I am shocked and appalled by the dismal level of analysis in the New York Times and other news outlets regarding the North Korean threat. So, let me give it a try. I am not an expert, by any stretch. But it seems to me that there are some patently obvious things, how one can do better than what one gets to read and hear these days, by all these news outlets. Here is my take, thus. Add some expert analysis to it, and one might get somewhere.
A disclaimer up front: this analysis is not for the faint of heart. Is the analysis cold, is it cruel, is it disregarding human lives? It turns out, the subject matter is simply too serious for that. Don’t shoot me, the messenger!
Ok, here is the first item on my agenda. The typical commentary and analysis out there usually goes like this: “oh no, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon! What should be done, if they test the next one?”. This is the entirely false approach.
The right approach is what every student of economics learns in a basic course on game theory: don’t solve it forward, solve it backwards! Start from the end point and then think back along each decision of what each player would do, given what is then going to happen in the future. There is a bunch of technical terms in game theory and economics for this, like subgame perfection and dynamic programming. If you enjoy, look it up and learn about it. In particular, if you are one of these journalists writing about the North Korean threat, please do your job and spend fifteen minutes on it, will ‘ya? You will even be able to write a bunch of columns that are way better than anything that the competition gets to offer, as a result, just imagine! Now, if you are not a journalist or analyst (or, actually, an economist, who know this stuff by heart already anyhow), and just want to understand the very basics, watch any two-year old child. They have that thinking down pat. It goes like this: “mama will hug and cuddle me, if I cry, no matter what I have done before. Thus, I can do whatever I want.”. They know. They think about what comes at the end, first. For some strange reason, parents often don’t know, and it befuddles them, why children can allow themselves to be so mischievous.
How does apply to foreign policy? Let me warm you up with a simple example: that “red line”, which Obama drew in 2012, when Assad used chemical weapons. Remember that? Assad just ignored and crossed it. Nothing happened. Poof. It was a cringe-worthy blunder of the first kind by the Obama administration. Here is the parallel. That two-year old child of yours has an egg in his hand. You warn it that you will toss its favorite toy into the garbage can, if it smashes that egg. Child smashes that egg, you turn to that toy, child starts crying. Go to the end game, described above. Child wins. Assad wins. Truly easy, truly simple. Perhaps dictators aren’t genius, but we should allow that dictators are at least as smart as your two-year old. Ah, and by the way: some say, just keep secret what you will really do! No, sorry. No one told the two-year old. And no one told Assad. They know you and they’ll figure it out.
On to Kim Jong Un and the situation in North Korea, thus. Whatever you might say about him: it strikes me that he is remarkably capable of solving backwards, and does very well in avoiding to solve forwards. Is that what makes him dangerous? C’mon. Just think like him!
So, what in the end, does he want? What do his upper ten thousand want (which, remarkably, always get forgotten … a dictatorship is never one person alone!)? They want what we all want. A nice life. Not being bullied around. More power. Perhaps It is something else: I am just making this up, but it seems reasonable enough.
Ok, if you are Kim Jong Un, how can you get there? More precisely, roll all this forward a few years, to the end. Imagine you have some nifty nuclear weapons and the rockets and intercontinental missiles to go with it, other conventional toys and a powerful military. Suppose you are so mighty and can wreck so much havoc on South Korea, Japan and the US, that the US will not dare entering a war with you anymore: the risk of North Korea dropping their nuclear bombs on Los Angeles and San Francisco and Chicago has shut that option down. But North Korea is rather poor, right? I imagine the upper 10000 do ok there, but I suppose, they yearn to do better. And you spend all this money on all those weapons and military? What do you do?
Well, if you see a bunch of criminals near a bank unloading lots of weapons from their truck, what do you think they might do? Sell them? Polish them? I rather suppose, they might go rob that bank, right? After all, that’s where the money is.
Where is the money near North Korea? Tough question? Really?! C’mon. It is in South Korea, of course. South Korea is rich. If North Korea can conquer it, Kim Jong Un and his buddies will be rich. Done. How? Doesn’t South Korea have an army, ready to defend itself? Well, think like Kim Jong Un! You got those nifty atomic weapons and rockets, right? Just ask South Korea to surrender and the US to give up its military bases there, or to otherwise be bombed. If they hesitate too much, perhaps, just to make sure they know you mean business, drop an atomic bomb on, hmmh, say Daegu, killing nearly 3 million people and wiping out the U.S. military base there, in one go. Would that make South Korea mad? Of course. Would it make it surrender? I bet it would. Would the US intervene? We solved that one already, remember? No atomic bombs on San Francisco and Chicago, please! So, done. North Korea gets to unify with South Korea, on their terms. The upper 10000 share the spoils and become rich and live happily ever after.
