Sunday, November 28, 2010


. Sunday, November 28, 2010

A former student e-mailed me and asked for advice on a paper he was writing about the Korea situation. Up until last week he had been focusing on China's role as facilitator of negotiations. He wanted my take on last's week attack, and the responses from the South, China, and the US since then. A few days late, but this was my off-the-cuff response:

I'm not sure how to read China right now. On the one hand, there is a long history of N Korea doing belligerent things to get attention, and then negotiating some agreement that gets them some aid or something in exchange for them not being stupid anymore. My first reaction is to consider their more recent actions in the same vein, given that history. In that case, you could maybe interpret China's nonplussed reaction as buying into that strategy to get all sides back to the negotiating table.

On the other hand, this recent action is more serious than past actions, and occurs in a different context: succession of power from Kim Jong Il to his son. I don't think this is going to lead to war necessarily, but I do think that it signals that the current status quo is likely untenable. The likelihood of a resumption of fighting has certainly gone way up, and S Korea appears to be losing patience. China also said (I think yesterday) that joint US-S Korean military exercises in the Pacific violated China's economic sovereignty (b/c China uses that water for shipping), which is a sign that China is not interested in marginalizing N Korea to get closer to the US and S Korea right now. Again... this could be a negotiating ploy, but then you'd have to think that both N Korea and China are bluffing. That could be correct, but I'm not very confident that it is.

Certainly the security dilemma is present, and there is some risk of spiraling. You can also think about how deterrence can have negative side effects... the US' security guarantee for S Korea could make S Korea *more* likely to retaliate and escalate the conflict. They know they have a powerful ally, so that will give them much more confidence than they'd have otherwise.

The US obviously does not guarantee N Korea's security, but China might. If so, then you might have a situation in which neither side (US or China) wants to escalate and both sides know it. In that case, N Korea might think that it can act with impunity. Think of it this way: N Korea knows that neither the US nor China want war, and will do whatever it takes to prevent it. The N Korean leadership is also going through a power shift, and the new leaders will want to demonstrate to their citizens that they are strong leaders, and worthy of support. What better way to do it than to attack S Korea in a limited fashion, and not suffer any repercussions? It's true that the only reason there won't be repercussions is because of China and the US, but the N Korean citizens don't know that. (There's a domestic politics information asymmetry too.)

Anyway, that's how I'm reading the situation right now.


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