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From Provocations and Deterrence to Preparing For Unification: Why an Information Campaign is Vital to Political Warfare in Korea

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

North Korea has conducted sustained psychological warfare or information operations against its own people, the Republic of Korea, the U.S., and the international community. The ROK-U.S. alliance has not reciprocated to any appreciable extent.

Psychological warfare and propaganda are critical to supporting the three major lines of effort of the Kim family regime. First is political warfare to subvert the ROK and drive a wedge in the ROK-U.S. alliance. Second is blackmail diplomacy — the use of increased tensions, threats, and provocations to gain political and economic concessions. Third is the development of advanced warfighting capabilities to support its political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies and ultimately to conduct its campaign to unify the Korean peninsula by force.

One of North Korea’s core objectives is subverting the democratic and prosperous South Korea and causing it to submit to the rule of the North. Kim Jong Un, the third-generation ruler of his family regime, uses political warfare to try to bring the Korean peninsula under the rule of the “Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State.” While the ROK-U.S. alliance has successfully deterred war on the Korean peninsula since the Armistice Agreement of 1953, it has done a poor job of employing its nations’ entire range of information capabilities to change  security conditions in the north. Information has always been the Kim family’s greatest vulnerability. This is why they severely restrict the flow of information to Korean people in the north. The use of psychological warfare or information operations has the potential to alter the security situation in the North over time. The alliance must conduct a superior form of political warfare as a central component of a sound strategy. The main effort of a political strategy is an information campaign.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol did say in January 2023 that he was considering resuming psychological warfare or information operations in response to North Korean provocations. However, there has been no visible effort to do so yet, and nearly all information operations are being conducted by escapees from the north and other members of civil society. 

The North Korean Regime is Masterful at Internal and External Propaganda

The priority for the regime in Pyongyang is control of the population. North Korea expends significant resources to prevent its people from being exposed to information, primarily from the South but from the rest of the world as well. Kim fears the Korean people in the North more than he does the militaries of South Korea and the U.S. The people, armed with information, are an existential threat to the regime. 

North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) is the primary organization that executes the Kim regime’s psychological warfare. It is responsible for internal and external messaging, and it controls all media in North Korea. Although the PAD’s messages are often satirized by people and organizations outside of North Korea for its hyperbole and over-the-top-rhetoric, it is effective at transmitting regime policies and telegraphing actions. Analysts and political leaders must pay attention to its messages and take them seriously.

The Kim regime also views South Korea — both the government and its citizens — as a threat to their dictatorship. The Korean Workers Party’s United Front Department (UFD) conducts cyber information operations targeting the South Korean public and uses sleeper agents in the ROK to complement those efforts. The Cultural Exchange Bureau conducts covert actions in the South to establish underground political parties and recruit sympathizers focused on fomenting unrest and revolution. The intent is to subvert the South Korean population’s confidence in their own government. The PAD and UFD also use broadcasts, leaflets, social media, and cyber activities. They manage so-called useful idiots and recruited sympathizers in the South to transmit regime messages directly and indirectly.

Kim and his sister Kim Yo Jong have used psychological warfare to threaten the ROK, then manipulated it into passing the so-called anti-leaflet law in December 2020. This prohibited Koreans in the South from sending information into the North. Kim Yo Jong also has blamed North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak on leaflets from South Korea, which illustrates how much the regime fears information. In a positive step forward, in April 2023 the ROK Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that justified the Ministry of Unification’s revocation of the registration of Fighters for a Free North Korea. This group is now allowed to send information into the north.

A Tepid and Timid ROK-U.S. Alliance Response

Unfortunately, information operations in North Korea have not been a top priority for Washington or Seoul. The ROK-U.S. alliance’s successful deterrence of war for 70 years has bred complacency. Combined with a lack of will for employing information operations, this reticence has allowed the North to execute an unchecked political warfare campaign that keeps the regime in power and creates security dilemmas for the alliance and for the region.

A major problem is that advocates of engagement with North Korea fear that the use of information will undermine attempts to negotiate the denuclearization of the North. But this kind of concession has never had any positive effects on negotiation and engagement. 

There is a lone bright spot in the information space. The Korean Services of Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) do yeoman’s work trying to penetrate the North with news and practical information. The U.S. Congress recognized their work by allocating $40 million in additional resources to expand it and to provide the Korean people in the North with facts, knowledge, and the truth. An overt information campaign supports deterrence and diplomacy, creates dilemmas, and puts pressure on Kim to change his behavior and decision-making. In addition, it can support change inside North Korea. VOA and RFA contribute to this effort.

