Regime Change Would End North Korean Nuke Threat

In what appears to be an eerie similarity to the Iraq War runup, North Korean defectors are telling Western officials that getting rid of Kim Jon Il would end North Korea’s nuclear threat. There’s a twist, though: They think it can happen without Western military intervention.

Defectors from North Korea are hoping that international sanctions will make life so much harder, that the North’s elite class will rise up against leader Kim Jong Il and overthrow him, writes the Associated Press.

The AP also writes that the Defectors’ Alliance, a group that helps North Korean refugees settle in South Korea, says the surest end to the current crisis “is to decisively eradicate dictator Kim Jong Il and his followers and establish a democratic government for the North Korean people,” who the group says will feel the brunt of the suffering caused by the current tensions.


In an interview with the AP, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect to South Korea, agreed that only Kim’s ouster will end the nuclear threat North Korea poses. He added, however, that he doubts the UN sanctions against North Korea will have any effect.


Mr. Hwang, a longtime member of North Korea’s elite and friend to the late Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father and the founder of North Korea, defected in 1997 during a trip to Beijing, where he sought refuge in the South Korean embassy. He eventually moved to South Korea, where he is under 24-hour police protection to prevent North Korean assassination attempts. Hwang is believed to have been a mentor to Kim Jong Il, and to have been one of the architects of the Juche quasi-religious ideology with which the Kims have ruled.

But while some see Hwang’s perspective as a view into the inner workings of North Korea and Kim Jong Il, others suggest that Hwang’s advice be taken with a grain of salt. In a 2003 article, Slate called Hwang the North Korean Ahmed Chalabi, a reference to the Iraqi exile whose faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction helped lead to the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the CSM reports that the international sanctions on North Korea will likely prove a humanitarian disaster.

Even as missile and nuclear tests alienate humanitarian aid donors, North Korea is facing a cold winter in which it is unlikely to be able to feed its people. The danger of widespread suffering raises the critical question of how the world can unite in a forceful response to North Korea’s nuclear test – the focus of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visits this week to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing – and still rescue the North’s hungry people.

Compelled to ask for huge donations of food at the height of a famine that killed some 2 million people in the 1990s, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was confident enough last year to order the World Food Program and other aid-givers to leave or vastly reduce their programs. But the North may again need aid – at a time when missile tests in July, followed by the nuclear test this month, have reduced donors’ desire to rush in to help.

Certainly, a coup or otherwise ousting of Kim would be far preferable to starving his people in a futile effort at affecting his nuclear policy. An Iraq-style invasion is all but off the table, President Bush’s strong talk notwithstanding, and really has been ever since it became evident in the run-up to the Iraq war that the DPRK had nuclear weapons. The prospect of Kim sending even one missile into Seoul simply makes an American invasion untenable.

The Australian reported earlier this week that the Chinese government is considering effecting regime change for us.

The Chinese Government has been ultra-cautious in its reaction. However, since Monday, Foreign Ministry officials have started to make a point of distinguishing between the North Korean people and their Government in conversations with diplomats.

Ahead of yesterday’s Security Council vote, some in Beijing argued against heavy sanctions on North Korea for fear that these would destroy what remains of a pro-Chinese “reformist” faction inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “In today’s DPRK Government, there are two factions, sinophile and royalist,” one Chinese analyst wrote online. “The objective of the sinophiles is reform, Chinese-style, and then to bring down Kim Jong-il’s royal family. That’s why Kim is against reform. He’s not stupid.”

More than one Chinese academic agreed that China yearned for an uprising similar to the one that swept away the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 and replaced him with communist reformers and generals. The Chinese made an intense political study of the Romanian revolution and even questioned president Ion Iliescu, who took over, about how it was done and what roles were played by the KGB and by Russia.

