Posts Tagged ‘North Korea’

Missile Envy (with postscript).

datePosted on 11:23, April 20th, 2012 by Pablo

So let’s get this straight: North Korea attempts to launch a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and the international community goes ballistic, claiming it is a serious provocation that has grave consequences for regional and world peace. The UN condemns the launch and humanitarian assistance is suspended in retaliation for it. The North Koreans, who have twice tried to detonate an underground nuclear device with only partial success, fail yet again with their missile test (the booster misfired three minutes into the test flight and fell harmlessly into the Yellow Sea where it undoubtably is the object of foreign salvage efforts). In doing so they confirm that they are a considerable ways off from posing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile threat to anyone. That does not mean that they are not paranoid, bellicose and dangerous, but if that is the criteria by which states are measured than pretty much anytime the US has a Republican president it should be subject to UN sanctions and international boycotts.

A week after the North Koreans embarrassed themselves with that fizzle launch (the best technical term for the mishap that I have read is “projectile dysfunction”), the Indians did it right. They successful tested a ballistic missile with a range of 5000 kilometers that is designed to carry a nuclear warhead. The range of the missile means that it can strike targets in Europe and Central China. It is, in a phrase, a full-fledged Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Indians, of course, are already a nuclear capable state, having successfully conducted dozens of tests both above and below ground. Like the North Koreans, India shares a “hot” border with a long-term adversary, Pakistan, that is also nuclear-equipped (the North Koreans are confronted by nuclear-armed US troops as well as South Korean conventional forces). It has fought conventional wars with Pakistan and border skirmishes are fairly common. And yet the international community has remained placidly silent about what is a clear message of aggressive intent on the part of the Indians.

Why the hypocrisy? If the international community is really serious about nuclear non-proliferation its should be condemning ALL ballistic missile testing. If that seems unreasonable given that the boosters can also be used to launch satellites, then it is patently unreasonable to froth about the North Korean test and ignore the Indian one (and the latter was not construed as anything but a military application). The hard truth is that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a porous joke that is enforced–and I use that word very loosely– selectively against a few pariah states such as Iran and North Korea but not against others. Nor does it do anything to disarm nuclear-capable states. What reductions in nuclear arsenals have occurred have happened as the result of bilateral negotiations rather than within the framework of the NPT.

I am not a fan of the Kim regime in North Korea. I cannot say I am too enthused about Iran acquiring a nuke. But I understand fully why they attempt to do so. Nuclear weapons are designed to be deterrents, and if that fails to be used as a response to aggression by military superior forces or in the face of imminent conventional defeat. Given their circumstances and the balance of forces in with they operate, North Korea and Iran are eminently rational in their pursuit of that deterrent, as is India even if its threat environment is not as dire (after all, ongoing low-level cross-border clashes with Pakistan cannot be considered to be in the same league as having hostile US carrier task forces and large ground-based contingents just off-shore and across the border) .

That makes the hypocrisy of the international community all the more salient. India is no more and no less rational a state actor than Iran or North Korea. It has interests that it seeks to advance via military capability as well as diplomatic and economic means. Iran and North Korea do not have the diplomatic and economic weight of the Indians–far from it–so they emphasize the military aspect of their defenses. That includes rhetorical broadsides that are designed for domestic consumption and to demonstrate resolve to potential adversaries.

I would think that if the international community was serious about stopping the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development programs it would start by moving to enact restrictions on all ballistic missile testing that is not clearly designed for satellite launching purposes. It could also work a bit harder, within the NPT, to reduce extant nuclear arsenals in places like India, Pakistan, Israel and the great powers. Readers will undoubtably think “that is never going to happen,” and they would be right. But is that is the case, then it is unreasonable to expect that Iran and North Korea stop their ambitions with regard to producing an indigenous nuclear deterrent. They may not conform to international standards of behavior as defined (mostly) but the West, but they are eminently justified, on realist-deterrence grounds, to pursue that option.

Interestingly, that champion of nuclear non-proliferation, New Zealand, has been silent about the India ICBM test even though it condemned the North Korean launch. I get the feeling that under the current government NZ righteousness with regard to non-proliferation is inversely proportional to the possibilities of securing or maintaining a trade deal with states engaging in such testing. Thus, with regard to India there is silence. With regard to Iran there are meek pleas for “cooperation” with the IAEA. And with regard to North Korea there is a chorus of boos no doubt in part occasioned by the fact that South Korea enjoys a favored bilateral trade status with NZ whereas North Korea does not.

It is said that diplomacy is the art of disguising hypocrisy and self-interest in moral-ethical appeal. When it comes to the issue of nuclear proliferation, it seems that particular costume has worn threadbare thin even in places like NZ.

PS: And sure enough, true to form, Pakistan responded to the Indian test with one of their own. So there you have it: two nuclear armed states sharing a border that have fought conventional wars with each other and which continue to maintain a simmering territorial dispute that has involved the use of unconventional armed proxies sequentially test multi-stage long range boosters that are clearly designed to carry nuclear warheads. One of the countries is a major source of armed violent extremism and a safe haven to militants of various stripes. The international community remains silent.

