My Rockets Are Bigger Than Yours

“North Korean leader, in rare address, seeks end to confrontation with South”[1], “Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Speech: A Kinder, Gentler North Korea?”[2] These and similar headlines appeared over the Internet news agencies following Kim Jong-Un´s New Year´s address. For many, there appeared to be some hope vested in the “new image” of the young Korean leader. While the ideas of democratization remained in the realm of fanciful utopian imagination of even the most optimistic dreamers, there was much debate that the public face of the Democratic People´s Republic of Korea (North Korea – DPRK) is changing.

Image courtesy of Joseph A Ferris III, © 2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Joseph A Ferris III, © 2007, some rights reserved.

At the time of writing this article, the power skirmish between DPRK and the US continues to escalate, and there seems to be no reason to believe this trend will not continue in to the near future. With both countries adamantly refusing to back down, the issue has now moved far beyond the trepidatious landscape of the security dilemma – the conflict is now personal, a clash of the over-excited ego of Kim Jong-un and the stubborn pride of the American Eagle. Unless another options is found, a third-way, the current sabre rattling will almost certainly result in war.

There have of course been tensions on the Korean Peninsula for over half a century now, with mutual threats of destruction becoming little more than a routine. What is new and particularly striking about this escalation, however, is its remarkable impracticality. As Kaplan notes in Slate Magazine: during the days of Kim Jong-il, diplomatic exchanges would follow a “known” path – a threat from North Korea would enhance its bargaining position, a payoff would be made by the West in form of aid and the situation would calm down for a while[3]. This time round however, the conflict seems to lack this motivation; or perhaps the DPRK has finally crossed the red line in its provocations. Whatever the motivation, the current torrent of macho gestures from both sides is definitely not helping the situation.

There is another noteworthy side to this recent struggle: the extraordinary imparity of strength of the two foes. With antiquated Cold War technology and reduced to a reliance of sheer numbers over machinery, the DPRK is dependent on the diplomatic and military backing of China at least as much as it was during the original Korean War. Ultimately, if standing alone, this kicking at the heels of the military giant that is the United States would be a truly suicidal move. That said, one cannot help but wonder if the current development is at all to China´s taste. For one, China co-wrote the recent UNSC resolution that so displeased DPRK, but other evidence suggests that China is losing patience with its long-standing satellite. For China, the current situation is downright alarming – further escalation will only attract more US military personnel to a region China considers as predominately its own; an open war being a true catastrophe, not least because China would be prompted to decisively choose sides at that point. Furthermore, even if China did not engage in the war, the resulting loss of the “buffer zone” would be an unprecedented tragedy for Chinese interests. It seems Kim might be putting himself in an impossible situation with regard to both superpowers – being too irksome and refusing to play the gentleman´s game only upsets the mayor players.

A question arises, however, as to what degree is the young leader himself a victim of the situation? Could what started off as a legitimacy-securing policy turn spectacularly against the originator? After all, it has been a long-standing assumption that authoritarian states pursue foreign policy to meet domestic policy objectives – in this case a legitimacy deficit incurred in the transition of power last year. Yet if that was the reasoning behind the current crisis, Kim Jong-un must be banging his head against the wall right now. Slowly running out of threats outside entering open warfare – an almost unfeasible alternative – Kim Jong-un could be the true tragic figure in this theatre play. With the US flexing its military muscle ever more blatantly in the face of DPRK (the recent tactical training mission of B-2 bombers being just one example), I can almost picture young Kim lamenting in the corner: “why are they doing this to me?” Indeed, the DPRK leader has no way to back down now and must escalate the conflict as much as it takes; his own standing depends on it. The USA on the other hand is not in such a position, yet it seems to marvel in this high stakes game… or perhaps it is just really slow on the uptake? How else can one interpret the US´s continued pursuit of military demonstrations of its pre-eminence? In the current red-blooded temper of the DPRK, military deterrence merely becomes obnoxious taunting. Exacerbated by North Korea´s vulnerability and genuine comparative disadvantage, there can be no wonder that the boy is kicking around in a tantrum. There is nothing quite as infuriating as the feeling of helplessness in confrontation with a stronger foe; and no one is quite as prone to recklessness and mistakes as an infuriated man with hurt pride. Past a certain point, even suicidal moves gain on attractiveness, as long as they damage the adversary enough – something the US should have learned during its Middle East engagement.

North Korea finds itself between a rock and a hard place. If international relations were a game of poker, DPRK attempted a bluff, and the US indicated a call. DPRK then did the single dumbest thing possible – attempted to outbid the chip leader. As betting progresses, both players realize their bets are already too high to fold, and soon enough, the only move that will be left for DPRK is to go all-in and hope for a miracle. Ultimately, if such an outcome is undesirable for the other players, there is only one way out: to mediate an end of the game. Finally, this can be done in either of two ways: direct intervention that ends the game forcibly from outside (most likely producing unintended consequences); or indirect fiddling with the cards so that as an outcome the two split their bets (thereby returning to the pre-game status quo). With the regional superpower China a major status-quo proponent, the latter is of course more likely. However, the noteworthy point is that without an alternative provided by a mediator, the two interested parties are unlikely to resolve their issues, and war is truly inevitable.

One Reply to “My Rockets Are Bigger Than Yours”

  1. Is there real evidence that Un would lose legitimacy if he “folded,” so to speak? State propaganda has likened the DPRK’s leaders to gods for so long that I highly doubt that anyone considering a coup could hope to gain more legitimacy. Nor can I imagine a popular uprising, I don’t think the people have the necessary resources. I think it is interesting that you are able to empathize with North Korea but not the U.S. in terms of the B-2 demonstration and similar actions; clearly the U.S. considers these actions to be a deterrent, though you are correct in your assessment that the DPRK sees these as provocations and that they put Un in a difficult position. I also must ask, does China lack the ability to influence North Korea into backing down, or is it simply uninspired to do so? This would be easier than mediating.

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