Understanding Brinkmanship.

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.

39 thoughts on “Understanding Brinkmanship.

  1. When I heard about the shelling of an island – I thought that North Korea was pushing the limit. Suddenly though, I thought this attack was way to dangerous for South and US to get involved in a conflict. Your comments on this situation has shown me that my thinking is on the right track. However, how long can patience endure such posturing by the North?

    My assessment is that if US and South does decide a full on military- it will be the end of the world. Because the connections that South has and the economic attachments with that part of the world are too valuable to risk. Even for NZ. I am quite concerned that sooner rather than later ‘posturing’ will become impatient and Hell will have arrived.

    I think that there is much more to this than one would like to admit. Why now? Who benefits? What goal is there for such a display of arrogance? Who wins?

    The North may understand the frail nature of economics in that part of the world and I am convinced that this is more to do with China than the US.

  2. Quentin, patience has endured almost 60 years so far — why wouldn’t it endure longer, if the strategic calculus which underpins the situation remains unchanged?


  3. Quentin:

    With all due respect, it is not an oligarchic regime. It is a military bureaucratic authoritarian regime with a charismatic leadership lineage that, if diluting over generations, serves as a point of continuity with the foundational project (Cuba and Singapore have elements of this as well, without quite the weirdness that is the Kim dynasty). The Kim name is at the top, just like the Castro or Lee names, but the apparatus is run by a vast array of apparatchiks that are not related.

    Which is exactly why there are leadership succession issues, because the non-Kim elements in the DPRK leadership are neither beholden to or respectful of the anointed successor in the measure that they were before (generational change within the uniformed ranks being a major part of that).

    The DPRK (as opposed to North Korea) may be running out of time, but not because it is a presumed oligarchy.

  4. Ok. But that period is rather less tightly limited than you seem to think.

    If true, it would change the strategic calculus (though probably not sufficiently to make a war worthwhile to the ROK and its allies). But there’s only a tenuous argument to be made to that effect.

    In the foreseeable future there’s no chance (none whatsoever) of an internal revolt by the North Korean populace; and none of China permitting its citizens to help foment such discord. It’s possible that internal factionalisation around the death of Kim Jong-il and succession of Kim Jong-un would destabilise the situation sufficiently for such a change to come about, but it is far from certain. The players in that internal factional game are extremely patient and have an extremely clear understanding of what’s at stake, which is: regime survival. All of them have bottled their own personal ambitions and motivations to a considerable extent in service of this goal, in some cases for three successive generations, and indications are they will continue to do so. Many in the West fantasise about a Tarantino-esque showdown in the presidential palace, in which all the power players die and grant the good guys an opening. But such an outcome is as far from being likely as the other Western fantasy: that the might of the US military machine crushes the puny Commie weaklings once and for all without a single soccer mom in Seoul having to cancel her hair appointment.


  5. Lew (and Quentin):

    I did not want to pile on with the fact that some oligarchic regimes do in fact persist for long periods of time (the House of Saud, for example). More to the point, M-Ba regimes use single party structures in which the military is fully integrated into party leaderships so as to provide for orderly succession and focused administration, whatever the dominant ideology being espoused (neo-Stalinist juche (sp?) in the case of the DPRK). That is what allows them to deal with the Achilles Heel of succession even if there is personalist/familial domination of the top positions–the reproduction of the regime is not dependent on the virtues of the figurehead at the top of the party pyramid, but instead on the commitment of ideological cadres to reproduce the dominant ideology as the purest form of the “iron law of oligarchy” (not to confuse the sense it which the term is being used): the mission of the regime is to reproduce itself on terms that are self-sustainable beyond the use of blanket repression.

    The DPRK is repressive but what ensures its longevity is its non-repressive control of all aspects of social life. Much of that comes from the manipulation of nationalist sentiment, which in the DPRK is phrased in national survivalist terms. Anything that confirms that the regime is under siege from imperialist powers and their Korean toadies reinforces the ideological message.