Understanding Brinkmanship.

datePosted on 13:20, November 26th, 2010 by Pablo

The latest North Korean military provocation against South Korea, discussed at some length in Lew’s previous post, elicited some interesting discussion but also reminded me of the need to have a full conceptual grasp when contemplating seemingly irrational or dangerous acts in the international arena. Beyond the fact that rationality is multi-layered and subjective, so what looks crazy to outsiders at first glance makes perfect sense to insiders with a longer-term perspective and different interests at stake, the hard fact is that–as poker players know so well–acts of apparent irrationality are often calculated risks designed to achieve higher goals. Bluffing, be it stonewalling or sandbagging in nature, is designed to mislead the opponent so as to lure him into over-playing his hand or to fold while ahead. These tactics are integral to war-fighting and strategic gaming between states. Today I would like to briefly mention one other ploy that uses apparent irrationality as a rational weapon to secure strategic advantage: brinkmanship.

Inter-state brinkmanship is the use of provocative acts to test an opponent’s resolve and to incrementally secure strategic advantages that otherwise would not obtain by diplomatic means and which are too costly to go to war over. Brinkmanship is a strategic game that is most useful to actors that have little to lose by engaging it. Having something to lose, and confronted by an opponent that has less or nothing to lose, makes rational actors hesitant to initiate, respond in kind or escalate a provocation. On the other hand, if the provocation is such that it itself constitutes a serious loss of value to the receiving party, then brinkmanship can lead to larger conflict.

The matter is one of relative versus absolute gains: the actor that has less to lose in the event of war gains more via brinkmanship relative to the actor(s) that have more to lose, who see war losses in absolute terms even in the event of victory. They key to success, therefore, of the brinkmanship strategy is to understand the relative cost/benefit calculus at play in the opponent’s (collective decision-making) mind, given the contextual factors involved (alliance structures, security guarantees, role of third parties etc.). Needless to say brinkmanship occurs in social interaction below the inter-state level, but that is not the focus here. Although I have some familiarity with interpersonal brinkmanship, my professional interest is focused at the international level in general, and current North Korean behaviour in particular.

North Korea has in the past and is currently playing the brinkmanship game to perfection. Beyond the internal issues that I believe are a major cause of the provocations, the DPRK knows that South Korea has much more to lose in the event of all-out conflict. There is little in North Korea that the South Koreans want other than the restoration of familial ties (which are slowly dying out). It serves no strategic advantage to South Korea to up the ante and force a full military confrontation, even with the assured entrance of the US into the conflict under the terms of its security agreement with Seoul. Likewise, the US has no interest in seeing another major regional conflict explode over a minor border incident when it is busy with wars elsewhere. In addition, China has no interest in seeing such a conflict engulf the buffer state on its southern border at a time when it is focused on economic growth and the (not so) quiet development of a blue water naval capacity with which to protect the sea lines of communication upon which its raw material and primary good imports depend (since Chinese entrance into a direct confrontation with the US on the Korean peninsula would inevitably entail the destruction of that incipient capability).

Even if South Korea won a major conventional war with North Korea (since the DPRK does not have a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and has more than enough conventional force to wreak substantial havoc in the South even as it is defeated), the economic and social costs to the South, as well as the inevitable refugee streams from the North into the South across the conflict zone, are prohibitive for Seoul. Win, lose or draw, the DPRK leadership will still be fed, housed and nurtured at the expense of its subjects, whereas the South Korean regime will face the wrath of a public largely disinterested in war or having to shoulder the costs of winning one. As one US diplomat is reported to have said, North Korea is a country “without options.” That may be true for North Korean society, who must suffer and bear the consequences of their leadership’s decisions, but the leadership itself has plenty of options to choose from, and brinkmanship is one they know how to play extremely well.

Thus North Korea knows that it can push the envelope and stage the second military attack on South Korea in ten months because none of the other actors with an immediate stake in the game want to see the conflict escalate. It therefore can use the provocation as leverage in other areas of strategic interest: resolution of the armistice/peace treaty impasse; renewal of talks on the nuclear weapons programme in exchange for international fuel and food aid; creation of an effective DMZ along the two country’s water boundaries (and possible negotiation of the boundaries themselves)–the leverage possibilities are only limited by the imagination and interests of the DPRK leadership. Whichever faction in that leadership that successfully played the brinkmanship card will be strengthened in its internal power struggles for having done so.

Even if there is some more exchange of fire between the two sides, and it escalates a little in intensity (say, by South Korea using its air force to bomb North Korean military positions), the game is stacked in North Korea’s favour. All other parties will push to sue for peace sooner rather than later, and the price for that will be agreeing to discuss something that is of more interest to the North Koreans than anyone else.  In other words, the terms of that discussion will be framed by the successful brinkmanship game played by the DPRK.

Sometimes being seemingly crazy has its own rewards.