Tuesday, November 30, 2010


As long as we're operating in a moral vacuum here, I think the trove of diplomatic cables recently released by Wikileaks is totally awesome. And not just awesome from a voyeuristic standpoint (though they surely are titillating in that regard) but also from a game-changing real world perspective. By pulling back the curtain on the honest appraisals, thoughts, and machinations of our diplomats, Wikileaks has effectively obviated the PR games that governments feel compelled to pursue. At least for the time being. As these cables slip out of immediate relevance we will doubtlessly return to BuSiness as usual. So we might as well enjoy this glimpse while it's still saucy! Here are a few that are particularly interesting for yours truly:

1) Hey North Korea! China thinks you're a bunch of dorks!
North Korea's leadership is notoriously petty when it comes to their reputation. (Really? A dictator of small stature with a bouffant hairdo is vain?) The public revelations that their greatest (only?) ally considers them childish headache could make the North think twice about future provocations. Though China's official line is unlikely to change, this betrayal of true sentiment must make North Korean leadership do a gut check.

Additionally, these revelations could very well add fuel to any fires of insubordination among ruling North Korean elites. While it's a stretch to assume anything about the hermit kingdom, let's say that high-ranking officials in the DPRK government have access to these cables. The language of these cables explicitly underscores North Korean weakness. Those party members chafing under the recent reorganization of DPRK power might find enough validation in the cables to motivate them to more rebellious positions. Dare we say that these cables might actually bring about the collapse of Kim Jong-il's regime? It wouldn't be surprising (although causality would be impossible to prove) but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be bloody.

2) North Korea is hemorrhaging not only its population but also its leadership.
This is particularly embarrassing for the North. While the quantities of refugees from the North could be blamed on famine, the defection of North Korean diplomats represents a particularly black eye. These are the lucky members of society, those who have made it to the top. If the landed elite are abandoning the country, what does that say about the society? Refugees from famine are sign enough of weakness but privileged defectors are damning. As with the news about China's honest appraisal of the North, should this information reach disgruntled members of the DPRK's ruling party it might be enough to push them to action.

3) US and ROK diplomats believe Kim Jong-un doesn't stand a chance.
Kim Jong-il is sick and on his way out the door. Kim Jong-un is young and inexperienced. Kim Jong-il had to weather 3 separate insurrection attempts during the 90's and he had the benefit of 20 years of experience as a party heavy-weight before assuming the throne vacated by his father. Kim Jong-un is a mid-20's 4 star general with no military experience. The wolves are circling, just waiting for the death of the old man before taking over the party.

Can you imagine how Kim Jong-un is going to feel if he gets his hands on that?

While North Korea has shown every sign that it is a rational (if not downright shrewd) international actor, these cables threaten to disrupt the ruling members who make up this group. And these ruling members have shown every sign that they are petty (if not downright insecure) leaders. So how do we think the various players will react to these cables? Let's break them down point by point. For the sake of simplicity we can divide the leaders into two groups: pro-status quo and pro-regime change.
  • China thinks North Korea is an annoying l'il bitch:
PSQ: What?! Whoa...better not do anything drastic.
PRC: What!? These leaders are idiots!
  • North Korean is losing everyone:
PSQ: Uh oh...can't let rebellious factions see this.
PRC: Oh come on! These guys gotta go.
  • Kim Jong-un is going to fold like a house of cards:
PRC: Goddamned right. You're going down you bastards.

So what is most likely to happen really? (Again, assuming that the leadership in North Korea has access to these cables.) Sensing that the game is almost up, I'll bet North Korean leadership gets REALLY aggressive. It might be deterred somewhat by China's transparent frustration but the pro-status quo leadership (mainly Jong-un) will attempt even harder to cement his position of leadership internally. Until he feels comfortable about his position, I'm guessing exogenous threats from China, South Korea, and the US will come secondary.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Op-Ed: Strategic Diplomacy

A quick response to the post on Strategic Diplomacy while the getting's good.

I think the 'Aristotelian' assumptions about both China and North Korea are overly simplistic, digestible though they may be. Treating states as the primary actors in this area reduces a lot of potentially valuable analysis, particularly with regard to North Korea. The recently confirmed reports of Kim Jong-Un as heir apparent along with the various other changes to DPRK leadership make assumptions of cohesive leadership downright foolish.

I believe North Korea's recent aggression can be better understood when framed as part of internal jockeying by Jong-Un to establish credibility both among DPRK leadership and the international community. This is not to say that the strategic calculations with regard to China, South Korea, and the US as outlined in Strategic Diplomacy are inaccurate. However, it seems highly unlikely that this aggression has anything to do with sabre-rattling to get more aid. More realistic is the assumption that young Kim is trying to prove he's got the same balls as his father.