    Which is to say that Lew is right: the Kim-led M-Ba regime may have a limited lifespan, but that may still extend beyond mine if it plays its cards right internally and externally. Since the end of the “Great War” it has done so, and the current moment does not suggest that is soon prone to do otherwise. Which is why calculated brinkmanship works for it.

  6. The North Korean military is a paper tiger, with clapped out and obsolete equipment, hungry soldiers who don’t train and an officer corps that isn’t organised fight an external enemy anymore. It has an airforce composed of aircraft and pilots that can barely fly and a fünf minuten navy. The only card they have is the “hundreds” of hardened artillery positions that can apparently rain down a hail of indiscriminate chemical and HE slaughter on the inncent people of Seoul.

    To my mind, then, perhaps the most unpredicable player isn’t the North – whose Byzantine officer corps sole aim is survival – but the ROK hardliners. What of the human factor? What if the South were to simply un out of patience with the North and decide it could perhaps, just perhaps, smash the North’s one card (it’s artillery threatening Seoul) with a blitzkreig aimed at driving the North’s artillery out of range – and with it the DPRK out of mind – of Seoul? If the South decided modern high tech weaponry would allow them to successfully conduct such a blitzkreig (aided by US airpower and Marine amphibious power that could easily enter theatre unobtrusively) then slaughter the North’s counter attacks from new defensive positions 60-70km away from Seoul I can’t see China objecting to much – the key would be not to repeat McArthur’s error of forcing a Chinese intervention by advancing to far.

    Such an attack would also have the added attraction of allowing the US to comprehensively destroy the DPRK’s nuclear facilities uinder the cover of the general melee.

    I admit this represents a high risk strategy on the part of the ROK – but I detect a hardening of resolve in the South, an (irrational?) tiring of being held constantly to hostage by the threat of a growing irrelevance, a desire to be free of the constant shadow of the bully.

    As we’ve seen in our own small way in the debate over whether or not rescuers should have been allowd to willingly rush into danger to try and effect a rescue of the Pike River miners, human decision making has alweays had a significant emotional component. For sixty year in Korea (as in Pike River) rationality has held sway. Who can say when emotion might take over?

  7. Pablo,

    Thanks for this. A question though. This is a great assessment of the costs / benefit / game theory from a DPRK perspective. But in some ways it is more interesting to look at this through the China-prism. Sure, as you point out in the previous thread, China objective is conflict avoidance. And yet, the DPRK’s actions would seem to hurt China’s interests. For instance, the US deploying an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea (reminscent of the the 1996 loss in Taiwan) or the speculation that Japan is set to re-arm, or at least engage in a defense build-up. It has been a tough year for China in terms of Asian foreign policy, and this escalation by the DPRK appears to have reinforced that trend.

    So why does China not exert more constraint, as the Jiang Zemin / Zhu Rongji administration did? Does this DPRK incident reveal a new leftist bias in China itself? Are we heading for a new Cold War, or leng zhan? And if so, what does this mean for NZ’s relatively neutral stance?

  8. Lew, Pablo:

    Thanks guys I stand corrected on the Oligarchy question. It does appear like that but the “M-Ba” as you call it is a better projection of a reality that I am not totally familiar.


    QUOTE: “Are we heading for a new Cold War, or leng zhan? And if so, what does this mean for NZ’s relatively neutral stance?” UNQUOTE

    This is an important question – because NZ has a considerable stakes in this region and to take a position will have implications long term vis-a-vis our relations with China AND the US. This is a question I will be exploring for my Masters 2011.

  9. Will:

    China needed this incident like a hole in the head, but out of it can come opportunity. If it shows concern about the DPRK action and acts to reign it in (since NK is definitely not a puppet state of the PRC), then it will counter-balance the perception in East and Southeast Asia that it is becoming the new bully on the block (a bully that actually makes the US look good in comparison). The diplomatic confrontation with the Japanese over the fishing trawler incident scared the daylights out of all the other regional players save Mynamar, so the Chinese have to show that they can act in a restrained and communitarian fashion when it comes to issues of regional and international concern. This incident provides them with exactly that moment.

