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 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.

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