So what does this mean about the conclusions drawn in the Strategic Diplomacy post? Two things:
  1. Holding joint-military exercises on Sunday might be more dangerous than imagined. If Jong-Un is attempting to show off his huevos, he's more likely to escalate the violence when presented with what the North is calling aggression.
  2. China has less clout over the DPRK's actions and is therefore both more and less important a consideration. The US and South Korea should spend less time trying to convince China to pressure North Korea. However, China's strategic concerns over open war are still valid and, if they have less influence over the North than imagined, they might be more inclined to take a hard-line on policing any potential violence in their backyard.
All that being said, fear-mongering cries of insanity or illogic still have no place in this discussion. Kim Jong-Il has proved that he knows how far he can push the violence and, even if his son is flexing some muscle now, that's no reason to assume that the senior is totally out of the picture. The basic interests of all parties still align on a preference for uneasy truce, a foundation that will be important to keep in mind on Sunday.
Hard though it may be to stomach, North Korea's aggression must be mostly ignored. Unless confronted by inarguable facts to the contrary, US and South Korean forces should assume that any North Korean actions are isolated and do not represent a larger move toward open war. The existing rules of engagement are well-suited to defusing escalation and they should not be abandoned now.

Yes it sucks. Yes it's a really tough pill for anyone to swallow. But it's better than the alternative. If Seoul goes up in flames, the global economy takes it in the chin. If open war is declared, the two world superpowers inch dangerously close to WWIII. Bored nihilists might be okay with that, but everyone else with a stake in this era of human civilization should recognize that, if war is avoidable, it should be avoided at all costs.


A series of if...then... statements for lazy politicians looking for a shortcut:
  • If North Korea lobs shells into the west sea, then the allies should ignore it. (REASON: No harm, no foul. If our joint-military exercises are firing into the waters off the North Korean coast, DPRK leadership needs to be given the flexibility to do the same.)
  • If North Korea engages allied military vessels, then the allies should take all necessary steps against the immediate physical threat but not extend violence to more removed military targets. (REASON: The is in line with an established pattern of behavior that, while raising tensions, has not lead to outright war. Furthermore, even destructive patterns of behavior like this still constitute patterns which reduce uncertainty in the long-run.)
  • If North Korea fires on non-vital South Korean soil, then the allies should return fire in kind. (REASON: Firing on sovereign soil is an important message but one that does not need to be met with an escalation to outright war.)
  • If North Korea fires on vital South Korean soil, then the allies should assume a full-scale war is imminent and take out strategic military targets as quickly as possible. (REASON: This really needs little explanation. This is the threshold at which the allies should draw the line.)
The overall idea being as follows:
Since there is little actual communication with the DPRK leadership, alternative methods of communication are needed to reduce mutual uncertainty. Much as one trains a wild animal, repeated patterns of behavior can gradually establish norms which lead to better communication. As North Korea gets a little wilder with their leadership transition, this is precisely the approach that allies should take to tame this new beast.

Snapshots from Seoul

Having just finished a delicious meal of Sam Gyup Sal with a few close friends in Guri, a satellite of Seoul, I thought I would jot down a few notes from our conversation. Unsurprisingly, the conversation dealt heavily with the weighty matters of conflict in our yard.
  • "Shit. I don't think I have my uniform anymore. How can I get drafted if I lost my uniform?"
  • "Where's the first place you go if the call comes in that things have escalated? The embassy? The bar?"
  • "Speaking of which, I left my passport in the office. I wouldn't even be able to get into my own embassy."
  • "Imagine what it would feel like if you got a text message from me just being like, 'it started.' What would I even write? Would I write that? What about 'IT BEGINS!' Or maybe 'those assholes should have stayed out of the West Sea.'"
  • "What will I wear? Should I take a shower?"
If the devil is in the details then the details are delicious.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Strategic Diplomacy

As the din rings round and round regarding the motivation for North Korea's attack on Yeongjyeong, I thought I would drop my two cents into the ocean for posterity's sake.

I believe that, when viewed from North Korea's perspective, the recent inflammation of relations is perfectly logical. I'll start by outlining the basic priorities of North Korea and China and then exploring how these priorities logically lead to the current type of diplomacy playing out on the peninsula. I'll then outline what I believe should be the reaction from the US and South Korean to the latest and any future hostilities.


Let's start with an Aristotelian assumption about North Korea: namely that it is working toward what it perceives as the greatest good for itself. Contrary to what the rest of the world is patiently waiting for, North Korea does not want to collapse. It wants to become a stronger player in international relations in order to bolster it's domestic prosperity. It is currently almost totally dependent on China for trade and basic materials and, as anyone knows, diversification is the best thing for a healthy portfolio. (For this most basic level of analysis, I feel comfortable using the state as the primary actor. The leadership of North Korea may have additional incentives for success such as prestige / wealth / whathaveyou but, in the face of knee-jerk cries of insanity, I want to state clearly that I don't see North Korea's actions as illogical.)