    As for NZ. I hate to say it but I do not believe that NZ has the strategic forecasting capability, much less political interest, in looking over the temporal horizon towards the time when US and PRC interests come into direct competition in the Western Pacific. as things stand now, when that moment comes NZ will be economically dependent on China and militarily dependent on OZ and the US. Something will have to give.

  10. Another great blog that I will be shamelessly stealing and re writing bits of for my MySpace blog with attribution.

    In many ways though this was far more provocative than the sinking of the frigate because there was no cooling off period available to the ROK while facts were established.

    Also of concern is that the New Minister of Defence Kim Kwan-jin would seem to be far more hard line, that in itself could also be brinkmanship on the ROK’s part. It is certainly a sign that the South is running out of patience despite Lew’s comment above.

    For the life of me I can’t remember where I read this but someone said historically China has always responded to attacks on Korean Peninsula I am guessing it was Robert Elegant, but I can’t find it.

    I concur completely with your comment on New Zealand’s situation with regard to a US PRC conflict of interest in the pacific that is going to be a very tough balancing act to pull off. Is it inevitable is the more interesting question. ?

  11. You might find this comment interesting, from Foreignpolicy.com

    QUOTE: So the smart thing for China, surely, would be to let the irredeemable North rot to the point of collapse; have the South absorb it German-style, which would keep it busy for quite some time; and lure this unified Korea out of Uncle Sam’s embrace into the neutrality that most Koreans in their heart of hearts have always craved. Shouldn’t be too hard, really.

    It might have gone that way, if the balance of various forces — in Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul and elsewhere — had been even a little different. But they weren’t, and now it won’t. Instead, as the Korea expert Victor Cha — of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and lately of the George W. Bush administration — wrote recently, China has made the strategic decision that a unified Korea which is South Korea writ large, and as such a U.S. ally, goes fundamentally against its interests.

    Hence Beijing’s support, or as good as, over the Cheonan and the shelling. China is pursuing its own agenda on North Korea, and no one can stop it. It will tolerate some provocations… UNQUOTE


  12. “The skirmish began when North Korea warned the South to halt military drills near their sea border, according to South Korean officials. When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters — but away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling the small island of Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.”

    -By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KWANG-TAE KIM, Associated Press – Tue Nov 23, 6:20 pm ET

  13. Joseph P:

    That is why the incident has to be seen as a “nested” meta-game: the strategic brinkmanship going on a national state level is precipitated by the tactical brinkmanship between the field commanders in the disputed maritime zone (itself facilitated by national command perspectives), set against the evolving balance of power in the larger post-Cold War geostrategic context.

  14. Possibly this is simply to show resolute North Korean leadership and build nationalist allegiance to the proposed succession – even if the successor will be more of a figure-head than an actual power-broker.

    Obviously the South has an interest in the successful continuance of the northern independence and will play along.

    The only real threat the North poses is surrender to the South and enjoying a sharing of the South’s wealth in a unitary state.

    And given some of the token aid to the North is from the international community, it’s no great problem to the South to help the North extract some more help.

  15. The Americans don’t mind this minimal cost – the confrontation justifies their security alliance with South Korea and Japan – the domestic military industrial complex thus has demand for its business.

    Thus the ability to support ASEAN nations with South China Sea issues is maintained and China is contained as an economic power with capacity for self-defence only.

  16. SPC, this line of reasoning misunderstands the situation. It’s wrong both in terms of economic analysis and in terms of regional dynamics.

    The DPRK possesses considerable natural resources, including timber, fishing grounds, precious metals, uranium, fossil fuels and rare-earth elements which it is not in a position to adequately exploit. Its union with the ROK would impose huge strains on the economy, but would also provide substantial opportunities. Throughout history this balance between the north and the south has permitted Korea to remain mostly economically independent of its neighbors, with the food-production capacity of the south, with its milder climate and larger tracts of arable land complementing the more resource-rich but less hospitable north. For a diversified national economy, the division hampers both sides; the DPRK is unable to produce enough food (and even without centralised production and all its failings, the north was marginal); and the south has only in the past couple of decades been fully able to diversify from low-value production into the high-tech and industrial sectors for which it is now known. And all this leaves aside the fact that the DPRK encompasses much more than 50% of the peninsula’s most valuable resource: land. The potential for a land-grab of epic proportions was usually the first thing which came up in my conversations about a future reunification with Korean businesspeople.

