The Korea Wrinkle
You can be forgiven for forgetting about the little guy, and for that matter, Donald Trump’s “I’ve got a bigger button” dick-joke to end humanity. And yet there he was, sending some 23 intercontinental missiles through South Korean airspace earlier this month. Kim Jung Un and his husky Mao-suit were demanding that the US and South Korea, in the midst of a joint military exercises, well, cut it out.
What followed was the typical isometric response where a great deal of effort is expended, but nothing actually happens: South Korea scrambled jets, Washington and Beijing condemned the move and there we were. Kim Sung Un fired four more missiles over South Korea a few days later, prompting the US to send bombers to prowl around without violating North Korean airspace. The pretense for all of this foolishness was North Korea’s claim that Vigilant Storm – the US/South Korean joint military exercises named for the Luther Vandross album that never was – was in fact the dry run for an invasion of North Korea. Assuming that Kim knows that this is just silly, it raises the question: Just what is the little fella playing at?
Kim Jung Un is not likely familiar with Game Theory, but it is useful to if you’re studying of wild animals, world leaders or other morons. The smart bet is that Kim has pulled a page out of the Vladimir Putin playbook. This might seem like a low-percentage thing to do, but there is advantage of going second when doing something colossally stupid. The gambit also makes more sense if you accept the premise that the absorption of Ukraine was not Putin’s original plan, but a post-rationalization for Plan B. Which is almost certainly the case. Russia is as Has-Been: It’s isolated, poor (it’s average income per capital is less than India’s); a failed economy that slipped down the drain into a criminal petro-state. What Putin wanted to do was to join – or rejoin – the superpower club.
North Korea’s plans are less ambitious, but all things are relative. North Korea wants to be a power in the same sandbox as it’s hated rival Japan. By waving the nuclear sabre, Kim can punch above his weight to make the world stop and listen. With tensions between China and the US being what they are, he sees his chance to get into the game.
A man with Kim Jung Un’s haircut is not a man who listens to reason.
So let’s look at how he might play his hand:
Being treated like a threat is always better than actually being one; people get taken out that way. Kim knows that the South Korean’s won’t strike first if the US can help it, and it can. So, the calculation remains what Beijing will do if Pyongyang makes the first strike. China has already condemned North Korea’s missile exercise, but with global tensions what they are, President Xi probably won’t leave him to his fate, either.
Game Theory suggests that in a “game” with a single round where both players maximize a one-time pay-out leads to a smash & grab type strategy. This changes with multiple games if the players reasonably think that the game will go on for the foreseeable future. Here players learn to cooperate, often with a tit-for-tat strategy that boils down to each player adopting the strategy as the opponent’s last move. The classic example is the “Live and Let Live” strategy along the trenches in the first World War. Or US/Soviet Cold War relations.
Where things get wobbly is when there seems to be an end to the “game”, the long-term cooperation gives way first round strategies. Kim’s pay-out is simple enough: to get Kim Jong Un into a bigger club where the rest of the world pays attention to him. It’s a single round, smash-n-grab mentality. The real question is what the 800 lb. panda in Beijing will do in the event of a North Korean first strike.
It’s a headache for President Xi who has always been a player of the long game: If not to cooperate, at least co-exist, with the West. Dominate, cheat and undermine, sure, but co-exist. The real question is how he manages to balance China’s long-term strategy with North Korea’s single-round mentality. Beijing wants Taiwan, and if it resorts to a forceful re-integration of the island, it will have to do it quickly, before the US Navy arrives on the scene. Beijing doesn’t not want Kim’s foolishness to bring US Naval presence into the area on a war footing, which it certainly will.
All of which suggests that the Korean wrinkle will be a non-event – with both the North and the South giving each other a nasty frowning, but not much else. Of course, the assassination of an Austrian duke by an VD riddled undergrad in 1914 would appear to be a non-event too. The spoiler is that a man with Kim Jung Un’s haircut is not a man who listens to reason.