A new light on a dark problem: North Korea

As North Korea becomes more dangerous, a fresh approach is needed to end this nuclear threat. Sanctions and threats have yet to work. Perhaps the US can reach the North Korean people with a message of hope. 

AP Photo
A North Korean defector holds a banner in South Korea condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a rally denouncing the North latest nuclear test on Sept. 15.

For nearly a quarter century, as North Korea has built atomic bombs and the missiles to deliver them across oceans, the United States has used threat after threat against the regime in Pyongyang to end this nuclear threat. It has tightened sanctions, toughened defenses, and helped shame the regime before the United Nations for the cruel treatment of its people. Nothing has worked.

In fact, in 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and 25 ballistic-missile tests – including one from a submarine – which are far more than previous years. The result was even more economic sanctions, such as a ban on coal exports, imposed by the UN Security Council in November.

But the effects of the sanctions on the country’s already-spartan economy are not yet certain. In the meantime, experts say North Korea could develop a missile within four to five years that might explode a nuclear weapon on the US West Coast.

North Korea’s weapons program has stumped three US presidents. And China has done little to rein in its neighbor and ally. But with the threat rising, President-elect Donald Trump may be forced to solve it early in his term. The only indication of his policy was a campaign statement that he would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

One possible solution is to go over the head of the Kim regime to reach North Koreans directly. This is an approach being pushed by former President George W. Bush and two experts, Victor Cha and Bob Gallucci. They refer to it as “light through darkness.”

In a report and at a conference last month, they proposed a number of measures to entice more North Koreans to challenge their regime, flee their country, and find safe haven in other countries. “Some argue that the spirit of the North Korean people has been beaten into submission so total that opposition is unthinkable,” said Mr. Bush. “We don’t believe that.... The desire for freedom, like the dignity of the person, is universal. A hope placed in human hearts by God cannot be removed by Kim Jong-un.”

Bush encouraged Americans to help solve the problem by being more welcoming to North Korean refugees already in the US. Only about 200 are currently in the US, and many are struggling. Most of the 30,000 North Koreans who have fled since the 1990s settled in South Korea.

Their example of a free life has the potential to transform the regime, says Mr. Cha. They can send back money and information into North Korea, helping others to challenge the regime or, if they can do so safely, escape the country. (One example: the rush of East Germans escaping their communist country in 1989 with help from the West. The exodus brought down the Soviet bloc.] And these refugees may someday serve as new leaders of a liberated North Korea.

A Trump presidency can send messages into North Korea about the US as a viable destination. And more North Koreans can be given a good start in the US. Such moves might bring more light on what has so far been a quarter century of dark results.

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