    For another thing, the economic problems posed by reunification are considered mostly irrelevant by Koreans, both at individual and government level compared to the costs of continuing the war. Far from being a ‘minimal cost’ the impact of a live — if dormant — conflict across a long and complex land border within a short distance of major population centres, not to mention two similarly complex sea borders, is enormous. But even so, this is not a primarily economic issue; it’s an issue of nationalist unity, of cultural and historic integrity, and of identity. The dispute is about who Koreans are, and the proportion of the population there who would countenance a strategy of holding steady if an opportunity were presented to break the deadlock without considerable harm is so diminishingly small as to be irrelevant. The division of the peninsula in 53 took place under enormous civil unrest, with many millions of Koreans, both soldiers and civilians, internally displaced and cut off from their families and homes — in a state which, at the time, was pre-industrial, where locality and social networks meant much more than they do now. This loss is still felt very keenly, and almost to a person South Koreans want to be reunified with their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers and grandparents in the North, and they want it sooner rather than later whatever the economic costs.

    As explained above and in the previous post, this sentiment is a major source of strategic weakness for the ROK, cf the DPRK, whose citizens are heavily propagandised to believe that the ROK aren’t ‘real’ Koreans any more, having been bastardised by the US colonisation — and although some pro-unification sentiment must remain, they are irrelevant to the DPRK’s strategic decisionmaking in any case.


  17. Should the DPRK fall to the ROK, the psychological impact of discovering how comprehensively they’d been lied to may cause a massive collective breakdown of reason and sanity in the ex-North Korean population. It would certainly be very, very, very hard to deal with.

  18. Sanctuary, absolutely. Post-conflict trauma on a phenomenal scale, and the probable emergence of a two-tier society such as occurred to an extent in Germany following reunification (though the former Eastern Bloc lived carefree and luxurious existences compared to North Koreans). In my experience Cambodia could be a close parallel; a generation on from Democratic Kampuchea, the country remains collectively shell-shocked. The differences apparently wrought by the experiences of the late 70s on Cambodians and their society compared to their close neighbours the Lao, Thai and even the Vietnamese is palpable and pretty disturbing.

    In addition to the mental health impacts of their whole worldview literally revealed to have been false, citizens of the former north will be much more poorly-educated, technologically and historically naïve, and perhaps most importantly linguistically and culturally distinct. The DPRK dialect of Korean is very different from that employed in the ROK; somewhat archaic, and language has been extensively used as a propaganda tool, in much the same way the Soviets and Chinese revolutionaries wove idological norms through the language taught in schools and used in official communication. A clear example is the word for ‘friend’, which is phonemically pretty similar, but which holds different meaning; in the South it is used in a Western-casual sense (mate, pal, acquaintance) whilst in the Northern dialect it has a more formal sense closer to ‘comrade’ or ‘colleague’. [Edited to add: not that language outside totalitarian states is ideologically ‘neutral’ or doesn’t convey politically normative meaning — it clearly does.]

    The cultural distinctions are also very clear. Aside from the obvious capitalist/individualist and socialist/collectivist aspects, there are others — for instance the ROK has quite a religious population, with Protestant and Catholic christianity both fairly prevalent in addition to underlying Confucian and Buddhist traditions. Religion of all flavours has been expressly stamped out in the DPRK, except to the extent which it has been replaced by a sort of faux-Confucian regard for the Kim family regime as a pantheon of its own. The ROK, while quite conservative by NZ standards, is actually pretty liberal in Asian social terms, with a reasonable emphasis upon modern pluralist liberal values of tolerance, forgiveness, consensus, mutual understanding and non-discrimination while the opposite is true in the DPRK, where outsiders and those noncompliant with state-decreed social norms are openly vilified, particularly on grounds of racial and cultural purity. Those thousands of North Koreans who have successfully defected to the ROK have, in general, found the adaptation extremely hard. They face harsh discrimination from South Koreans (individual citizens and civil society groups, employers, and perhaps most of all from the authorities), and struggle both with the freedom which comes from living in a modern liberal state, and with the responsibilities of same.

