Home / Robert Farley / Accidental War?

Accidental War?

Comments
/
/
/
693 Views

My latest feature at the Diplomat expresses some skepticism about the potential for accidental war on the Korean Peninsula:

Again, few wars happen by accident; most take place because policymakers want them, even if those policymakers operate with poor or incomplete information about the prospects for success. Given the current balance of capabilities on the Korean Peninsula, a full war seems exceedingly unlikely, as none of the combatants stand to benefit.

Still, even the low probability of an accidental war demands some attention from policymakers. Seoul, Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, Beijing should take every possible step to ensure that some form of communication remains between the potential belligerents. The United States must be extremely careful in assessing North Korean moves, even if the DPRK decides to expand its provocations to incidents like the sinking of the Cheonan or the artillery barrage of 2010.

This does not mean that the U.S. or the ROK should simply accept such attacks as the cost of doing business, but they do need to respond with great care. Finally, the leadership of the DPRK must come to an appreciation of how dangerous a situation it has created for itself, and strongly consider stepping back from the brink before something tragic happens.

 

 

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • The problem with this application of the rational actor model to Korea is that there is a lot of evidence that the North Korean government is not rational in the way that American political scientists understand the term.

    • cpinva

      sure they are, as rational as any government. the recent bellicosity stems from (probably) issues noted by a variety of analysts: new kid on the block, trying to prove himself; irritation over both continued and additional sanctions; the annual shriekout over the annual SK-US wargames. what may be slightly different is that the targets of this bellicosity have not, up to this point, responded as NK had anticipated, and as they have in the past, with fairly quick offers of additional aid, and a curtailing of sanctions. as well, china & russia both are a bit concerned, because of the NK nuclear tests.

      all things considered, kim is doing what he perceives to be in his best interests, which is what all rational dictators do.

    • blowback

      Its behaviour is very rational if it wants to help an ally like Syria – shout anti-Americanisms loudly at the Americans and they will come running. It’s worked quite well so far, with tossers like Inhofe and King now demanding war against North Korea. Pavlov would approve.

      • Karate Bearfighter

        It’s also rational if they believe a low-level conflict with the US forces any potential dissenting factions in the regime to line up behind Kim during what may still be a transitional period.

  • Malaclypse

    Honest question: do you believe there is no possibility that Kim Jong-un has never been told anything other than the story that the DPRK has an advanced, powerful military, and can win in a conflict?

    • Just Dropping By

      It’s believed he attended school in Switzerland for several years under an assumed name, so he at least has some degree of exposure to the outside world.

      • cpinva

        “It’s believed he attended school in Switzerland for several years under an assumed name, so he at least has some degree of exposure to the outside world.”

        that’s kind of what i was thinking as well, assuming it to be true. unless they somehow managed to keep him from hearing/seeing/reading anything but his school work.

      • Malaclypse

        Thanks, I had not heard that.

      • rea

        () While he may have attended school in Switzerland–it’s not completely clear that he did–it might well have been another member of his family.

        (2) Not at all clear to me that a border school for rich kids in Switzerland is a good way to acquire experiene about how the real outside world works.

        (3) It may not be the case that he’s the one whose knowledge is relevant. If his generals don’t have a realistic appreciation of therelative strength of N. Korea vs. the US and its allies, he may not be in a position to say otherwise. Compare Adm. Yamamoto, who had lived in the US and well understood that Japan could not hope to defeat the US over the long run–but who was overruled by less knowledgeable people in the Japanese government.

        • ajay

          Not at all clear to me that a border school for rich kids in Switzerland is a good way to acquire experiene about how the real outside world works.

          But, if anything, it’ll give you an exaggerated view of how rich and powerful the outside world is… which is good! If he’d spent two years as an exchange student in Mississippi, he’d probably be thinking that the US would be a complete pushover.

          It may not be the case that he’s the one whose knowledge is relevant. If his generals don’t have a realistic appreciation of therelative strength of N. Korea vs. the US and its allies, he may not be in a position to say otherwise. Compare Adm. Yamamoto, who had lived in the US and well understood that Japan could not hope to defeat the US over the long run–but who was overruled by less knowledgeable people in the Japanese government.

          Yamamoto was overruled by people who outranked him, though. No one outranks Jong Un the Wrong ‘Un.

          • rea

            No one outranks Jong Un the Wrong ‘Un.

            Hard for us here to say how firmly he holds the reins of power. Could he get away with purging his top generals if he did not like their advice?

            • Shakezula

              I’ve been wondering if we’ll see the reverse. “Oh dear, outside forces somehow got in and assassinated our dear leader and anyone else who witnessed the foul deed. Now for several weeks of distractovision/mourning.”

