Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The View from Pyongyang

When considering foreign policy questions we should always try to see things through the eyes of our opponents or adversaries. So says George Friedman and he is certainly correct.

Consider an example that he does not evoke. If you recall the Tienanmen massacre of 1989, you know that from our comfortable sofas the student demonstrators looked like they were reliving Woodstock. It looked as though the counterculture had come to China and that democracy was busting out all over.

How many people asked themselves how it all looked to China’s leaders, paramount among whom was Deng Xiaoping. Precious few, I suspect. And yet,  they most likely saw the Red Guards and a risk of a new Cultural Revolution. What anyone should or should not have done is one thing. How the other side saw things provides an important perspective on events.

We ll drool over the therapeutic value of empathy, but how many of us can see things from someone else’s perspective. Especially since it requires extensive knowledge more that sensitivity to feelings.

Now, Friedman offers up a view of the current North Korean crisis, this time from Pyongyang. He warns us against thinking that the North Korean leader is insane. If his actions make no sense, that does not mean that he is necessarily insane. It might mean that you have not thought through the problem.

Friedman writes:

Conducting foreign policy or preparing for war requires the ability to put yourself in your adversary’s position. Unless you understand what he sees and how he thinks, his actions will make no sense to you. This will cause you to miscalculate because you will confuse a lack of understanding on your part with insanity or stupidity on your adversary’s part. If you dismiss your enemy as a clown or lunatic – when in reality he knows what he is doing and he understands what you are doing – his chances of succeeding soar, while your chances plummet. This is an important lesson to apply to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula.

How do the North Koreans see their place in the world and the risks it entails? Friedman answers:

Therefore, the North Koreans believed their position was strategically impossible. They faced three major powers, any one of which could annihilate North Korea. Their strategy was to avoid annihilation by proving it would not be worth anyone’s trouble. This did not mean being meek by any stretch. It required convincing other powers that they would incur a huge cost by absorbing or defeating North Korea. The country’s greatest strength was its relative unimportance. If it could also increase the dangers involved in being subdued, it could survive.

How did they choose to protect themselves?

To do this, the North Koreans would have to build a military machine capable of deterrence. A country as poor as North Korea had to militarize the entire society. It had to produce the wherewithal to survive and field a military force capable of keeping all others at bay. North Korea is still poor, but despite that poverty it is too dangerous to deal with. Modern North Korea is a rational adjustment to its perceived reality. It might follow that the populace would be restive. But whether through intimidation or contentment, little evidence exists that they are. So the North Korean government operates from a stable platform.

Thus, the government in Pyongyang has acted rationally. It has tried to ensure its survival under extremely difficult circumstances.

Friedman continues:

North Korea sees itself as alone and isolated. Its history shows that attempting to cooperate with its neighbors can lead to catastrophe. It also believes that it can predict and control American behavior, but this could also end in catastrophe. It has survived since the Korean War by not being a significant strategic prize and by possessing a force that deters intervention. North Korea’s world consists of China, Russia and the United States. South Korea and Japan are not going to take any steps without the United States. Therefore, the U.S. is the permanent threat, while Russia and China (particularly China) are both dangers and possible allies depending on circumstances. North Korea must be helpful to China but never again become a pawn or a battlefield.

One notes that Trump administration policy, as articulated by Secretary of State Tillerson rejects regime change in favor of denuclearization. One suspects that the Chinese are offering the same bargain. Also, losing nuclear weapons would not leave that nation entirely disarmed. Many people are more worried today about the thousands of rockets that are aimed at Seoul than about the threat of a nuclear attack.

Will North Korea buy it? It’s not obvious. Friedman suggests that they see nuclear weapons as the best insurance against invasion:

A safer course might be to abandon the nuclear program, but the North Koreans calculate that if they were to do this, they would be putting off the inevitable. Their deterrent power would decline, and their dependence on China and Russia would increase. That did not work well in the past. Therefore, the only prudent course is to hope that short-term considerations will force the Chinese and Russians to help them buy time to complete their nuclear deterrent.

He continues:

It is an enormously risky path for the North Koreans, but ever since the Soviet Union collapsed and the Chinese focused on Walmart, they have been on a precipice. They have survived by cunning, bluffing and the indifference of others. That is hope, not a strategy. Their strategy is to become too dangerous to attack. The U.S. is unpredictable, but one thing is certain: It will not engage a nuclear state that can strike back. The North Koreans have drawn China into the game, buying them more time. It is the witching hour for them, but they expected this and will play it out.

