The predominant interpretation of North Korea’s military attack on a South Korean island this week is that it is a provocation aimed at strengthening North Korea’s international bargaining position. Kim Jong-Il has long been a model example to illustrate Schelling’s teachings on the rationality of irrationality: in a game of brinkmanship it pays to act like you will not respond to reason. Traditionally, North Korea has been able to extract various goodies from the international community following such provocations. The Guardian has a nice illustration of the current crisis in the context of Schelling’s ideas (see also this piece by David Rothkopf) .
My colleague Victor Cha, however, points out in an interview with Jim Lehrer that it is unclear why North Korea would have to engage in military provocations to get back to the negotiating table. The Obama administration has clearly signaled its willingness to do this all along and if the North wanted to demonstrate its continued resolve, the submarine attack earlier this year should have done the trick. Instead, Cha argues that we have to seriously consider that this is primarily about North Korean domestic politics. They are going through a succession process in which the credibility and toughness of a very young and inexperienced new leader has to be established. Creating a crisis may help create a myth of heroism on behalf of that young leader.
Both of these perspectives may be partially right but it nonetheless matters where the emphasis lies. If this is a provocation as usual, then new negotiations and concessions may “work” in the sense that they will quiet the North Koreans until they feel the need to provoke again. If Cha is right, then the North Korean leadership may actually want to see a limited military response that they can defend themselves against in some heroic fashion.
Either way, these games of brinkmanship with large military forces that are trigger ready always carry the risk of escalation. Let’s hope reason prevails. On that note: Happy Thanksgiving for those of you in the U.S!
h/t Tony Arend