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.

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