Monday, May 16, 2005

Game theory on the Korean Peninsula

In the wake of recent revelations that North Korea has been producing weapons grade plutonium, leaders and policymakers are trying to make sense of a world in which North Korea has the capability of a nuclear strike. North Korea agreed to stop any nuclear weapons programs in 1994, but lied about it and revealed in 2002 that it had produced enough nuclear material for up to 6 warheads. It is difficult to know precisely why North Korea has taken a step towards nuclear armament, but possessing nuclear weapons can increase leverage in political negotiations, especially when the person with his finger on the button is considered erratic and extreme.
Game theory and strategic analysis can explain some of Kim Jong Il’s actions. First and foremost, he is unpredictable. He varies his actions and his words, which are frequently at odds, to keep the rest of the world guessing about his intentions. This unpredictability makes it very hard to anticipate Kim’s actions, which bodes ill for any doctrine of preemption. The closed nature of his regime aids Kim in achieving this lack of predictability, because the rest of the world can never be absolutely certain that he is telling the truth about either his intentions or his capabilities. Having a clear idea about Kim’s true goals would give the US an idea of where he is vulnerable to persuasion or coercion. Since Kim has not yet proven beyond all doubt that he possesses the wherewithal to launch warheads at the US or Japan, his adversaries must take the threat of nuclear weapons very seriously without being able to act on the certainty of their existence. For example, with certainty of a nuclear threat from North Korea, Japan might credibly threaten to develop nukes, which might lead China to take a firmer hand with Kim Jong Il.
The second technique Kim Jong Il uses is brinkmanship – making moves that may escalate into an uncontrollable situation. Engaging in this technique signals commitment to the extent that the participant is willing to risk a highly negative outcome to achieve an objective. Kim Jong Il is clearly using this technique with the re-initiation of his nuclear program. In signaling to the world that he possesses the building blocks for nuclear weapons, he risks starting a sequence of events that could end in economic isolation, military action against North Korea, or a nuclear exchange. Although it is hard to know what Kim Jong Il wants, it is clear that he is willing to risk the consequences from the numerous countries who have a stake in preventing him from manufacturing nuclear weapons. Additionally, brinkmanship becomes more effective if the outcome of an escalation is asymmetrical – one side has more to lose than the other. Not only does Kim Jong Il have less to lose – his country is starving and close to collapse – but he has also shown in his prioritization of resources that he is indifferent to the suffering of his people.
Kim Jong Il’s revealed preference to bolster and feed the military while letting civilians starve brings up a difficult question from the international community. The U.S., China, South Korea and Japan have supplied food aid to keep civilians in North Korea from starving and prevent the nation from total economic collapse. South Korea and China are terrified a collapse would send North Koreans streaming across the borders, and are reluctant to cease aid to Kim lest it result in such a collapse. In essence, Kim Jong Il successfully extracts foreign aid because he has shown that he is willing to let his people starve in favor of building military power. This makes his nuclear threat credible, demonstrating that he cares little for the well-being of his people, and would likely be willing to risk their annihilation before abandoning his God-like status as ruler of North Korea. The international community would prefer to keep the Koreans from starving when Kim does not have nuclear weapons for humanitarian reasons, and wishes to prevent a collapse scenario that might push Kim over the edge into using his nukes if he does possess them. Thus, whether Kim has weapons or not, the world will provide food to North Korea, making it a dominant strategy. With food aid enabling higher military spending, Kim Jong Il successfully puts the international community in the uncomfortable position of partially funding North Korea’s military program.
While it is easy to identify the classic gambits used by Kim Jong Il to implement his nuclear program while lifting aid from the international community, the more pressing question is: To what end? A nuclear North Korea increases the country’s leverage, but what are Kim’s ultimate goals? It’s difficult to say for certain, but nuclear weapons certainly advance North Korea’s presumed ideological objective of consolidation of the Korean peninsula. With nuclear weapons, the game changes for a conventional invasion of South Korea. The world would expect erratic threats from Kim Jong Il, and if a nuclear threat was made, it would be hard to decipher if it was genuine. Therefore, in the case of a North Korean invasion of South Korea, it would be difficult for U.S. and international decision makers to take an action that might result in a nuclear detonation on domestic soil.
Kim Jong Il’s nuclear option may be an even simpler matter: one of survival. It’s clear that North Korea is incapable of sustaining itself economically, and at some point the regime may implode. Although the world is aware of this, it is possible that Kim’s newest gambit signals an even more desperate situation than we realize. This may explain China’s unwillingness to consider using its leverage as Kim’s main benefactor; China fears the collapse of Kim’s regime even more than the consequences of a nuclear North Korea, especially since it is not established beyond all doubt that North Korea has achieved a working nuclear arsenal.
Whatever the aims of Kim Jong Il, the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea will have to tread carefully to achieve the objective of North Korean disarmament. From the actions taken so far, it looks as if Kim Jong Il will take any risk necessary to increase his strategic leverage with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, this situation shows the limits of game theory when applied to an actor like Kim Jong Il. The appearance of irrationality may be an asset in negotiations, but we cannot know for sure that Kim is not actually irrational, and the elegant logic underlying game theory assumes that actors will act in their own best interests. Being worshipped as a god for decades can have a corrosive effect on one’s grip on reality, and if the US, following Nietzsche’s lead, declares that “God is dead,” Kim Jong Il may just decide to take the rest of humanity with him.
Deirdre Campbell
Chuck Lyman
Jim McCabe


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