    So much more serious than the crude economic disruption which will result from any future reunification, I believe, will be the cultural disruption (which, of course, the economic troubles will not help).


  19. No doubt you believe that Lew, it’s the long-time official standard line in the South and in accord with the dream/aspiration for a return to unity – but the thing is, the status quo is much more convenient in modern reality.

    And the longer the two societies are culturally distinct and economically disparate the less there is to gain from unity.

    The Southern economy has moved on from a resource based one to global production (importing raw materials) – coveting the resources of the north is so old economy, and the land comes at too high a cost in both economic and cultural terms. Not that the government, or people, of the South have lost “lip service” attachment to unity, its just not in their best interests – and they are aware of this dichotomy.

  20. SPC, if you genuinely think that South Koreans would genuinely prefer their brethren to remain an impoverished and warlike enemy on their northern border then you’re entitled to that view, even if it doesn’t accord in even a small way with the reality on the ground.


  21. Lew you are not trying to portray my point accurately, just slander it, … . There is simply an acceptance by the South of that which they cannot change and living within the reality of the North being the way that it is.

    The North has asked why prior actions by the South, which they took as provocative, occured. Care to explain? I simply note they enabled the North to take a nationalist line (securing the succession?) and create the tensions necessary to justify foreign offers of aid to maintain the peace.

    I don’t see increasing the nationalist posturing as improving the chances of unity anytime soon. You believe altruism is guiding the policy?

  22. No, I believe self-interest is guiding the policy of both sides — but, unlike your apparent argument, I don’t accept that this self-interest on the South’s part is bounded by solely military and economic considerations. Nationalistic, cultural and identity considerations are every bit as important, and possibly more so, in the South.

    The sentiment was explained to me by a former army officer whose family was from just north of the border. While stationed on that section of border he had strongly ambivalent feelings about the North Korean soldiers on the opposite side; on the one hand recognising that they were his mortal enemies, and on the other he was unable to shake the sense that they could be his cousins, uncles, and so on. For him, this was true in an actual genealogical sense but he explained that this was a common feeling within both military and civilian life; and indeed it is a theme common to much modern Korean fictional narratives (probably the best example of which is the famous film “Joint Security Area”). The way Koreans I worked with explained the eventual reunification — which they consider to be inevitable, one way or another — was of a relative returning from a long spell in prison. They would be broke and unemployable, terribly damaged and dysfunctional, prone to crime and generally just a drain on the family — but no family could turn them away, since to turn away relatives in such a way would be unthinkable. This is not an altruistic position, but a simple matter of customary duty.

    So it’s not that the South is thrilled at the prospect of 1/3 of their number of refugees arriving en masse; but that it is better than the alternative of them all perishing or remaining just out of reach, and remaining a threat. In fact, though I’m not so sure this has any basis to it, folk often talked about how NK post-unification refugees would be ‘billeted’ each with an individual family to entrench this familial sense. In such a scheme the prison metaphor would be all but exact.

    This is all anecdotal, of course, and I have only an outsider’s understanding of the dynamic behind this. But it’s abundantly clear to me that Koreans in the south don’t view the prospect of unification as a simple negative-sum economic transaction in the sense you argue. And if you think about it in the sort of terms I’ve suggested here, I think you’d be able to understand why.


  23. Lew, well given unity is not something the South would force on the North, nor seek any crisis which would result in this being possible – because of the exacerbated economic costs of a militarist scenario – then what we can disagree on is whether the South really wants what it says it wants – peace and unity.

    However we quantify that difference in opinion, the reality is the South is operating under status quo settings and is not really looking at making any serious attempt to bring forward unity. To what extent this is based on a realistic assessment of the chances of change in the North and to what extent they place priority on realising their ambitions for an independent South Korea.

