Brinkmanship and Irrationality: A New U.S. Strategy for North Korea?

North Korea conducted its fifth and, thus far, largest nuclear test this month. Outsiders know little about the DPRK’s capabilities. Yet, with each blast being larger than the next, the program appears increasingly successful. And while United States and South Korea may be both furious and anxious, the North will likely face little repercussions for its actions. Few experts expect China to punish the DPRK. In a recent New York Times article, Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing stated, “The United States cannot rely on China for North Korea. China is closer to North Korea than the United States.” China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy. It has helped sustain Kim Jong-un’s regime, and has historically opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and a refugee influx across their 870-mile wide border. The United States along with the UN are pushing new sanctions. However, the numerous sanctions already in place have yet to deter North Korea, mainly because of weak Chinese enforcement. North Korea said a push for further sanctions was “laughable,” and vowed to continue to strengthen its nuclear power.

This situation brings us to Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling. “The power to hurt is a kind of bargaining power, not easy to use but used often.” So opens Schelling’s Arms and Influence, which discusses the art of coercion in diplomacy. His works are influential in the field of game theory and decision making. Schelling believes that to coerce an opponent, the coercer needs to make their threats credible and acting irrationally helps the opponent believe the threats. This craziness helps the opponent believe the coercer may follow through on a rash decision. Cultivating irrationality at the highest level of government benefits that state’s bargaining power.

It would appear then that North Korean military leaders are well read in Schelling’s theories. The North’s strategy has been an almost perfect application of coercion. The DPRK has often provoked its enemies, upped the ante in the face of international condemnation, and then negotiated for relief aid or concessions to sanctions. In return, North Korean leaders promise peace. Incapable of improving economically, the North relies on brinkmanship alone to make ground. To a casual observer, the DPRK’s actions appear rash. However, Schelling would recognize this strategy immediately as the art of commitment, which they have used with a master stroke. The Kim regime has a knack for self preservation. As Schelling states, “international relations often have the character of a competition in risk taking, characterized not so much by tests of force as by tests of nerve… The perils that countries face are… more like Russian roulette.” The Kim regime is ultimately concerned with its own preservation. North Korean leaders would be hesitant to jeopardize their own survival but they have convinced the rest of the world that they could do so, to gain an advantage in diplomacy and negotiations. Seen in this light, the North’s pursuit of nuclear capability is a defensive ruse.

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Photo Credit: North Korea Victory Day 091, Stefan Krasowski, Flickr Creative Commons

So what is to be done with North Korea? The status quo of sanctions is largely ineffectual. Therefore, the US and its allies appear to have two options. The first option involves Schelling’s brinkmanship. US officials must persuade North Korea to believe the US will not endure further provocations. This option will be hard to achieve. DPRK officials scoffed at the Air Forces’ recent show of force. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency released a statement saying, “They are bluffing that B-1Bs are enough for fighting an all-out nuclear war.” Clearly the Kim regime does not believe that the US would risk all out war. It appears the US needs to practice better the art of commitment and start behaving more irrationally. Schelling discusses “relinquishing the initiative.” This phrase means leaving no options for retreat or withdrawal so that one is forced to respond should the opponent act. This gives the first move to the opponent and forces the enemy to decide to initiate the situation past the point of no return. So according to Schelling then, US leaders’ next move should be rash. The US should mobilize the armed forces on the highest alert, place the eighth US army on the border, and move ballistic submarines off the coast of North Korea. They should then make a significant threat of attack. The conditions of the attack could be the North detonating another nuclear bomb. Another condition could be blocking UN inspectors from coming in to North Korea.

However, setting the stage in this manner is not guaranteed to work and could be dangerous. North Korean leaders could make the decision that giving up their nuclear program is not an option. After all, possessing nuclear capabilities is the key to their defensive strategy and negotiating tactic. North Korean leaders could simply ignore the US threat as they have done before. Yet, should the Kim regime believe the US threat of attack, DPRK leaders could make the decision to go out with a bang. They have actually stated as much before. The North, then, might attempt a first strike with any nuclear weapons they currently possess to weaken advancing US forces and inflict tremendous hurt against South Korean allies. In choosing this option therefore, if there is even a slight chance that North Korea could launch a nuclear strike, the US has the imperative to stop it. At this point the US should go full Trump. The most effective means are tactical nuclear strikes against the DPRK government, their known nuclear facilities, and ballistic missile sites.

Turning North Korea into a radioactive wasteland would sure solve the immediate problem. There may even be a slight chance that Chinese leaders would tacitly accept such a move. Eliminating the Kim regime in this fashion removes a pesky problem of dealing with the North’s adventurism while maintaining a large border between China and US forces. China could gain an upper hand internationally by condemning such a drastic unilateral US action. To the delight of China, with the North obliterated, US forces could even leave South Korea. Additionally, China could persuade the South to strengthen relations and economic ties without the constant threats from the North and without a US military presence. Obviously, a nuclear attack against North Korea would have immediate, drastic repercussions for US policymakers. US standing in the world community would be forever tarnished. Allies could turn against the US. Tension and the potential for conflict with adversaries, China in particular, would probably rise to dangerous levels. For these reasons, while this option may be highly effective, perhaps it is too costly and not the best option.

As discussed, DPRK nuclear ambitions are likely a ruse to secure more international aid. Plus, the US is stationing Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea to guard against a nuclear missile launch. For these reasons, North Korea is not an immediate threat. Thus, the second option is normalizing relations and removing sanctions all together. US policymakers have already chosen this track long ago with China and again, more recently, another cold war adversary. Normalizing relations with Cuba and China opened untouched regions to US businesses and influence. China has hundreds of nuclear weapons with far more potential to hurt the United States and its allies, yet China is one of the US’ largest trade partners. The same strategy could apply to North Korea.

There are a number of benefits to this option for both sides. Removing sanctions would allow the North access to sustain itself financially. US businesses would gain a new market. Isolation empowers the Kim regime just as it benefited the Castro government. Normalizing relations would open the avenue for North Koreans to wear US brands, to listen to US music, and to play US movies in North Korean theaters. Removing the power of the DPRK government to brainwash its citizens would be a strong win for US soft power. Not to mention this option has the added bonus of averting a nuclear war. Perhaps Schelling’s theories are flawed. Perhaps the situation calls for deterrence over “compellence.” Perhaps the world needs less brinkmanship and more reconciliation. After all, Russian roulette is un-American.


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