northern Vietnamese to move to the south by dropping leaflets from planes. And the US continues to give special visa treatment to Cubans who escape from that communist-run island nation.

The US ambassador to Beijing could visit North Korean refugees now hiding in northeast China, welcoming them to apply for a visa. The US, after all, is already home to the largest Korean community outside the Korean Peninsula.

The major fault line between North Korea and most of the world lies in the denial of freedom to its people. The obvious pressure point is to offer freedom to North Koreans, thereby undercutting their ruthless rulers. Such a step is also a way to break China’s support of the regime.

The honey of liberty may well work better than the vinegar of sanctions.

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