National Security

A Way Forward for North Korea

“If Kim Jong-un succeeds in his relentless pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons, a goal he is very open about, the world will have to react to remove that threat.”

Travel back to 1989 and 1990 when Germany, a divided country, was reunited.  West Germany was economically a juggernaut and the East was mired in the oppressive communist state.  Once the border opened, there was no turning back.  It was hard, and economically there were many issues to work out, but the country that had been divided for decades merged into one nation and from that point, never looked back.

I spent seven years in Germany, stationed on the East/West German border at Allied Checkpoint Alpha in the town of Helmstedt.  This was the only entry and exit point by automobile and train for the military and their dependents to and from Berlin through Communist East Germany.  I was there before, during, and after the Iron Curtain fell.

Within days of the border opening, it became very clear to all involved that the genie was out of the bottle.  East German officials were in fear of the backlash from the people they had abused and ruled over for so long.  They knew the loyalties to them were false, often forced.  Once the people of East Germany had a taste of life without the Iron Curtain, there would be no turning back for the East.

Similarities are Obvious

Now let us look at the situation with North and South Korea. Much like East and West Germany in the 80’s, the disparity between the two countries is strikingly apparent.  The South is vibrant with a booming economy, while the North is struggling to stay afloat.  South Korea is an unstoppable force economically.  According to 2013 figures, the GDP of North Korea is estimated at $33 billion, while that of South Korea is $1.19 trillion. According to the CIA World Factbook, the GDP per capita is $33,200 in South Korea, while it is $1,800 in the North.  South Korea’s trade volume was a gigantic $1.07 trillion in 2013.

To make matters worse, it is estimated that North Korea spends 50% of its GDP on the military.  The nation has a “Military First” policy that puts the needs of the people secondary.  This is clearly not sustainable.

This situation is also compounded by the isolation.  North Korea is completely controlled, the government controls the media, the internet, the news, and everything else in life.  The future for North Korea as a country is bleak and isolated.

External Pressures on North Korea.

Exasperating the problem, due to international sanctions, very few countries in the world will trade with North Korea.  North Korea is a belligerent pariah on the world stage, and the country has few friends.  While the USSR was a major supporter of the North Korean regime years ago, that has all faded away.  China, North Korea’s primary trading partner in material, food, and economic support, has shown signs of growing weariness when dealing with the government there.  In fact, China has recently moved closer to the US in the way it views North Korea and has all but shut down trade and travel between the two countries.

The world is pushing the North Korean leadership to the brink.  Not only are the military aspirations of North Korea not compatible with the rest of the world, but the direction of nuclear proliferation the North is pursuing will not be allowed to continue.  There will come a time when even Kim Jong-un’s strongest supporters will abandon him.  That is what is happening now.

The constant beating of war drums by the Kim regime is a designed diversion.  Kim’s efforts to stir up nationalism is an attempt to convince his people that they must defend their country against external enemies.  North Korea’s enemies are imagined.  No country has voiced an intent or made any effort to invade or take over North Korea.  This diversion has pushed the people to ignore the serious internal problems.

Kim uses his military as a symbol of strength shown to the world through parades and pageantry, and as a vehicle of national pride and power, much like the USSR before it fell.  Kim is following the same pattern of Communism and totalitarianism that history has shown fails.

Change From The Inside

Although North Korea is no longer starving as it was in the 1990s, it is still the poorest nation in East Asia.  Prosperity has not and will not come to North Korea as long as the centrally controlled system that is the hallmark of all totalitarian regimes continues.  What predicated the fall of East Germany and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR was information and glasnost (openness).  This is the tool that should be employed against the Kim regime.

The education of the North Korean people is an infowar, a cyber war, and a propaganda opportunity that might just push the people of the North to revolt.  Before that can happen, they must have access to information.  The people of North Korea are brainwashed, much like the East Germans were.  They spy on each other.  They inform on each other as a means of survival.  No one is trusted.  They are told their leaders are infallible.  Most North Koreans were born into the totalitarian state and have never experienced anything else.  They have no concept of the world around them.  The people of North Korea have no idea of what could be possible for them.

A Unilateral Option

If Kim Jong-un succeeds in his relentless pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons, a goal he is very open about, the world will have to react to remove that threat.  North Korea obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons is not only a threat to the US, Japan, and South Korea but also the entire world.  If Kim Jong-un does acquire ICBMs that are nuclear capable, then military action will be not only warranted but necessary.

There is only one real superpower in the world today.  The US has occupied that position ever since the fall of the USSR.  Even though Russia is making concerted efforts to regain its status as a world power, they are currently in no position to get involved in the Korea issue.  Regardless of Russia’s public statements and attempts to hinder the free world’s actions against North Korea in the UN, it is not in the best interest of Russia to become entangled in the conflicts in East Asia.

In this light, the US under the Trump administration has taken the stance that actions of North Korea will not be tolerated.  Nuclear capable ICBMs in the hands of Kim Jong-un is not a situation that will be allowed to exist.  President Trump is very likely to take military action to protect the United States as well as its allies.  The US has the means to put an end to the North Korean regime.  Should diplomatic and economic pressures fail to achieve the desired outcome, military force may be the only option.  The US, under President Trump, has put all the pieces in place to make that option not only viable but inevitable should the North continue on their current path.


Whether changed through military action, clandestine operations or some other method, North Korea, and their leadership cannot go on forever.  Considering the increasing pressure of the international community, North Korea is acting much like East Germany did in the final days of its existence.  In the last few months before it fell, the Democratic Deutsches Republic (DDR), went into damage control.  They cracked down hard on those working and speaking against them inside the country.  They made arrests, threatened military action against the West, and alienated their only real supporter, the USSR, which also fell.

While I was at the Checkpoint, I saw an increased number of escape attempts, defections by East German and Soviet soldiers, and a general crackdown as commanders tried to keep things together. What I also saw was the East Germans, once they got a taste of all the West had to offer, made their decision to switch alliances very quickly.  East Germany disintegrated almost overnight.  Within one week after the borders opened, East Germany was no more.

Adding military pressure, having friends and allies move against him, and utilizing a combined propaganda program is the direction the free world needs to take.  Showing the North Korean people that there are alternatives, that freedom and prosperity are possible for them will weaken Kim’s control.  The death knell for the Kim government will be his people realizing they are being deceived, controlled, and punished by their leadership.

Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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