Ok, one branch back in the tree! We are making progress here! If you follow along, you should have noticed something. If South Korea is good at solving backwards, they will surrender without that atomic bomb being dropped on Daegu. They should be able to figure out, what’s coming. Ok, perhaps some smaller, conventional bombs need to be thrown by both sides, for good measure and posturing, but that war should be over before it even started. Next step, then.
How does Kim Jong Un get to be strong enough to avoid fearing retaliation from the U.S.? Well, he has to have those intercontinental atomic missiles in place. Experts say, it takes North Korea a few years to develop them, and their tests haven’t been all that successful, right? That still gives the US some time, correct?
That’s forward thinking. How do you solve it, if you are Kim Jong Un? You make sure to take away that time. The less time the US gets to plan and think through what to do, the less time they have to find out where everything is hidden and can be attacked, the faster you can get to your goal and the greater the chances of success. So, go into high gear now, while the US is still thinking! If the North Koreans are worth their salt, they will have their atomic intercontinental missiles up and running much faster than the experts predict. This isn’t foremost a matter of engineering. This is foremost a matter of game theory.
Ok, but we get to a decision node of the US now. Couldn’t the U.S. do something about, like strike first or something nasty of that sort? Well, sure. Kim Jong Un is already thinking through that U.S. decision, I bet. To bomb or not to bomb? Kim Jong Un wants the “not bomb” decision, obviously. So, he has to make the “bomb” decision unpalatable to our forward-thinking “experts” in Washington. The generals have already told Trump that they cannot guarantee to wipe out the entire weapon arsenal of North Korea! The South Koreans already beg for Trump not to do anything! The U.S. cannot possibly throw an atomic bomb first! A pre-emptive strike will be really, really messy, millions will die! Military options must be off the table! The U.S. must seek peaceful solutions!
Ok, nobody wants to see millions die, right? Well, then do not pre-emptively strike North Korea. That branch of the decision tree has now been cut off. Think about it: that’s a pretty cool achievement for Kim Jong Un, right there! Kim Jong Un did it, congratulations to him! And before there is enough intelligence on the weapon whereabouts in North Korea, Kim Jong Un will have his intercontinental atomic missiles in a short amount of time, in order to strike San Francisco and Los Angeles and Chicago, if need be, but he will not have to use them be (just to summarize where we were before).
Now, Trump is a rather, let’s say, impulsive president. Might he do a pre-emptive strike? He might. Millions would die. It would be a mess. Is that a better outcome? Before you judge, keep reading.
There are a few more forward-thinking ideas. More sanctions on North Korea! Yeah, right. Like they ever worked much. C’mon, Kim Jong Un wants all of South Korea! What’s a sanction of a year or two to get there? Nothing. The border to China is porous, anyhow. Another idea: have China reign in North Korea! Ah, China. The true masters of backward analysis, the ultimate kings of the chess board. Would they like a Korean peninsula under North Korean control, or would they prefer a South Korea with a bunch of American military bases? That’s not a serious question is it? As long as North Korea can make sure that Seoul isn’t damaged too much by it all, as long as all those beautiful shopping avenues there for those rich Chinese tourists will remain open, what’s there to be unhappy about? Ok, North Korea will have atomic weapons, which they could throw on China. They could do that already, I suppose. It doesn’t look like China feels particularly threatened by that. Some mutually assured destruction strategy, perhaps, or something else. Let’s just say: China is on board with that North Korean strategy. And why shouldn’t they! Less American influence in that region means more Chinese influence! They gain without having to do much. So smart.
Alright then, done! Here we are, we reached present times. So, what can be done about North Korea, then?
For that, go back to the end point. What is it, that Kim Jong Un and his upper 10000 want? A nice life. Not being bullied around. More power. That’s where the analysis started (at the end, remember?!). And that’s what they will get, once all is said and done, one way or the other.
The art of the deal then is to give them much of that, without having to go through all these motions. Let me list some options. Well, let me just list one (more for another time, perhaps). Option 1 is for South Korea to surrender to North Korea, for the US to withdraw its military bases and to make the unified Korea a preferred trading partner, in exchange for stopping their development of intercontinental missiles, and to arrange this all quickly: 2017 would be good. If the upper 10000 in North Korea can subsequently have a peaceful life in luxury and with power, and if the US and the unified Korea both benefit from the trade agreement, there will then be little reason for Unifiied Korea and its rulers to fear the U.S. and vice versa, guaranteeing the not-being-bullied part. Lots of tricky details there, but it could work.
Let me argue that this outcome is better than a pre-emptive strike by the U.S.. Most South Koreans wouldn’t see much changes in their daily lives: after all, North Korea would want a rich South Korea, not destroy it. They can no longer vote for their leader for the next 30 years or so: oh well. It wouldn’t be so bad.
But this is now the time to judge that and to think. I know what you say: wait, South Korea should surrender now? That’s not a palatable option at all! What are the other options?
Alright, your turn then. Just make sure to solve backwards, when you do.