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A Three Part Plan to Enhance President Yoon’s North Korea Strategy: Toward a Free and Unified Korea

North Korea
Image of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Image Credit: North Korean State Media.

On August 15th, in his Liberation Day speech, President Yoon described his “audacious initiative” for North Korea. In summary, it is an economic engagement proposal that is intended to be a first step to begin negotiations. The plan has been coordinated with and has the full support of the U.S. Unfortunately the Kim family regime responded first with two cruise missiles fired into the West Sea and then Kim Yo Jong offered invective and personal insults to the President while rejecting his plan.

The regime’s response was not a surprise. Others in South Korea and the U.S. are underwhelmed by the plan and say it is simply maintaining the status quo.  Experts note it lacks details. It seems that the Yoon administration raised expectations with the use of an “audacious initiative.” This appears to be an action for action plan based on the carrot of economic incentives in return for steps toward denuclearization. The words of a longtime Korea hand, privately conveyed, may be appropriate here: “Everything with North Korea has been tried and there is only repackaging of old ideas.”

Perhaps the best way to describe the “audacious initiative” is that it is an initial plan to propose to the North to begin a dialogue.  It may require some more meat on the bones.  What follows is a brief but possibly bold proposal to do that.

Kim Jong Un’s Fears

It should be clear to all that Kim Jong Un has no intention to give up his “treasured sword” of nuclear weapons that provides a deterrent capability to ensure his survival while supporting his three-fold strategy of political warfare, blackmail diplomacy, and advanced warfighting capabilities. His strategic aim is to eventually dominate the Korean peninsula under the rule of the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State.  It is crucial to understand the nature of the regime and the threats it perceives beyond the usual one of outside military attack.

Economic engagement and information are threats to the regime.  However, in reality, Kim is the threat to his own existence. His deliberate decision to prioritize nuclear and missile development, support the regime elite, and develop advanced warfighting capabilities at the expense of the Korean people in the North is truly a criminal act as 25 million people suffer under his barbaric rule.  Kim Jong Un needs to reform his economy to allow the North to survive yet due to the nature of the regime and its political system he cannot reform because to do so would undermine the legitimacy of the regime.

The provision of economic aid and development would mean that outsiders would have access to the North and this will mean engagement with the people and their access to information, which is an existential threat to the regime.

There seems to be little difference from the Trump proposal which he showed on an iPad video in Singapore and can be summarized as: If Kim makes the right strategic decision, North Korea can have a brighter future. The right strategic decision means to give up his nuclear weapons. Kim believes he cannot do that and still survive. He does not want a brighter future for the Korean people and the nation. He only wants a brighter future for himself, the regime, the elite, and the military, at the expense of the people.  In addition, the brighter future is a threat to the regime because it means engagement and information.

The “audacious initiative” continues to focus on achieving complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID).  The ROK, the US, and the UN continue to seek this objective. But there is a growing belief that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons if the Kim family regime remains in power.  If that is so, it must be factored into any strategy for dealing with the North.

So, the question is, has everything already been tried and are there only old proposals that can be repackaged?

An examination of the “audacious initiative” shows it lacks three critical parts or lines of effort. 

Human Rights Upfront

Two parts of a bold and audacious strategy can be found in the words of the newly appointed South Korean Ambassador for Human Rights in North Korea, Professor Lee Shin Hwa. What is needed is an information offensive to get information into the North.  It is time to stop neglecting human rights in the North and for the ROK/U.S. alliance to take a human rights approach upfront.

Although not described in the “audacious initiative,” South Korea is reinvigorating its focus on human rights in North Korea and taking the lead in a human rights upfront approach.  As noted, President Yoon appointed Professor Lee Shin Hwa as the South Korean Ambassador at large for North Korean Human Rights, a position that had gone unfilled for five years.  The Minister of Unification has renewed resolve to enhance human rights in North Korea.  The government has resumed interagency policy meetings on human rights after a two year hiatus.  Lastly, President Yoon has proposed establishing a new human rights foundation to comply with exiting South Korean law.  These actions provide the foundation for a human rights upfront approach which should be the first line of effort for a bold proposal.  Human rights are not only a moral imperative, but they are also a national security issue as Kim Jong Un must deny the human rights of the Korean people in the North to remain in power.  Just as President Reagan was not dissuaded from a human rights upfront approach as he conducted arms control negotiations with the USSR, no one should heed the bad advice that human rights should be tabled until there is a denuclearization agreement.

