By Gene Poteat


We have the means to free North Korea — Kim Jong Un’s starving, gulag-filled nuclear-armed kingdom — from their 1930s time warp. We can do so based on our experience triggering change in communist China, Vietnam and just recently, Cuba. And we can execute the mission peacefully … despite the recent childish boast that “My nuclear button is bigger than yours.”

Yet, while we’re skilled at resolving DAS — Dictator Anxiety Syndrome — we have learned that toppling tyrants is one thing, rebuilding a democracy, another. Anyone who witnessed Obama’s heralded “Arab Spring” debacle, as that administration cheered on what looked like budding democracy in Tunisia, recalls that it turned malignant, toppling nearby leaders and ushering in ISIS-smitten mullahs and other despots with corrosive anti-democratic views. So, our record is spotty. Some countries do poorly without ruthless leaders and in a political vacuum quickly veer into the hands of new tyrants or religious despots.

History shows that wasn’t always the case. In earlier days, “trickle-up economics” worked. The economic opening of countries and pent-up demand for goods were sufficient to slowly bring about change at the top. In China, instead, we employed “trickle-down.” Nixon moved stealthily to normalize relations with China lest our nervous, anti-mainland ally, Taiwan, learn of the move. He then led a large press contingent on a weeklong visit to China, meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong while the first lady toured schools, factories, hospitals and a pig farm. The opening of trade with China started the rapid upswing in globalization, heralded by American economic faddists, oligarchs and reporters blind to the consequences to American employment and security.

It brought lots of low-priced, Chinese goods into big box stores and into homes, but it gutted American productivity. The American consumer became the engine driving China’s economy; yet, when Americans woke up, they discovered without those well-paying middle-class factory jobs, there was little they could afford to buy. Soon even their survival was imperiled. If you make nothing I want and I make nothing you want … how do we survive? As one writer said, “Globalization promised to lift more than 1 billion people out of poverty… and it did — one billion Chinese.”

China’s millions of rural unemployed poured into cities and worked long days in sweat shops and factories with no OSHA-style laws to protect them or hinder profitability. Most of those goods went to the burgeoning American market. As United States firms profited handsomely, more American businesses transferred factories abroad. Some started small, outsourcing to Mexico, but were eventually were led to Asia, primarily China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Even U.S. universities rushed to open campuses in China to teach the high-technologies those countries needed to match and surpass the U.S. skilled workers abandoned back home, deemed too expensive to hire.

We were transferring our know-how, skills and livelihoods abroad and coming home to a country reeling from waves of job losses and nothing to replace these jobs but the ephemeral gig economy of Uber, Lyft, websites and social network design: Low-paying, unreliable jobs. Yet the outsourcing continued and all of it was favorable for China.

China’s newfound wealth has turned them into a high-tech world power predicted, by some, to replace the U.S. as the world’s number one economy. A RAND Corporation study concluded China will have more than $1 trillion to spend on its increasingly high-tech military through 2030, placing it on parity with — if not superior to — the U.S., through massive scientific and technological development, paid for by American consumers. As revealed every week in newspapers, what the Chinese cannot develop they steal through filched secrets and technology theft. But the savings to American corporations from shifting production abroad — the incredible profitability, perks, bonuses and private jets — have caused executives to go blind, ignoring the rotting-out of state-side production and the sabotaged dreams of the American middle class.

Another Asian country has benefited from U.S. economic-style reparations: South Vietnam. Communist Vietnam has become a productivity powerhouse and has joined ranks with China and South Korea in stoking American consumers’ appetites. We used to buy our trousers at L.L. Bean or Brooks Brothers, knowing the quality would be high, the fit perfect for Western bodies. Nowadays, much of it comes from Vietnam or the Philippines, using coarse, low-quality woolen weaves, quickly shredding cotton cloth, the final product shoddy and ill-fitting. Americans still rush to buy it, welcoming lower prices over barely-remembered quality.

Cuba is following a different pattern of economic rebirth, focusing first on tourism rather than consumer goods. Cuba is the new vacation spot for novelty-seeking Americans wanting something nearby with a warm climate, rum, cigars, a good time … even a chance to ride in a 1957 Chevy convertible. Dictator Raul Castro, like those leading China and Vietnam, has few worries his rule will be threatened. As has happened with the opening of China, America’s presence in Cuba will gradually raise the living standards for those who had few rights and almost no modern goods and consumption will drive their economy upwards.

Which brings us back to North Korea. Their revival will be different. For a few more years, that country will continue to drift away from economic security, putting national saber-rattling and missile development above all else. But their leader is cunning: He has bypassed a scolding, meddlesome America and has reached out to his former South Korean foes. North Korea’s propaganda machine is flooding their southern neighbors with cultural outreach events — sending an orchestra and a 240-member cheering squad of the most attractive young N.K. women they could round up. Kim Jong Un is clearly setting the agenda in the inter-Korean talks over the Winter Olympics. And South Korean president Moon welcomes the invitation to host joint teams.

The hermit kingdom of the North is already paving the road it sees as its future when it becomes a reputable nuclear-armed member of the international community. Like Cuba, their communist government will remain safely ensconced and the sanctions will be a memory from the past with the return of a booming economy as trade recommences with China, Vietnam, Cuba … and possibly the U.S. After all, as history shows, our greatest weapon is that universal desire for consumer goods. Few countries have not succumbed to that, including our own. Let’s hope it is not our undoing. 

Gene Poteat is an electrical engineer (The Citadel) and a retired CIA scientific intelligence officer. He served abroad in London, Scandinavia, the Middle East and Asia. He is president emeritus of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), writes and lectures on intelligence matters and teaches at the Washington-based Institute of World Politics graduate school from which he received an honorary doctoral degree. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:


Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)