The three spectacles of PyeongChang

The three spectacles of PyeongChang
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Visible among the mountains, evergreens and snow surrounding the Olympic Winter Games in South Korea are three spectacles.

First, there’s the marvelous spectacle of sport, athletes, “the thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat.”  


The second? How North Korea is using the Olympics for its own ends. A few athletes, some winsome cheerleaders and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s dictator, spread a shimmery mix of celebrity, hope and Korean fraternity over the Games — with the world’s media as enablers.  


The media swoon ignored North Korea’s brutality, hunger, inequality, gulags, near-total extinction of faith, punishment of children for the sins of a parent and other grim abuses. Count Kim Jong-un and his sister — director of the Korean Workers Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department — as masters of diplomatic stagecraft.  

Their goals?

Blunt the international diplomatic, economic and military measures focused on the North Korean nuclear weapon and missile programs, just as their bite increases. A mirage of possible meetings and negotiations might influence some partners to shy from more sanctions.  

If South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, accepts the invitation proffered by Kim Yo-jong to visit the North, there will be pressures to show “good faith” and “sincerity” by again delaying the annual military exercises between South Korea and the United States.  

A final goal? Gain more time for the North’s engineers and scientists — rest assured they are taking no days off — to sprint for their finish line.

The third spectacle is ours. Determined American diplomacy with North Korea’s neighbors and the United Nations has yielded the toughest-ever array of economic and financial sanctions.  More American military power has been shifted to the Western Pacific. But something is missing.

National security thinkers commonly use the acronym “DIME” as shorthand for the key elements of U.S. power — diplomatic, informational, military and economic. In May, however, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn wrote of using America’s “diplomatic, economic and military resources” for American security. Which element of U.S. power was omitted?  

In the August op-ed on North Korea by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February MORE, there were eight mentions of “diplomatic,” six of “economic,” and five of “military.” Informational? None.

An essay by Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute offered one reason: “The United States has no strategic political and information warfare capability, and Congress is certainly not debating these new functions ...” Such a capability would take time to organize, and all want faster results.

The U.S. government has instruments of informational power — public affairs, public diplomacy, Uncle Sam’s international broadcasting networks, and information operations by the armed forces — but they are scattered and stove-piped, with different authorities, funding streams and lanes. Those who work in one area know little about what the others do. Sometimes they quarrel. This is no recipe for unified action, no formula for success, and in confronting North Korea, it shows.

In addition, the national security community writ large is not yet agreed on what policy goals an information initiative or surge might serve. Shut down North Korea’s nuclear and missile research? Yet more sanctions? Blockade? Bloody nose? Regime change? Change within the regime? Prompt a “North Korea spring”? Shift to deterrence rather than denuclearization?  Sunshine policy? Engagement? Exchanges?  

Something’s missing here. The Kim government depends on its information monopoly, and breaking that monopoly will surely weaken it. Yes, the dynasty has tools of control and oppression that enforce its monopoly, and decades of indoctrination cannot be undone in a few months. But there’s no reason to delay building up information power directed at North Korea — its government and its people — even as the United States and other nations hammer out policies and goals, which will in any case involve some broken field running as conditions change.  

Some thought experiments: The United States, South Korea, Japan, China, the United Kingdom and Russia all broadcast in Korean. Can hours and penetration be increased? How about friendly discussions among like-minded broadcasters? What’s the role for NGOs and those who launch balloons carrying DVDs and thumb drives to North Korea? How can Chinese cell phone networks (their signals reach some miles into North Korea) be leveraged? Do we have enough people ready for a surge in English-Korean translations? And most important, what would be the messaging themes?

In 2009, Col. McMaster wrote, “ideas are weapons in the information age.” Now, as National Security Advisor, he can convene America’s separate informational instruments to cooperate and plan.

End the third spectacle. It’s time for information.

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico. Earlier, his 31 years as a Public Diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service included postings in Korea, China, and five other foreign capitals. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps or the Marine Corps University.