Thursday, May 27, 2010

Trouble at Sea

I recently declined to appear on radio as I am not an expert on North/South Korea, although I know enough not to be surprised by small but significant acts of violence initiated by the North.

So, it is a good thing that Fred Kaplan can summarize the situation.  One of things he summarizes is how little we know about North Korea:
The fact is, Pyongyang is the most cloistered capital in the world (North Korea's widespread nickname is, after all, the "hermit kingdom"), and nobody on the outside—including U.S. and allied intelligence agencies—knows much of anything about its political machinations.
 And what we do know is discouraging:
So we're back to the perennial question about the pygmy tyrant of Pyongyang: What to do? Kim Jong-il, like his father before him, is a master at parlaying his weakness into strength. He has no economic resources, no allies (except China), and probably a teetering power base at home. But he does have enough nuclear fuel to build a few A-bombs (whether he's built any, beyond the two exploded in tests, is unknown), and he has thousands of artillery rockets that are a few minutes' flying time from Seoul (as well as some ballistic missiles that could hit Tokyo).
The reigning metaphor is Chicken:
He's like the daredevil in a game of highway chicken who visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the saner players to accommodate and veer off the road.
Drezner concurs, referring to my favorite depiction--the tractor chicken game in Footloose.  Drezner suggests that NK be banned from the World Cup, as that kind of sanction will target North Korean elites (is that an oxymoron or just an incredibly small set?).

So, we are left with few choices.  As the player in the game of Chicken most sensitive to the costs of a crash, we are likely to swerve again.  This is a problem, as playing Chicken over and over again does not lead to cooperation like it does for Prisoner's Dilemma.  Indeed, if you know you are stuck in an repeated game of chicken, that simply increases the incentives to make the other guy swerve the first time.

To finish on a very dour note, this game between North and South Korea is one where war is not impossible at all--just something we do not want to imagine.  I am not saying war is likely, but sixty years of peace have not made it as "impossible" as it is between the French and Germans.  The stakes are simply very high, the options are very few, and the possibility of something escalating is real.

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