What to do about North Korea

8 June 2010


A few days ago in The North Korean Model I discussed the apparent ambitions of the Burmese ruling military junta to follow the North Korean model in the pursuit of impunity. What is to be done about North Korea and other nation-states that aspire to follow the North Korean model? The answer must come in two parts, the robust response and the politically possible response.

The Robust Response

Game theory tells us that tit-for-tat with forgiveness is almost always the most effective strategy in a conflict. In the pure world of theory this is fine, but in the muddy world of politics exactly what counts as a tit in response to a tat is not always clear. A tit-for-tat response to North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan seems pretty obvious: South Korean naval forces should engage North Korean naval forces and give them a serious bloody nose, perhaps sinking one of their ships in direct retaliation. But the time for this has already passed. While an immediate response proportional to the offense has definite dangers, no one loses sight of the purpose of the response, including the perpetrators.

There is a tension clearly visible here between procedural justice and retributive justice: when following procedure takes too long, the connection between violation and retribution becomes lost. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a tit in response to a tat is retributive justice. In the present state of the world, with politics dominated by the institutions of mature nation-states (more on which below), procedural justice has the upper hand. When states further seek to increase procedural regimes in order to buy themselves time and deniability and to create an impossibly rigorous standard for any response, the possibility of an effective and robust response is not only lost, it has been sabotaged by legalism.

While a naval tit-for-tat seems pretty straight-forward, what would count as a tit-for-tat response to the development of a nuclear program? As I have observed previously, both South Korea and Japan have a highly developed industrial infrastructure and expertise in high technology. Either or both could build nuclear weapons without much difficulty and in not too long a period of time. What stops them is not technology, but political considerations. A tit-for-tat response to North Korea’s nuclear program would be a South Korean nuclear program, but for many this would be outrageously unacceptable.

While most people would view the prospect of an arms race in east Asia as a terrible thing, I don’t share this conventional wisdom. The Cold War proved that two powers engaged in intense ideological conflict and numerous proxy wars could refrain from touching off nuclear war. They avoided nuclear war precisely because the stakes were so high, and the stakes were high because of mutually assured destruction. If there were an arms race in east Asia, North Korea would lose. South Korea and Japan could easily build better, smaller, more accurate, higher yield, and more easily hidden warheads. Moreover, as I have observed many times, it is inevitable over the long term that nuclear capabilities will become more widespread. It hasn’t meant doomsday that Israel has nuclear weapons, and it won’t mean doomsday if Iran has nuclear weapons. The question then becomes, is the world safer with North Korea only armed with nuclear weapons, or with both North Korea and South Korea armed with nuclear weapons? I think the latter, but I would be willing to consider arguments on both sides, as I am not dogmatic on this issue.

Short of a nuclear program, South Korea could dramatically build up its military. There is a lot of social comment now about how, with South Korea being one of the most internet-connected places in the world, young people are “addicted” to the internet and online gaming. Well, a good antidote to that would be to turn them into soldiers. There is already mandatory military service for Korean men over the age of 18. The length of service could be extended, and service could be made universal, including both men and women. South Korea is one of the richest countries on the planet; they could take some of that money, and, with an expanded military, buy and build more ships, tanks, and planes. It is little appreciated that, despite the fact that North Korea is a basket case, its military forces are not only disproportionately large but also well-drilled, well-trained, and disciplined. All of the creativity that we see in South Korea is, in the north, being invested in the military. The South Koreans could meet this challenge by fielding a comparable military force.

Unfortunately, the South Korean electorate doesn’t have the stomach to engage North Korea in a robust way, while the people in North Korean have no political participation and must suffer whatever hardships, deprivations, and miseries that its leaders impose upon it. Therefore the robust response is not politically possible at this time. It is possible that changed conditions might in the future make a robust response politically possible, as it always the case, but at the present moment other policies must be pursued.

The Politically Possible Response

A politically possible response becomes necessary when political constraints render a robust response politically impossible. Politically possible responses are not only about the hardball of Realpolitik, but equally about much discussed soft power and finding a way around the obvious that nevertheless attains the end, however indirectly.

It is easier to approach politically possible responses by the via negativa than directly. That is to say, it is easier to say initially what will not work than to say what will work. What will not work? Sanctions have proved themselves to be pretty much a colossal failure on several counts. Sanctions are flagrantly broken by nation-states who wish to continue lucrative dealings, and less flagrantly by smugglers, which latter are as old as civilization and aren’t going away soon. Sanctions, even when obeyed and enforced, are often simply ineffective; human ingenuity finds sufficient alternatives and replacements in order to keep things limping along. Thirdly, recent sanctions regimes have been relentlessly exploited by the media, who seem to take a keen delight in presenting sanctions as being harshly punitive and primarily affecting essentially innocent populations. This perception is only magnified when the target of the sanctions is poor, if not starving.

