North Korea demolished its side of a joint inter-Korean liaison office in June to express its outrage over an anti-regime leaflet campaign led by defectors in South Korea. Since then, Seoul’s leadership has revoked the charitable status licenses of defector-run organizations. Seoul has justified the move by arguing that it could help restore good will with North Korea, making it necessary in order to revive negotiations. In reality, by appeasing the regime, Seoul’s actions make negotiations with North Korea less likely.
Earlier this month, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification opened investigations into 109 non-governmental organizations run by North Korean escapees. Seoul says the probes are apolitical. They are meant to ensure the groups are operating according to their stated business purposes and are submitting necessary documentation. If the groups fail to meet these standards, the ministry says that it would revoke their charitable status.
The probes could permanently damage work on human rights in North Korea, including the so-called underground railroad networks that are integral to helping North Koreans escapees. These networks involve many of the South Korean NGOs under investigation, as well as a broader network of brokers and organizations that help defectors flee through China.
The Moon Jae-in administration’s track record of suppressing North Korean human rights activity is already ignominious. In September 2018, Moon approved a spending bill that cut funding by 93% for the North Korean Human Rights Foundation and other programs essential for North Korean resettlement. In November 2019, South Korea withdrew from a resolution at the UN General Assembly’s third committee condemning North Korean human rights violations.
The Moon administration seems convinced that such actions help remove obstacles to inter-Korean negotiations and engagement. Unfortunately, Seoul’s conduct only emboldens the Kim Jong Un regime to continue coercing the South for further concessions. Kim has never reciprocated Moon’s goodwill gestures and has responded instead with weapons tests, insults, and the destruction of the liaison office. Furthermore, Kim’s actions underscore his family’s consistent negotiations strategy: Pyongyang uses provocation to force its adversaries to choose between escalating tensions and surrendering to North Korea’s demands.
North Korean escapees and activists, in the meantime, have been trying to dismantle the regime’s information blockade through information and influence activities. These include leaflet campaigns as well as smuggling foreign media on DVDs, USB drives, and SD cards into the North. These efforts have weakened the regime’s control over the populace. Surveys of North Korean escapees as well as those still living inside the country reveal that the consumption of free media has led North Koreans to increasingly question the regime’s legitimacy.
These efforts could be instrumental in reshaping and influencing North Korea’s elite and population, pushing them to oppose Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the regime’s human rights atrocities. A well-informed North Korean populace and elite would create a new internal environment for Kim that would create unprecedented risks for his current strategy.
If the Moon administration truly wants to influence Kim, it should amplify the efforts of the escapee community. Seoul should expand the organizational infrastructure to facilitate and conduct these activities. Current South Korean and U.S. organizations operate in a decentralized fashion. Consolidating these efforts would increase their impact and refine the messages North Koreans need to hear.
Seoul could also initiate cyber-enabled information warfare campaigns to exploit the North Korean population’s expanding use of the internet and smart phones. These campaigns could exclusively target North Korea’s military and party elites, because they have greater access to internet privileges. Targeting this audience would exploit social fissures within North Korea’s leadership that could alter Kim’s strategic calculus.
None of this can take place, however, without President Moon correcting his administration’s human rights failures on North Korea. That correction must happen soon. The rest will follow from there.
Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mathew and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. The views expressed are the author's own.