Based on this assumption, additional conclusions can be drawn. For example, North Korea does not want outright war on the peninsula without the assurance of China's full support. It recognizes that it would be destroyed without China's support and China is not making any promises. North Korea also wants help any way it can get it. Beneficial trade agreements, aid, etc. Finally, North Korea wants to be one of the big boys with the attendant military capabilities and technology savvy to show for it. It is in the crucible of these three basic interests that North Korea's international actions can be understood.

Happily, the same Aristotelian assumption can be applied to China. (Dare we go so far to assume an Aristotelian framework for all states? Only as far as the individual Aristotelian priorities of it's leaders don't come into conflict, creating illogical state behavior says I! But that's another idea for another time.) Therefore, China also wants to become a more dominant player in international relations and wants to continue to prosper domestically. As with North Korea, China's international actions become immediately understandable when viewed in relation to the basic priorities.


While North Korea doesn't want outright war, it does want beneficial trade agreements and aid. North Korea views the riders attached to the existing offers of trade and aid as ultimately detrimental to the country. North Korea knows it is weak and suspects that the restrictions that come with the aid and agreements will hasten its collapse. Put more simply, aid is less important than sovereignty.

But god damn it needs those agreements! Dear land it needs that aid! Maybe not as much as it needs a stick big enough to deter those would would steamroll it if China ever withdrew its support, but a few million dollars worth of food would go a long way. So when the US says it won't sit down at the negotiating table until the nuclear program is halted, North Korea rattles its sabre like a child clamoring for attention.

As reprehensible as this sabre rattling may be, one can't ignore the strategy behind the actions. Big, headline-grabbing actions that are, nonetheless, just below the threshold for open war. With the shelling of Yeongpyeong, North Korea indicated that it was not to be ignored. However, its troop positions indicated that it was not preparing for total war. (Claims to minute-man-caliber readiness notwithstanding.) These twin messages managed to straddle the line between attention-getting violence and outright war. And with the intimidating presence of China backing them up, it seems that North Korea can get away with it.


But why is China playing this role in the first place? Cold War-era understandings of an international fraternity of Communists don't help anyone understand anything at all so let's look closer. If China wasn't involved, what would happen? I daresay the United States and South Korea would have steamrolled Pyongyang years ago. China first helped North Korea push back to the 38th parallel back in the Korean War in order to limit US influence in the region and this basic strategy has persisted for the past 60 years.

If China doesn't throw it's hat in the ring with North Korea, the peninsula goes up in flames and is replaced by a stronger US presence. If China shows any signs of pulling its support, it fears the same result. We should also remember that open war would destabilize the Asian (nay, global) economy, produce a glut of refugees, and, potentially, turn part or all of the peninsula into a radioactive wasteland.

China is trying to prevent open war by limiting the US-South Korean military options through its very presence. China is the North Korean equivalent of the US 'trip-wire' presence that has protected South Korea for the past 60 years. The two superpowers are basically nuclear weapons providing the threat of M.A.D. (more or less...at least enough mutually assured destruction to prevent escalation) to keep the truce.


However, unlike a lifeless hunk of missile that will do your bidding at the touch of a button (assuming your engineers carried their 1's correctly), China needs to be given diplomatic outs. And this is where North Korea's aggression gets more strategic. It needs to rattle its sabre enough to be noticed, not enough to make South Korean and US forces declare war, AND it needs to give China at least a little space in their preferred neutral ground. China needs to be able to (somewhat) legitimately claim that both sides are responsible. 'Yeah, he might have slapped you but you were running your mouth. Both of you calm down.' or 'Yeah, he might have slapped you but I didn't see it and I don't trust the multi-national team of detectives that agree that's what happened.' China needs wiggle room or the whole game is up.


So...what? Good work on your strategy North Korea? Hardly. In case you haven't noticed, you're rattling your sabre a little too hard. The resolve of the US and South Korean leaders is hardening. You're pissing people off now and, while their logical reaction might be to go back to the negotiating table and get you some food for the winter at least, it looks like they're not behaving very logically. Sending a carrier to conduct joint-military exercises off North Korea's coast after Pyonyang's explicit warnings not to do so suggests frustration rather than strategy.

And this is the cool part. As the diplomatic tune shifts further, China will notice it. And China will realize it's getting closer to being forced into a very difficult position. Will it go toe-to-toe with the US in its own backyard? China might well be soon forced to choose between a more prominent US presence or an all-out war. If the US plays its cards right, it can show China that it has more to gain by working together to peacefully dismantle North Korea than watching a bloody war that would surely end with a stronger, nuclear-armed US ally at China's border.

In conclusion, the US and South Korea should continue with their joint-military operations and aggressive posturing but this message needs to be coupled with an extremely honest meeting with Chinese leadership. China needs to understand that the patience is hemorrhaging fast with this latest attack and that it needs to take a harder line on its ally. The US and South Korea should make formal promises for a decreased US presence and no nuclear weapons on a post-reunification Korean peninsula. If these promises can reassure China's security concerns, China should have an easier time accepting that North Korea isn't worth the effort anymore.