If hopes and wishes were loaves and fishes and all that. Still, I disagree with Heraclitus (via his co-blogger Michael Stickings) that such open discussion works against making a coup happen. Knowing they might get the support of the PRC’s security apparatus may well embolden plotters. Then again, the Kim family has held onto power for more than half a century for good reason.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. A coup would end Kim, to be sure. And it might result in a better regime–depending on who gained power. I see no reason, however, for a coup to guarantee that the nuclear program would cease to be. Many of the logics for wanting the weapons would remain in place. It would require that the new regime would be willing to let the outside in. I am dubious on that count.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It would be difficult to imagine a regime worse than Kim’s for either the US or the North’s people. Still, you’re right that there’s no guarantee that we’ll get the type of coup leaders we’d hope for.

  3. DC Loser says:

    If and when the Koreas unify, I don’t see the North Korean nuclear going away, it will just become THE korean nuclear program. The south knows it lives in a tough neighborhood, and its dislike of Japan and weariness about China will ensure its desire for a nuclear capability, especially if the US pulls out of the area.

  4. Michael says:

    I see no reason, however, for a coup to guarantee that the nuclear program would cease to be. Many of the logics for wanting the weapons would remain in place.

    I believe the idea is that a pro-china communist party in North Korea would get the same protections from China that Japan and South Korea get from the US, so that North Korea wouldn’t feel that it needed it’s own nuclear weapons program for defense. Also not having a batshit crazy megalomaniac in charge might help.

  5. Triumph says:

    An Iraq-style invasion is all but off the table, President Bush’s strong talk notwithstanding, and really has been ever since it became evident in the run-up to the Iraq war that the DPRK had nuclear weapons.

    This is not the time for saying that Bush is weak on defense. Any exposure of Bush’s weakness will harden the resolve of the evil-doers.

  6. There are three gates of possibilities around a regime change in NK (I am assuming a gate of a serious attempt at regime change occurring). First, regime change does or does not succeed. If it doesn’t succeed, it is unlikely to affect the status of NK nukes.

    If the regime change does succeed, the next gate is if nukes are launched during the struggle. This could be by orders of Kim, fanatics in the government, by accident, etc. A single Hiroshima nuke on Soul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Taipei would change the Asian dynamics for a generation. You can’t discount the human response of turning over the table when faced with an unwinnable situation.

    The last gate would be if the government that replaces the regime would keep or destroy the nukes. I think that they would most likely destroy the nukes as a means of getting outside help to rebuild Korea. A puppet regime for China wouldn’t need them. A south Korea merger (ala east and west Germany) would potentially like to keep them, but would be vulnerable to the economic dislocation of a Japanese and American sanction. If just these two countries refused to allow imports from Korea or of goods that contain parts from Korea, the Korean economy would go into a deep depression. As much as the south Korea government might like to have nukes because of it’s ‘tough neighborhood’, they wouldn’t pay that price. An independent north Korea regime change government would give up the nukes in a heartbeat as a small price to get US aid.

  7. legion says:

    I just don’t credit the idea that the current NK regime will ever “see the writing on the wall” and voluntarily hand off. Violently or not, they’ll have to be removed from power – the question is whether the resulting chaos can be kept within NK or if it will spill out messily into SK, China, or Japan.

    It took a mighty long time for the Romanians to kick out their dictator; ditto for the blacks in south Africa to punt Apartheid – while I hope the NK people can do it themselves, I don’t think it’s plausible anytime in the next decade or so.

    But certainly, _anything_ that happens there has to have at least the tacit approval of the Chinese. This could be an opportunity to build a collegial relationship with China & maybe avoid another USSR-style “us vs. them” cold war mentality…

  8. Legion,

    I think China recognizes that no matter what happens, NK is going to ‘spill out’ onto them. The DMZ has enough troops on each side to make it a pretty difficult place to cross if you are a starving refugee. That will put most of the pressure on the Chinese border. What would China do with say 250K starving refugees who crossed the border?

  9. legion says:

    What would China do with say 250K starving refugees who crossed the border?
    Nothing pleasant, I’m sure. But you’re right in that no matter how it goes down, there will be a mass exodus of starving refugees as soon as the “walls” come down.