    • Jo

      In some sense it doesn’t matter if Kim Jong-un has been consistently lied to. If he has, there’s someone doing the lying. In order to lie effectively they have to know the truth if only so they can avoid it. If they’re in a position to lie to him they have more power than him. So even if it’s not Kim Jong-un who’s in charge, whoever is in charge knows the truth. We might as well assume it’s Kim Jong-un. It’s just not plausible that no one in NK knows what’s going on, or how would they have survived all these years?

  • Shakezula

    Finally, the leadership of the DPRK must come to an appreciation of how dangerous a situation it has created for itself, and strongly consider stepping back from the brink before something tragic happens.

    Riffing on JOP, either leadership knows damn well what it is doing and hopes (for example) to ride out a bombing from Japan after which it will demand reparations;
    OR
    The benefits of shouting “We’re gonna nuke ya!” outweigh the risks (keeps the population amused/distracted);
    OR
    We’re seeing an astounding example of group insanity and they just don’t care.

    There’s no way they think the rest of the world understand they’re just kidding.

    • cpinva

      “There’s no way they think the rest of the world understand they’re just kidding.”

      possibly so, possibly not. according to interviews with recent visitors to NK, their perception was one of “business as usual”, by the average citizen, as opposed to what we would think the people, of a country on the brink of war, would be acting like. it’s possible (though unlikely) the average NK citizen has no clue what’s going on, even though it’s apparently been on the state run media. it’s possible they’ve developed a fatalistic attitude, so there’s no point in getting excited. it seems more likely that, having been through this pretty much every year, they also assume the game kim is playing, is the same game dad played, and they assume everyone else knows it too. kim probably thinks this way too, and also assumes everyone else knows it, and who is going to tell him otherwise?

      it’s also possible the entire country has gone barking mad, and is ready to implode.

      • Shakezula

        Sorry “they” = “leadership.”

  • The North Korean weirdness makes me think of stuff I’ve read about terrorism; many experts don’t find the greatest threats to be from zealots with a partially or fully religious agenda, such as AQ. They’re somewhat to very rational actors. It’s the cults they worry about, the Aum Shinrikyo’s and their lunatic cousins, because their estrangement from reality means there are fewer constraints on their behavior.

    I’m no expert on North Korea, but the little I do know makes me think that Li’l Kim and the people around him are by far the most cult-like entity in the world that, to our knowledge, might have nuclear weapons.

    I know there’s plenty of doubt that NK has the capacity to build nuclear weapons, much less deliver them anywhere other than maybe South Korea, but still.

    • Shakezula

      The only thing NK can do with a nuke is bring hell to SK (assuming it doesn’t bring hell to NK) and a lot of radiation to the peninsula. Which would annoy the neighbors. Has NK decided it is so powerful that it doesn’t care what China and Russia say?

      I suppose leadership could be that crazy.

      • Scott P.

        Well, they can deter use of the US nukes that we have stationed in South Korea.

        • Shakezula

          If China (and Russia) aren’t enough of a deterrent, what is?

          Unless NK thinks the traditional allies just aren’t that into them any more. Hmmm.

    • Mrs Tilton

      Li’l Kim and the people around him are by far the most cult-like entity in the world that, to our knowledge, might have nuclear weapons.

      Yes, that’s right; to our knowledge. Operational security has been much, much tighter at the Vatican’s nuclear research facility.

      • Malaclypse

        To say nothing of what goes on underneath the Granite Mountain.

      • Shakezula

        Don’t even joke.

      • ajay

        First we got the bomb, and that was good,
        ‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
        Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s okay,
        ‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way.
        Who’s next?

        France got the bomb, but don’t you grieve,
        ‘Cause they’re on our side (I believe).
        China got the bomb, but have no fears,
        They can’t wipe us out for at least five years.
        Who’s next?

        Then Indonesia claimed that they
        Were gonna get one any day.
        South Africa wants two, that’s right:
        One for the black and one for the white.
        Who’s next?

        Egypt’s gonna get one too,
        Just to use on you know who.
        So Israel’s getting tense.
        Wants one in self defense.
        “The Lord’s our shepherd,” says the psalm,
        But just in case, we better get a bomb.
        Who’s next?

        Luxembourg is next to go,
        And (who knows?) maybe Monaco.
        We’ll try to stay serene and calm
        When Alabama gets the bomb…

  • Shakezula

    Ugg. NK is recalling the last of its workers from Kaesong.

  • Data Tutashkhia

    Different situation, of course, but nevertheless with some similarities: Kashmir. A low level military conflict (not just a guerrilla war, but state military forces, shooting at each other) has been going on there for a few decades now. Sometimes getting a bit apocalyptic (2002), but most of the time just a routine; no one is paying attention.

  • Socraticsilence

    Politically, I don’t think the current ROK government could afford to look the other way on a another provocation on the level of the sinking of the Chenonan, especially given the President’s posturing.

It is main inner container footer text