August 15, 2022

The Power of Information: Telling Three Stories to the North Korean People

By Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

NOTE: This essay is adapted from pre-recorded remarks delivered by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director, to the "International Forum on One Korea 2022" on August 13, 2022.

Dear friends, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to join you today. It is always a pleasure and an honor to participate in events organized by the Global Peace Foundation. Let me thank my good and dear friend Kenji Sawai in particular for engaging me in this endeavor.

Today, we are discussing the very important issue of sending information into North Korea. Fundamentally, as far as the United States is concerned, as far as like-minded friends, partners, and allies such as South Korea, Japan, and the European Union are concerned, we need to remember that we are facing a grave threat on the Korean Peninsula.

It is a threat that combines the dozens of nuclear weapons that North Korea possesses, the long-range ballistic missiles that North Korea possesses, and also the crimes against humanity that the North Korean regime continues to commit to this day, almost a decade after the UN Human Rights Council decided to establish by consensus a UN Commission of Inquiry dedicated to looking into the regime’s human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

So, what is there to do?

Applying the DIME

We can analyze the issue by applying the “DIME” model. These are the four fundamental elements of national power: diplomacy, information, military power, and economic power.

Let us begin with diplomacy. The North Korean regime has breached each and every international agreement it has ever entered. One could go back to the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework. They decided to breach the terms of that agreement and develop a clandestine uranium enrichment program.

The Six Party Talks, same story. The Leap Day Agreement of February 2012, right after Kim Jong-un assumed power, the same story. Ambassador Glyn Davies, at the time the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea policy, met with Kim Kye-gwan. The North Koreans pledged to halt nuclear testing and ballistic missile testing. Two weeks later, they announced a so-called “satellite launch.” They proceeded with a missile launch that failed, two days ahead of the centennial anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday. In December of the same year, they managed to place an object into orbit.

To make a long story short, there is an utter lack of credibility on the North Korean side. We should blame the failure of diplomacy on the North Koreans, not on the U.S. or on South Korea. Despite those failures, as a student and practitioner of diplomacy, I believe that diplomatic efforts must continue.

Next is military power, the “M” in the DIME. (I will address the “I” later since that is the focus of my remarks today.) Military power is crucial. Strong deterrence is very important. Strong containment is very important. A strong U.S.-South Korea alliance is critical. A strong U.S.-Japan alliance is critical. We need to continue to cherish our friendship, partnership, alliance with the Republic of Korea and Japan.

Then there is economic power, “E” in the DIME. We have a sanctions regime in place, grounded in UN Security Council resolutions. We also have bilateral sanctions by the U.S., sanctions established by the U.S. Congress. Other allies, including the European Union and Japan, have their own sanctions in place.

When it comes to UN sanctions, they are meant, first and foremost, to prevent the development and proliferation of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles. Moreover, they are meant to punish the elites in charge of that development and proliferation by severing their access to hard currency and luxury goods coming from the outside world.

Are there negative adverse effects affecting the people of North Korea? We do not know because we do not have access inside the country. Access is of the essence. We now have a new UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Professor Elizabeth Salmón from Peru. We also have a new South Korean Ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights, Professor Lee Shin-hwa of Korea University.

I hope this will be at the very top of their agenda: requesting access inside the country to assess the humanitarian situation of North Korea. Why not assess side effects of sanctions, if there are any? Again, sanctions do not target the people of North Korea. But the only way to tell whether sanctions have a negative effect on the people of North Korea is by means of having access inside the country, by means of having UN officials go inside the country and conduct in-country assessments.

The Power of Information

Let me now return to the “I,” which I initially skipped. Information is extraordinarily important. This is a regime that has stayed in power since its establishment in 1948 by means of unprecedented coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment. This is a regime that has gone to great lengths to prevent the people of North Korea from gaining access to information from the outside world across three regimes—the regime of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un.

North Korea needs change. Let me commend the Global Peace Foundation for its vision of a unified Republic of Korea that is strong, peaceful, democratic, market-oriented, and a staunch ally, friend, and partner of the United States.

How do we get there? I am not talking about a violent revolution or regime change. I am talking about change enacted by the only people who can actually enact change. They are the very people of North Korea. What can we do, in the outside world, to empower the people of North Korea?

The Three Stories

What we can do is to send them information from the outside world—information basically telling them three fundamental stories. First, the story of the corruption of their leadership, especially the corruption of the Kim family regime. Second, the story of the outside world, especially that of South Korea, a free and democratic country with the world’s tenth largest economy. And third, the story of their own human rights, which they do not know.

Let me first address the corruption of the regime. North Korea is a very strange hybrid. Entrepreneurship coexists with totalitarian regime control. Private property is not allowed in North Korea. North Koreans operate trucks, taxis, and cars as private entrepreneurs, but they do not hold property titles. In order to run those businesses, they need to register their vehicles under government agencies, under the protection of powerful officials. This is a recipe for great corruption. North Koreans need to understand that this is not how economies should operate.

Second, many North Koreans know today much more about the outside world, including South Korea, than they did 10, 15, or 20 years ago. K-pop, K-drama, and anything “K-” are very powerful drivers of interest in South Korea's success. The North Korean people need to understand that South Korea is a very successful alternative to the Kim family regime’s North Korea. And they need to understand that the formula for Korean success is not the totalitarian dictatorship of the DPRK, but the very successful Republic of Korea (ROK).

Human rights is another extraordinarily important story. North Korea joined the UN at the same time as South Korea in 1991. North Korea assumed international obligations as it became a UN member state. North Korea must observe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. North Korea acceded to the two human rights covenants in 1982, nine years before it joined the UN: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It has also joined the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC), and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD).

And yet, each and every conceivable human right is violated in North Korea.

If you look at the Constitution of the DPRK or its other laws, you will see that there are wonderful stipulations that supposedly protect rights such as the freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. None of these rights are observed in practice. All that matters in North Korea are the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology (TPMI) and Kim Il-sung-ism.

Information campaigns coming in from the outside world must enable North Koreans to understand that there is a very deep rift between their Constitution and the regime’s ideology. There is a deep rift between the international obligations that North Korea has assumed and the TPMI.


Ultimately, why are we doing this? I have been a student and practitioner of Korean Peninsula issues for the past 32 years. There are so many others of us out there. What we ultimately want is reconciliation, peace, unification of the Korean Peninsula under a free, democratic, and prosperous Republic of Korea. This is the ultimate key to resolving the North Korean conundrum: nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, egregious human rights violations, and crimes against humanity.