The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Open Thinking-Outside-The-Box-on-How-To-Out-Crazy-North-Korea Thread

May 28, 2010

Daniel Drezner asks whether there are any options for dealing with evidence of North Korea’s involvement on the sinking of the Cheonan besides diddling around in the UN Security Council with a resolution that China may well veto. He rightly suggests that this is essentially a game of chicken that the North always wins because it seems crazier and less predictable than most civilized states (true). He points out the conventional wisdom that war must be avoided at all costs because Pyongyang is poised to deal a devastating blow to Seoul (and Pyongyang, for its part, knows it would probably be defeated). He proposes that the international community not allow North Korea to participate in the World Cup.

That latter is not a bad suggestion. As Alegi and Bolsmann have documented, sports sanctions made a difference in ending apartheid, and a rash of new studies including this one make similar arguments. And as a human security analyst, I’m glad to see that the protection of civilians in Seoul is a top priority for those ruminating over how this crisis might develop.

However, as a human security analyst, I’m equally concerned with two things:

a) the protection of civilians in North Korea, where 30% of the population is starving, where 400,000 people languish in Soviet-style gulags, and there is a near-complete absence of civil and political rights) – something that can probably only be accomplished by significant changes in the political culture of the DPRK and

b) the long-term stability of the region, where the status quo seems to be based on “containing” a (crazy and unpredictable) North Korea – a move that may ultimately fail, with catastrophic later consequences for civilians in Seoul and elsewhere.

So I’m wondering if the real answer to Dan’s question about chicken requires rethinking the structure of the game. I don’t have enough expertise on the region to translate this into concrete recommendations but the way I would re-frame the question is like this:

What are the range of options (if any) for sending costly signals to DPRK that imply that South Korea might be readier to absorb the consequences of a land war than DPRK would be to absorb the likelihood of losing one? For example, since one of the key concerns is the vulnerability of Seoul to artillery fire, what measures if any could be taken by South Korea and the international humanitarian community to reduce the likely civilian casualties of a strike from the north on Seoul, thereby making the threat of massive casualties less crippling in such an event? Or, what measures could be taken by South Korea’s allies to preempt such a strike rather than waiting for it (which would probably be within the limits of the UN Charter regime as well as responsibility to protect doctrine given recent DPRK actions)? And are there any options that put improving the lot of North Korea’s own civilian population on the same footing as concerns about Seoul’s civilians or regional stability?

I ask these questions of Dan in my latest bloggingheads diavlog. In asking these questions, I’m not suggesting (or at least not meaning to suggest with any certainty) that all-out war on the peninsula is desirable (though limited strikes may be – I’d have to understand the force structure in the region better than I do). But my key argument is that behaving in any situation as if we think war is unthinkable gives the opponent all the leverage. If this is actually a game of chicken as Dan argues, how might the policy dilemma be framed in such a way that North Korea, who actually wants to avoid war, might start to believe that it’s not the craziest party in the equation anymore or the one with the least to lose?

Readers, I pass the buck to you.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.