    Perhaps it prefers to focus on economic growth, similarly China in regard to its own stated unity agenda?

  24. Returning to the topic (brinkmanship) — SPC, it seems what you’re arguing in your last par with “I don’t see increasing the nationalist posturing as improving the chances of unity anytime soon” is that ratcheting up nationalistic rhetoric is an irrational move where the goal is reunification, therefore the fact that the ROK aren’t placating the DPRK indicates they simply don’t want reunification.

    This is just too simplistic. Each move is part of a much bigger picture in which the DPRK and ROK governments are themselves two relatively minor players — the response of ‘overwhelming retribution’ and former ROK marines burning images of Kim Jong-il and the DPRK flag doesn’t indicate a will to war among the ROK populace much less other (more important) actors. It indicates that the issue is fraught and complex, and that great care must be taken. And although it might look like mayhem, great care is being taken, which is why it hasn’t erupted into outright war in the past 57 years.


  25. Well, no — the ROK would force unity on the North — economic considerations be damned — if it could do so without risking hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

    Your argument that the ROK is not seriously pursuing a unification programme because it doesn’t feel like it is simply wrong and stems from a superficial misunderstanding of the Korean situation. For the entire decade leading up to Lee Myung-bak’s presidency in 2008 that’s precisely the sort of posture they adopted (the Sunshine Policy). It failed — or at best met with very mixed success — but not due to a lack of will on the ROK’s part. While I personally believe that as a matter of strategy the Sunshine Policy was probably better than the status quo, that is certainly a topic upon which reasonable people can disagree. The overarching foreign policy goal of the Lee presidency remains consistent — only the method has changed. And even so, it hasn’t changed all that much because — as noted exhaustively — the ROK president is a bit player in this game.


  26. We both agree that war is unlikely as neither the North or South has any self-interest in starting one, but the fact that the population of the South now supports a military response indicates the extent to which there are now two nationalisms at play – and this will reduce the chance of a way to unity being found.

    Well, no — the ROK would force unity on the North — economic considerations be damned — if it could do so without risking hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

    I don’t buy into this – if it were true the South would have set up a contingency fund to finance unification and sacrificed economic growth to have this facility available. They have not, either because they see the prospect as unlikely or economic growth in the South (their own nationalist identity emerging as a successful country in their own right) as their priority. Thus there is no evidence of any intent to force unity on the North, in fact the policy appears to be – if and when the North wants it.

  27. SPC, this is largely pointless, since you appear to lack any real understanding of this case, seemingly content to take a one-size-fits-all ‘neoliberal nationalist alienation’ critique to the situation. It just doesn’t fit, but I guess there’ll be no convincing you of that.

    I’ve made my point already: adoption of a slightly more nationalist/militarist posture doesn’t indicate lesser support for reunification; it’s part of the normal ebb and flow of tensions within ROK and part of the overall strategic dynamic. This dynamic is largely outside the ROK’s control, though you seem to think it is the only player with any agency (and is therefore to blame for the lack of progress).

    As to a reunification fund — the Lee Myung-bak administration, which you claim has no will to reunify, is even now setting up just such a scheme, to be funded from a reunification tax. But even the absence of such a fund doesn’t say much about the South Korean will to reunify, since the economic aspects of reunification aren’t the predominant concern either of lawmakers or of the general public. It might seem crazy to you, but the Korean ‘nationalist identity’ is rooted in the 5,000 or so years which (they claim) Korea existed as an unified and distinct nation, much more so than the last 50 years when it didn’t. In the nationalist ideology of both Koreas, the nation is like Ireland — temporarily divided, rather than being two separate nations.


  28. Lew, it was you who said that the current administration had changed the former sunshine policy – and it was that former administration which did not set up a reunification fund. The reason for the change from the sunshine policy is indicated in the emerging independent nationalism inherent in support for a military response by the public.

    That the South now has realised sufficient economic growth to look at putting aside savings – “for re-unification” is great for them but only possibly good for the North. Given re-unification is not in the interests of the South, it will only come when the North wants it.

