Monday, December 20, 2010


. Monday, December 20, 2010

When I went to bed last night the news sites were all saying that a resumption of the conflict on the Korean peninsula was possible -- even "imminent" according to one source -- if the South proceeded with its plans to hold a military exercise in disputed territory. I went to bed thinking that I'd wake up to no news, which would certainly be good news. That turns out to have been right, so here's some thoughts on the situation.

1. The security dilemma is still the most important concept in international relations. Obviously the South is spooked by the North's nukes and occasional belligerence, and felt the need to demonstrate its defensive capabilities. The North is obviously spooked by the fact that a huge, well-funded military backed by (still) the only global superpower is right below it, and it can't necessarily count on its only ally (China) for much support.

2. Schelling is still boss. He first identified the "cliff-dancing" strategy in his 1960 book, and it is still relevant. The South just danced a bit closer to the brink, and it worked.

3. North Korea is very weak, but it is not crazy. Neither impression is the one Kim Jong Il wishes to leave, but that conclusion is inescapable at this point. The North threatened retaliation if the South conducted this exercise, but immediately back-tracked since those threats were clearly not credible. In fact, it appears that once its bluff was called it was willing to do quite a lot to walk back its earlier threats. It offered possibly-meaningful concessions in negotiations with Bill Richardson, including resumption of the six party talks, access to its nuclear facilities by outside inspectors, and the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers that died during the Korean War. I'm not at all suggesting that the South should continue to posture in this way, but in this case it appears to have worked.

4. Nukes only get you so much deterrence capability. Namely, they can (perhaps) act as a repellent, but cannot compel others to

5. For all of the talk about shifting power structures in Asia, the U.S. and its ally still won the day. Not just by holding the exercise without retaliation, which was sort of a "remind them who's boss" maneuver, but also by the response of the other regional powers. China and Russia implored the South to stand down, to no avail, indicating a clear lack of power and influence in the region. This follows the U.S.'s decision to conduct joint exercises with South Korea last month, a move China opposed because it occurred in China's "exclusive economic zone" but did nothing to prevent.

6. This incident is really the first time the Obama administration has been willing to stare down some of the U.S.'s antagonists, and he won: the other side blinked (DPRK) or sat down (China). Not only the military exercises, which not only involved moving the USS George Washington strike group to the Yellow Sea, but also passed the ROK-US trade agreement. I'm not sure whether this will encourage more risk-taking by the administration or even whether it should, but it is notable.

7. Keep all of this in mind when you hear that Iran is crazy, undeterrable, will be able to marshall nuclear capabilities to blackmail the Middle East, etc. All of those ideas have been tested over the past month in Korea, and all of them have been found wanting.

UPDATE: Drezner also posted thoughts. I like his #4, but I don't buy it. I think #3 is more likely, and if true is a positive sign for the future of Asia.






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