On North Korea, Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Will some unexpected event ignite war on the Korean peninsula?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Wolnae Islet Defence Detachment in North Korea's western sector near the disputed maritime frontier with South Korea.

Andrew S. Natsios is an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Natsios served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan.

Since Nassim Nicholas Taleb's best-selling book The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable popularized the notion of the black swan event, a cottage industry has grown up of analysts attempting to anticipate the next highly improbable event that will dramatically alter the course of history. Black swan analysts have now focused their attention on a potential Second Korean War because of fears of where North Korea's increasing belligerence might end. Highly improbable and unanticipated events of extraordinary consequence have changed the course of 20th century history more than once, and could again on the Korean peninsula.

The First World War was ignited by an assassin's bullet in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 in one of the greatest black swan events of the 20th century. President John F. Kennedy's assassination made Lyndon Johnson president, who then proceeded to push civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs through Congress and send more troops to Vietnam, which Kennedy had been unable or unwilling to do.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War between Arab states and Israel, OPEC's subsequent oil embargo, and the quadrupling of oil prices caused massive shifts in the balance of world financial power we are still living with, which few predicted before the sequence of events happened. The black swan collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attack on the United States brought massive changes to the international system and its structure of power. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

Will a Second Korean War become the black swan event of Barak Obama's presidency, ending his focus on domestic policy and concentrating it on events in the world he has been reluctant to confront? On the face of it, the threats pouring out of Pyongyang these days are over the top, even to experienced North Korea watchers. The last old order Communist, Fidel Castro, weighed in this week by cautioning North Korea to restrain itself – warning of the dangers of a nuclear conflict to humanity.

A member of Congress leaked one sentence in a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate that reported North Korea now has the ability to attach its nuclear weapons to its existing missile technology, which if true would pose a clear and present danger to South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. military bases there and on Guam. While the White House quickly disputed the DIA analysis and claimed that North Korea did not have the capability as yet, the news of dispute within the intelligence community further increased tension levels.

North Korea is perhaps the world's most isolated and secretive society and thus we know little about the dynamics inside the government – who is actually making the decisions and who is advising the young leader, if anyone is. We do not know what is motivating their behavior: We suspect it is to get more aid from donors, to bolster the reputation of their untested young leader, or to unify the party elite during the purges going on. We theorize and we speculate, but we don't know. Making policy decisions blind can be dangerous, particularly when dealing with a country with nuclear weapons.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Does North Korea Pose a Real Nuclear Threat?]

What we do know is that North Korea's three most senior generals have been purged and have disappeared. The day after firing one of the generals, Kim Jong Un promoted himself to be Marshall of the North Korean People's Army, which, for a 28 year old kid whose only military experience is playing video war games, is bizarre even by North Korean standards.

We know that for months now, the North Korean propaganda machine has been spewing out invective against Japan, South Korea, and the United States (nothing new there). Pyongyang abrogated the armistice agreement which ended the Korean War, placed videos on its website showing North Korean nuclear missiles raining down on the United States, and told foreign embassies to leave the country as the government could no longer guarantee their safety.

All of this could be dismissed as typical North Korean histrionics, but they also announced they were closing down a South Korean industrial park in the North from which they earn between $80 and $90 million a year in badly-needed foreign currency. What sane, rational government on the edge of economic ruin, unable to feed its own starving population, cuts a $90 million financial lifeline?

This suggests that the rational actor theory of international relations – that foreign leaders act in their own self-interest and do not behave in overtly self-destructive ways – which much of our foreign policy is predicated on may not be operative in North Korea, in which case a black swan event could well take place. (Or perhaps the regime is trying to convince us of its irrationality so it can get more concessions.)

Kim Il Song and his son Kim Jong Il, the father and grandfather of the current North Korean leader, hated, and yet also feared, the military power of the United States because of their memories of the Korean War. Kim Jong Un has no memory of the war and no fear of U.S. power. And there may be no one around him warning him of the consequences of carrying his war mania too far.

The psychology of power in any dictatorship, particularly while purges are going on, transforms even the bravest war heroes into mindless sycophants who tell their leaders what they want to hear, not what they should know. Dissent in China among party leaders during the Great Leap Famine between 1958-1962 is most instructive on this – even the great reformer Deng Xiaoping told Mao what he wanted to hear and not what he should know, which was that the famine caused by his policies was killing tens of millions. If Kim Jong Un is making the decisions and taking advice from the sycophants he surrounds himself with, he may not know his limits.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Take North Korea's Saber-Rattling Seriously?]

The best Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo can do under the circumstances is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The allies should, of course, speak and act as one to make clear to Pyongyang that it cannot divide the alliance. North Korea is a mendicant state which behaves instead like a major power; its greatest weaknesses are brutality towards it own people, it inability to feed them, and its collapsed economy.

For two decades the allies purchased temporary peace on the Korean peninsula by giving tribute in the form of aid to the North, while Pyongyang has spent the time building its nuclear arsenal and missile systems instead of shutting them down (which we naively believed it would do). The policy of buying temporary peace with aid did not work then and will not work now; it should not be tried again. But aggressive allied rhetoric in response to North Korean threats should be avoided because it plays into Pyongyang's efforts to create a war hysteria.

Theodore Roosevelt's principle of speaking softly and carrying a big stick remains the best strategy. The problem with the strategy, though, is that the U.S. stick is being destroyed with the DOD budget cuts now underway, sending a dangerous signal to North Korea (and others) that the US is stepping down from its preeminent position of military power; restoring the cuts would send the right message. Without public comment, the U.S. Pacific fleet should be ordered into place, joint forces should be on alert, and the most advanced weapons systems should be sent to the region so that if the North attacks any one of the three allies, massive retaliation can be immediate and overwhelming.

U.S. diplomatic efforts now underway to get the Chinese to restrain Pyongyang make sense, but should not be the center of U.S. policy because this approach has not worked in the past – we may have exaggerated Chinese leverage over the North. North Korea cannot sustain a prolonged war effort: it does not have the fuel for its  aging weapons systems, the spare parts to repair them, or the food reserves to feed its army. Time would not be on its side. It may be that a black swan event cannot be prevented, but we may be able to limit its consequences.

  • Read Michael Noonan: The Costs and Benefits of U.S. Military Assistance
  • Read Robert Nolan: Five Lessons From North Korea's Nuclear Posturing
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad

  • Corrected 4/16/13: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the name of the capital of one of America’s allies in the region; it should be “Tokyo.”