The North Korean government does not consist of one man. It has been pursuing a consistent policy for over half a century. It is now in the end game, and we do not know the answer to the most important question: Have the North Koreans already built a nuclear weapon, and if not, how much time do they need? We also do not know if China wants North Korea to be a nuclear power to absorb U.S. attention, or if it would be afraid of a nuclear North Korea. The U.S. and North Korea likely don’t know the answer, and perhaps the Chinese haven’t yet decided. But the point here is that North Korea is not stupid nor crazy. Such powers do not create conundrums vastly beyond their apparent resources.

At present, China seems to be putting more economic sanctions on the nation. If it really is no longer shipping oil to North Korea, the nation will suffer shortages and gas lines. If it ceases to buy North Korean coal the nation will have far fewer foreign currency reserves. And there is always the threat of mass starvation and famine. In the past North Korea has used this threat to extract concessions and food shipments from the West. One does not know whether the Trump administration and the Chinese will be quite as generous.


David Foster said...

From the Friedman link: "An intercontinental ballistic missile launches at 10 Gs, vibrating like crazy. Then it enters a vacuum with wild swings of temperature and re-enters the atmosphere at scorching temperatures. At that point, a precision instrument must trigger an explosion"

10G is not all that high for equipment. A shell fired from a 5-inch gun incurs forces of around 20,000 Gs...and American engineers were able to develop a radar fuse to fit in the nose of the shell and survive that shock in working condition...and they had to do it with *vacuum tubes*.

The problem of re-entry did indeed prove to be a very difficult one in the early days of ballistic missiles, but I bet a lot of the approaches used have long been described at some level in the open literature. Also, if you put the weapons in orbit, with the idea of triggering them at some future point to perform an EMP attack, then re-entry is not involved.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: We'll drool over the therapeutic value of empathy, but how many of us can see things from someone else’s perspective.

This skill or mental faculty is also called "Cognitive empathy", which is in itself morally neutral, and capable of offering helpful context to negative behavior of others, but can be used to advance power over others, to manipulate others, especially those trapped in fear.
The first is “cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found, for example, that managers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.

But there can be a dark side to this sort of empathy – in fact, those who fall within the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths (see Chapter 8 in Social Intelligence) – can be talented in this regard, while having no sympathy whatever for their victims. As Paul told me, a torturer needs this ability, if only to better calibrate his cruelty – and talented political operatives no doubt have this ability in abundance.

The strategy of "Mutually Assure Destruction" also was a rational policy during the cold war, but it also encouraged wasteful expenditures of resources. You can see some of our rational "insanity" in this video showing every nuclear test since 1945.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-QWXvNFWrc A Time Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945 by Isao Hashimoto, 4 minutes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGFkw0hzW1c Every nuclear bomb explosion in history, 2.5 minutes

People might not get so crazy about nuclear power if they see how much radioactive material we already put into the environment with our nuclear tests.

The North Korean predicament is China's problem, a country too poor to feed its own people, but willing to spend half its resources on the military.

It is rational that a country allows its soldiers to fight and die to protect itself from invaders. And there's a long history of military sieges where a city or country is isolated from trade, and may have to choose between starvation of its people, or surrender to foreign powers.

I really do hope that North Korea can be persuaded to trade nuclear missiles for food, but history says that's unlikely by itself.

If a parent chooses to buy arms and ammo if their children are starving, we would say such parents need an intervention by social services. And it looks to me that China is the local authorities who have to make such an assessment.

And like the Waco siege, how do you protect women and children by a "rational" leader who would prefer to let his people die rather than surrender?

Ideally the U.S. and South Korea might "agree" that we're all better off with North Korea being annexed by China. But if a military invasion spurs a nuclear attack on a Chinese city, that's a high prices to pay for "other people's children."

OTOH, if your country can absorb a nuclear attack, and not strike back with equal mass destruction, you can gain the moral high ground, and China will have a new province they'll have earned in just blood.

James said...

Kim is one of those who believes that if he could get one just one nuke on say Seoul, Takyo, or Bejing then he can survive anything but an actual nuke exchange. With him assassinating family and people close to himself in the NKorean power structure he knows that the most immediate threat to himself would come from inside and close. He also must consider would an order from him to launch be obeyed? Therefore he would have to have at least one that in his mind he could personally assure a launch with.
This brings us to the recent failures and the rumor that they were the result of sabotage. If true I am grateful, but it does bring the question to mind Just how secure is our nukes? Would we even know if they weren't. Also if you could mess with the propulsion why couldn't you manipulate the targeting of the missile? This would apply to every other country with an arsenal Russia, China, UK, France, Pakistan, India.....etc.