An Information and Influence Strategy

The second line of effort must be a comprehensive and sophisticated information and influence activities strategy. The Korean people in the North need to be informed about their rights and understand that they have unalienable rights as outlined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Although the most sinister system of social control, Songbun, and the most dangerous and brutal security apparatus in the world exists in North Korea to oppress the people, it is information and international support that will help set the people free. The international community owes it to the Korean people in the North to help them after seven decades of suffering.  In the U.S. Army Special Forces, there is a motto that says “De Oppresso Liber” – “to free the oppressed.”  In the case of North Korea, the world must pledge to help the Korean people free themselves.

A comprehensive information and influence campaign should consist of the following:

  • Establishment of a Korean Defector Information Institute to harness the expertise and power of escapees who are key communicators with credibility and legitimacy among the Korean people in the North.
  • Creation of divisions among the elite and the military.
  • Informing the Korean people of their unalienable and universal human rights.
  • Informing the people about the unification process and a future free and unified Korea.
  • Influencing the second tier leadership (those with significant military power) to not attack the South in time of crisis.

In addition to government and ROK/U.S. alliance efforts, South Korea should encourage civil society to contribute to the information effort. It should empower and support nongovernmental organizations and stakeholders in Korea and around the world who support a free and unified Korea.

The major effect of an influence campaign will be to give Kim Jong Un three choices: (1) he can change his behavior and become a responsible member of the international community who will protect the human rights of the Korean people in the North; (2) he can be forced to change his behavior by the elite and military due to his inability and failure to provide for their welfare; (3) the Korean people in the North can change the leadership when they can no longer tolerate living under the most despotic authoritarian rule in the 21st century.

A Free and Unified Korea

An information and influence campaign based on human rights can form the basis for change in the North and this will be to support what should be the most important line of effort in a bold and audacious plan – to seek a free and unified Korea.  It is only when there is a free and unified Korea that there will be an end to the nuclear threat and the crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Korean people in the North.  A new bold and audacious plan will give Kim Jong Un the opportunity to change or be changed from within. Ultimately the Korean people must solve the “Korea question” (which can be found in paragraph 60 of the Armistice that describes the unnatural division of the peninsula).

The ROK Ministry of Unification should be reorganized and reimagined to have a sole focus based on its name.  It must be the South Korean organization completely responsible for developing the detailed plans and policies for unification. It must be the coordinating organization within the South Korean interagency and it must liaise with international stakeholders who will support and benefit from unification.

This strategy must be nested in the ROK/U.S. alliance’s integrated deterrence strategy as part of the broader strategic competition that is taking place in the region. ROK/U.S. military defensive capabilities and political warfare, aggressive diplomacy, sanctions, counter-proliferation, interdiction of global illicit activities, and cyber operations form the foundation for the bold and audacious three part strategy of human rights up front, information and influence, and pursuit of a free and unified Korea.

Korean unification is one of the most complex strategic challenges in Northeast Asia.  China, Russia, and North Korea will surely attempt to complicate it. However, it is the only outcome that will ensure elimination of the North Korean nuclear program and the threats to the South, the region, and the international community.  It is also the only way to end the human rights atrocities being perpetrated against the Korean people living in the North.  There is strategic planning paralysis because of the complex scenarios and contingencies that are likely to be faced.  However, regardless of the scenario or contingency, the one concrete effort South Korea and the ROK/U.S. alliance can take is to focus on an information campaign built on human rights to prepare the Korean people living in the North for unification.  This must be a comprehensive, fully resourced, and sustained campaign plan and it must be based on ROK unification plans and policies.

The guiding principle for policy makers and strategists in the ROK and U.S. should be to ask how does this policy, strategy, plan, or program support achievement of a free and unified Korea? That is the essence of a bold and audacious plan for the Korean peninsula and one that can result in the only outcome that will protect, serve, and advance the interests of the Korean people, the ROK/U.S. alliance, the region, and the international community: in short, a United Republic of Korea (UROK).

“통일” (Tong Il) – Unification!

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea), and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.

Written By

David Maxwell is a senior fellow at FDD. He is a 30-year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 2011 as a Special Forces Colonel with his final assignment serving on the military faculty teaching national security strategy at the National War College.



  1. pagar

    September 2, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    Before Yoon and/or his cohort get all very messily tied up with the north, they need to free south Korea from their umbilical connection with the US military.