    Simply put the South has a good future alone, its continuing realisation and growing self-pride is the most likely outcome. A national sovereign wealth fund – whatever purpose rationalises it being set up, is good for the South in its own right.

    That it is only now doing so, when there is no greater prospect for re-unification than before, is more indicative of the economic change that has taken place than any move to promote unification.

    And paradoxocally, if this is how it is, then the North is more likely to cede. Not wanting it too bad and providing for an affording of the economic cost is the best strategy.

    Stressing the longing for the South for unification has two negative impacts – to place stress on the North (paranoia) and to enable them leverage advantage. Why do that?

  29. SPC, you simply won’t make sense of this topic until you cease thinking of reunification as an economic transaction, and start thinking of it in more nationalist/ideological terms.


  30. So we each believe the same thing. “I’m right and you’re wrong. And I know I am right”.

    I’m simply saying that brinkmanship here is the wrong option, I have stated the best strategic option for the South and it looks like they are moving to that position.

    That involves less nationalism and less ideology on this issue. And a much more rational position. They the South have a future as an independent country and the North does not, so only when the North realises that can there be unity.

  31. SPC:

    With due respect, if you think that what the DPRK is doing is not brinkmanship, then you have not only missed the point of the post but also the meaning of the concept.

  32. Pablo, I was using the term in context, in relationship to the policy of the South, not the North.

  33. SPC:

    So I gather that you believe that the South is not engaged in brinkmanship or that it is inadvisable for it to do so? I believe both are correct–the South is not engaged in brinkmanship (for the reasons outlined in the post regarding cost/benefits and relative versus absolute gains) and that it is unwise for it to do so.

    The reverse is true for the DPRK.

  34. SPC, why on earth would the DPRK ‘come around’ to the notion that their economic and political system was a failure, relative to the ROK and the rest of the world? As far as those in command are concerned it works perfectly well, thanks very much; and orders of magnitude better than the alternative.

    As I said in the prior post, their motives are not those of a rational liberal-democratic state. The course of action you prescribe for the ROK might be worth following if they were. But they’re not.


  35. Well I agree with Pablo that brinkmanship is the status quo option of the Northern regime and of course that suits those in power there just fine. Heck I even agree with you that on the latter point.

    Yeah sure, there is some irony that the most effective option the South has is not to force the issue but show it has another option as a prosperous and successful state on its own. Only developing the unification fund in that context was/is the right thing to do.

    Just because the most effective option is not proactive does not mean it is not still the most effective strategic choice. All other options are worse. Not only does this option preserve peace the best, it also allows the North the most space to consider its future as a relatively weakening power.

    In that stillness, the awareness that even the most ordinary citizen of the South has a better life and better prospects than the military/party comrade elite is going to weight heavily on the thinking of the Northern regime. Then others can provide an opportunity for a face-saving peace.

  36. South Korean parliament descends into mass brawl

    The defence budget was increased to 31.4 trillion won after North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month, triggering a tense standoff that has drawn in the United States and China. Calling government members of parliament “lapdogs”, opposition members from the Democratic Party blockaded parliament offices and the main hall for a second day and parliamentary guards were brought in to restore order.

    On Tuesday night, dozens of opposition politicians and their aides fought with members of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP). One GNP member was taken to hospital after being hit on the head with a gavel during the scuffle.


  37. Joseph:

    You might want to consider it this way when it comes to the Koreas: In one you have well-fed parliamentarians brawling in a time-honoured political ritual in a mostly affluent country that votes its leaders into power and attempts to defuse tensions with its neighbour. In the other you have well-fed military and party apparatchniks goose-stepping and genuflecting to the “Dear Leader” while the masses wave placards and starve in defense of the regime’s hard line on imperialist aggression. In one Korea the opposition starts fist-fights in parliament and organises rowdy street protests; in the other the opposition is jailed, exiled or dead.

    There was a time when both Koreas demonstrated formidable authoritarian characteristics, but in the South that time ended well over a decade ago. Thus the differences just mentioned, however simplistic, provide a quick brief on what the choices are for those who live on either side of the DMZ.

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