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. Â 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.