There are concerns that the regime could act out against Seoul or conduct other provocations in response to information. This should not paralyze the alliance. In 2020, Kim Yo Jong ordered the destruction of the ROK liaison building in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. This is a typical North Korean threat, but look at another case: The Kim regime has not acted on threats to attack balloon launches conducted by escapees in the South. 

The Kim regime also uses South Korean and U.S. responses to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats to reinforce regime legitimacy. The PAD uses these statements to justify the sacrifices the Korean people in the north must make as Kim prioritizes these programs over their welfare and human rights. The alliance rarely exploits a key vulnerability: When the Kim regime’s human rights abuses are exposed, its legitimacy is undermined. A successful information operations theme should reinforce that the sacrifices of the Korean people in the North feed the regime’s vanity projects while they abuse the population.

An information campaign should seek to achieve three specific outcomes. First, change Kim’s behavior toward his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and toward the Korean people in the North. Second, provide a rationale for the elite and military leadership to force Kim to change his decision-making calculus. Lastly, it can serve as a catalyst to encourage the Korean people in the North to effect change on their own. 

Five Lines of Effort for an Information Campaign in North Korea

  1. Prevent War. Establish policies for North Korea’s second-tier military leadership (military corps commanders and security service leadership). For example, if they do not attack the ROK and maintain control of weapons of mass destruction, they and their families will have a place in a free and unified Korea. When faced with an order to attack, the second-tier leadership must know they have choices other than going to war.
  2. Pressure Kim Jong Un. Pressure from within could cause Kim to change or at least moderate his policies. As an example, every time the ROK and U.S. must talk about nuclear weapons and missiles, they need to emphasize the human rights abuses.
  3. Offer options to the Korean people. They must know that there is life outside of Juche and Songbun that they can reach and enjoy. An information campaign must show the successes of escapees living in free countries.
  4. Support for potential emerging leadership who seek change. When they do act against the regime, North Koreans must know they will be supported by the international community.
  5. Prepare the Korean people in the North for unification. A long process of education is required to undo Juche, Songbun, and the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology, and to teach about such things as land ownership, participatory politics, and the rule of law.

Recommendations for the Biden and Yoon Administrations

Deterring war remains the overarching priority for the ROK-U.S. alliance. However, information can play an effective role in both supporting the alliance’s priorities while exerting pressure on Kim Jong Un like he has never felt. 

The alliance should execute a superior political warfare strategy that consists of three lines of effort: a human rights upfront approach, information and influence activities, and the pursuit of a free and unified Korea. The alliance must enact the 26 key but overlooked words from the Yoon-Biden summit in April 2023. These recognize that the strategic aim of the alliance is peaceful unification. Of course Kim Jong Un gets a vote over whether it will be a peaceful process or not. The following are the highlights of what should be included as part of an overt information campaign. 

  • Overarching narrative: Every response to the regime’s nuclear and missile activities must include a human rights response. For example, point out that Kim Jong Un’s deliberate decision to prioritize nuclear and missile development is solely responsible for the suffering of the Korea people in the north.
  • Establish an alliance organization to plan and conduct combined political warfare with a supporting information campaign. Establish a “unification desk” in State’s Bureau of East Asia Pacific or Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to provide a counterpart to the ROK’s Ministry of Unification
  • Create a Korea Desk at the GEC to coordinate and synchronize information activities across the interagency.
  • Establish a Korean Escapee (Defector) Information Institute to harness the expertise of key communicators from the North to shape themes and messages and advise on all aspects of the information campaign.
  • Harness the power of civil society. Empower escapees from the North to continue their information work, and encourage free nations to provide information to the Korean people in the North.
  • Support proposed efforts by the ROK military to employ psychological warfare to respond to North Korean provocations. Direct U.S. Psychological Operations Forces to advise, assist, and support South Korean Psychological Operations forces in a supporting military information operations campaign.
  • Effectively employ the $40 million allocated in the 2023 NDAA provided to the Korean Services of VOA and RFA to increase broadcasts to a level that optimizes access and coverage. Pursue technologies to achieve penetration in the North.
  • Fully implement the information planning requirements in the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act of 2022.’
  • Design an overt information campaign targeting the Korean people in the North based on Information, Knowledge, Truth, and Understanding. Information involves massive quantities of information from entertainment to news. Knowledge means practical information on how to effect change, best practices for agriculture and market activity, and educational lessons without Juche influence Truth reflects the reality about the regime and the situation in north Korea as well as the outside world. Understanding helps the Korean people in the north familiarize themselves with the inalienable and universal rights that belong to all human beings.

The only way to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, military threats, and crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people in the north by the mafia-like crime cult known as the Kim family regime is through unification. A free and unified Korea that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government would be a strong American ally in Asia. An information warfare campaign against North Korea will be the most important contribution to this outcome, a United Republic of Korea.

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 Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).

Written By

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 Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).