    Otherwise, it’s all just empty talk as the north won’t ever fall for such snake oil salesmen. Not for the foreseeable future.

  2. GhostTomahawk

    September 2, 2022 at 8:28 pm

    The only way you’re going to get any wiggle room is by conceding to N Korea their autonomy and their weapons. Let them have them. If helping those oppressed people is the goal then saying “you can be in control and keep your little nukes but, we are coming in with food, aid etc and the world economy is coming too.”

    Un wants to enrich himself and his cronys like in China. Fine. If helping the people means enriching that toadie so be it. If not then whack him and take that place over. We’ve done it before. We’ve overthrown our own govt at least twice.

  3. Joe Comment

    September 3, 2022 at 2:10 am

    I don’t think this plan will be attractive to North Koreans. What if they follow the South’s information and influence campaign? They risk severe punishment by the North. What if they don’t follow the South’s ideas? Will they be punished for human rights abuses after unification? I don’t think we should leave the North Korean people caught in the middle like that. In particular, I think the Human Rights Foundation needs to offer a path to amnesty for mid-level North Korean officials who are forced to commit human rights abuses as part of their jobs. Do we really expect soldiers, police officers, judicial staff, jail wardens etc. to disobey their orders in a strictly controlled society such as North Korea? If some do, how many do we expect to live to see unification?

  4. Joe Comment

    September 3, 2022 at 8:24 pm

    The author’s plan boils down to “Wage information war on the North, hope it collapses, and hope unification follows in the aftermath of the collapse.”

    Even if the first part of the plan works, the collapse could trigger horrendous violence in both the North and the South, given the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in North Korea. What would follow such chaos is completely unpredictable, especially considering the high interest of Mainland China in preventing the US military from getting access to the North. Based on the above, I conclude the plan is wishful thinking of the most dangerous kind.

    I think a better solution is to take practical steps toward gradual unification in non-political areas like people-to-people contacts, culture, sports, education, business, professional qualifications, technical standards, etc. And I partly agree with GhostTomahawk above: to make progress, we need to conditionally waive some of the weapons-related sanctions on North Korea, because they are hindering progress along these lines.

  5. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 4, 2022 at 2:25 pm

    Absolute delusion to think Kim would entertain any plan that in any way usurps his totalitarian control over his country.

  6. Scottfs

    September 4, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    The key to North Korea runs through China. China is not an impregnable fortress. Millions of Chinese are not party members and do want freedom. Tianimen Square proved that.

    But I agree, economic and cultural engagement would be a good place to start. Maybe there will be a coup in high places that will topple the regime.

  7. Joe Comment

    September 5, 2022 at 10:14 pm

    Scottfs: I agree that China has a lot of influence in North Korea, but I don’t think we can hope for them to help with Korean unification. A more active approach is for South Korea to build its own influence in North Korea to counterbalance China. Do whatever it takes to restart the operations in Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang, and even negotiate for opening new ventures in other parts of North Korea. Get waivers for the sanctions, ignore all political and military provocations, and aim to spread South Korean influence far and wide throughout the North.

  8. D. Lee

    September 25, 2022 at 3:07 am

    The surest way to rally up the South Korean people to push for reunification, all the while allied countries pressure CCP (and now probably the Kremlin and Iran) to stop any aid to the North (how? I’ll need to consult the experts), is to have southerners see how different they have come to look. Over the 7 decades of being separate, northern women have more or less remained how original Koreans coming from Siberia looked like, while the southerns obvious have not, since 80% gets plastic surgery. Maybe if the northern and southern parts reunify and get to mix again, surgery might not be needed.
    I’m partly being fasecious, but how best to rally up Koreans than to offer them the higher chance of 자연 beauty? In all seriousness, the South are in a stooper themselves. Life has become overbearing and each are only concerned with ones own daily responsibilities. While northerns are starving, southerns 먹구 살느라고 바빠 and because they have forgotten Jesus there is no real compassion that leads to action for their poor blood brothers way over there. And somehow the northerners need to hear of that one last hope to charge and push through the borders at once: Will they die starving or die to have a chance to live like the South? Are they even aware? Historically speaking, they should have already revolted and fought til death! Someone should have assassinated him already, but they are brainwashed to believe he is god. So how to revive their broken spirit? They might be hungry and weak but if their spirit were alive they would 아자 아자 파이팅!

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