Since the South Koreans have no stomach to confront North Korean militarily on a one-to-one basis, another country could undertake the punishment of North Korea. In particular this case, the only alternative would be the US. But for US forces to engage the North Korean navy and sink a ship in direct retaliation would be a public relations disaster of the first magnitude. As observed above, the moment has passed, and for outside forces to intervene almost always involves a delay that would change the perception and meaning of the engagement. Even if we could set aside the predictable excoriation that would follow in the press, the South Koreans themselves would probably have a hard time with this, and one could expect that a vigorous “peace” movement among young South Koreans would emerge that would demonize the US and elicit sympathy for North Korea.

What remains? Diplomacy. What we can still do, if sanctions don’t work and third-party military responses are as politically impossible as a response by the original parties to the dispute, is to engage in diplomacy. But diplomacy in recent decades, if not recent centuries, has become a dying art, a casualty of the constant flow of information and demands of transparency. What we need is really smart, cunning, clever diplomacy that throws opponents off guard, keeps them confused, and, at best, makes them question either their own sanity or the rationality of the world. This is not easy to do under the best of circumstances. What it requires, even more than power, wealth, and military might, is creativity and ingenuity. Today, more than ever, we need Machiavelli.

What does this mean in the present context? How could cunning diplomacy deal with recalcitrant criminals in control of a state apparatus like the regime in North Korea or the junta in Burma or the Castro brothers in Cuba or Mugabe in Zimbabwe? What it means is playing some high-level headgames with the leadership, putting them in a position that is so incomprehensible that they doubt the credibility of all their sources of information, hence all their previous certainties. From what has been said so far, it should be obvious that these unpleasant dictatorships are better at this than is the civilized world.

What else remains? Espionage. I have written elsewhere about espionage (e.g., Signals Intelligence and American Culture), and this is a large topic that cannot be easily adumbrated in a few lines, but effective espionage is a great aid to diplomacy. We can only trick and manipulate and blindside the cunning dictators of the world if we know what they are thinking and what is being said among the small circle of their close advisers and cronies.

Beyond North Korea

A robust or a politically possible response to North Korea, considered in the abstract, and generalized to other situations and possibilities, becomes a template for politically possible responses to other rogue regimes. And, indeed, generally speaking cunning diplomacy and clever espionage would serve most situations. The key, of course, is keeping it smart. That is difficult. The longer a state is in existence, the closer it approximates the limiting, deadening, ossified institutions of feudalism. Feudalism, by any other name (for it often goes by other names such as “experience” or “competency” or “meritocracy”), is the great enemy of talent, creativity, and ingenuity. Feudalism is complacency in the face of change.

A mature nation-state (and, before the age of nation-states, a mature kingdom or empire) has had the time needed to bring its characteristic institutions to a high state of development. This means that these institutions function competently, but it also means that other, new institutions simply do not emerge until some major historical punctuation (like a revolution) comes along to shake things up. The longer such mature and stable institutions remain in place, the more ossified a society becomes, until new ideas become heretical and unthinkable, and no one risks altering the status quo because everyone is busy protecting what “belongs” to them. And what belongs to whom? Political offices belong to certain families. Wealth belongs to certain families. Academic prestige belongs to certain families. The son follows in the footsteps of his esteemed father, and in time the son is esteemed because of the office he holds and not because of his accomplishments.

While the advanced industrialized nation-states of our time that represent the continuing tradition of western civilization are far from the feudalism of medieval Europe, another form of feudalism is gradually emerging, and this attitude is having profound, far-reaching effects on matters as concrete as military engagement and political policies among nation-states. A state apparatus in the capture of a dictator represents a real threat to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the world. Such a state of affairs ought to provoke a robust response, but as the willingness to consider unconventional options decreases, the behavior of the most stable and wealthy nation-states becomes increasingly predictable. This predictability becomes something that emerging dictators and rogue states can play upon. If that predictability could be removed, or even lessened, not by careful diplomacy but by diplomacy that looks reckless even while it is in fact rational, the options of those who would play upon the predictable behavior of stable nation-states would be narrowed, and their ability to act, especially to act with impunity, would be constrained.

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One Response to “What to do about North Korea”

  1. […]What to do About North Korea Nick Nielson. “Geopolitcratus” Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 8 June 2010. The money quote comes at the end of the post[…]

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