Connecting The Dots On North Korea

How To Read The Tea Leaves

 I have been wanting to sit down and pen my own take on the politics of North Korea, not out of any burning desire to get things off my chest, but in the selfish interest of saving myself some time seeing as how I am frequently getting asked about it every time they are in the news.

Why should you listen to me on North Korea?

To be honest, you probably shouldn't. For one, I subscribe to Nassem Nicholas Taleb's school of thought on 'experts,' which is to say you shouldn't put much stock in their predictions of the future. This is tough to wrap your mind around, but the research backs this up. Talking head 'experts' only have a few percentage points on taxi drivers and other laypeople when it comes to predicting the future of big questions like, "Do you think the Korean War will be reignited?" I'm not going to bother looking it up but it's something like 52% versus 49% accuracy respectively.

You should also know that although I am a professor of political science, North Korea is not anywhere near my academic specialty. The most I can claim to say is that, as a resident of South Korea, and a person related to several South Koreans, I have deep 'skin in the game' on the question of war with North Korea. As such, I have read somewhat deeply on the topic, as I believe anybody living in or visiting South Korea, or thinking of doing either, should do.

What I CAN do, however, is tell you what other people say about North Korea. 

One thing I have learned in my reading is that Kim Jong Un is employing a carefully honed strategy of escalating tensions for the specific purpose of stabilizing his regime. Among North Korea watchers around the world, this is the mainstream viewpoint. It is not even really controversial, and North Korea's behavior has been downright predictable.

President Trump, on the other hand, has been prone to reversing official policy via 3 a.m. tweetstorm, unbeknownst to his entire staff.

Yet this is not the viewpoint of cable news pundits that love to repeat the 'madman' narrative ad nauseam. It is also not the viewpoint of many policymakers, as they get their information from places like the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). One of their fellows challenged me on a point I made on Twitter a few weeks back:

In spite of throwing me the "I know what you mean," bone, it struck me as just such an off-the-wall thing to say when North Korea has stuck closely to their playbook, which is an open secret in the academic community, for years.

In the mean time, I don't even think Donald Trump knows the contents of Donald Trump's playbook. Well, maybe North Korea does actually, because he is playing precisely the role that North Korea has been crafting for its evil American imperialist foil all this time.

 Without being able to terrify its own population into submission, North Korea's leaders would be rotting in prison in the Hague, if they were lucky, and if they were unlucky, their heads rotting on pikes in the aftermath of a popular uprising.

But that's just the domestic piece. If we look at the rest of the world while standing in the shoes of Kim Jong Un...

The Development of North Korea's Nuclear Capability Is Entirely Rational

Putting North Korea's domestic concerns aside now, what does it get from the international community if it has nuclear weapons?

Well, for one, it makes it less likely that Kim will share the fate of Hussein or Gaddafi; two leaders that we now know for a fact had complied with international efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The other thing is that North Korea has a plan to reunite the Korean peninsula under the North Korean flag without a shot being fired, and having a nuclear deterrent is critical in making that happen. It goes something like this:

  1. Guarantee no one could ever invade NK.
  2. Direct, unilateral peace talks with the U.S.
  3. Peace Treaty
  4. U.S. troops off of the Korean peninsula
  5. Reunification (through peaceful mechanisms... or not); it does not sound so bad until you think about what ruthless negotiators they are and how they are likely to want to reunite on their own terms.

So what are these politicians doing? Just playing right along with the script NK is writing?

That's what you do when the other option is inconceivable  horrors inflicted on Seoul, a metropolitan area around 20 million souls, most of whom are within easy striking distance of NK's conventional, chemical, and biological weapons.

Blustery rhetoric, cyberwar, and thermonuclear pissing contests may make for scary headlines, but that is far preferable to the horrifying conflict at risk of breaking out if someone, somewhere along the line, goes too far off script...

How Things Could Go South

There is still ample opportunity for a diplomatic path. In spite of what you see on a news channels working hard to craft profitable coverage 24 hours a day about the state of the performance we are all watching, they are playing their part too. This whole system keeping the various narratives running carefully according to plan is complex. And that means it is fragile.

While the chances of any particular incident leading to a descent into war is exceedingly small, the chances that one of these days things will not go precisely according to plan, truly unexpected things will happen, and a black swan event of some kind will occur is high.

Even that does not necessarily mean that a fuse will be lit on an inevitable nuclear holocaust.

Let's say someone goes off script and issues air strikes in retaliation for a new test. Maybe a missile launch site or a nuclear testing facility gets blown off the map. How does North Korea respond? Conventional wisdom holds that it would trigger an automatic, devastating artillery barrage against Seoul.

Clearly the missile strikes would be an escalation, but NK knows very well what will happen if things spiral too far out of control. Assuming Kim would automatically reign artillery fire on Seoul in retaliation for limited air strikes effectively assumes suicidal tendencies. It means you proscribe to the 'madman' theory; a favorite of the media for which not a shred of evidence exists.

Questioning Assumptions

A violent response by North Korea is not the only assumption that we should rethink. Many aspects of a possible renewed conflict are often taken for granted even though they may not pan out quite the way we think. Points that make me feel slightly less nauseous about a renewed conflict include:

  • NK's artillery systems and ammunition are decades old
  • The range of the artillery does not extend much past the Han river.
  • We know the location of many artillery sites. Others will be vulnerable the very moment they begin firing. And then there's the chance that our intelligence services actually know more than we know they do.
  • NK missiles do have extended range (effectively the entire peninsula), but these are the same missiles that frequently explode during testing. Failure rate is likely to be high.
  • NK may not actually have the network of tunnels designed to allow it's million-strong army to flood into South Korea, and if they do, allied forces likely know their locations and would have countermeasures prepared.
  • NK will have to make some hard decisions about how to use its very limited ammunition in this suicide mission. Aim strictly for military targets? Strike targets aiming for 'shock and awe' of the populace? Try to do a little bit of each? These decisions have likely been made years ago, and with plenty of high profile defections over the years, there is a good chance we already know their answer.

On the other hand, there are a few things that I legitimately worry about in a renewed conflict (understand that I live in a smaller city, far from the major population centers):

  • Chemical and biological weapons being used all around the peninsula
  • Spies embedded for decades in the countryside reactivating and engaging in guerrilla tactics, or even targeting/kidnapping US citizens. In this case I am likely already on their target list as a public US citizen and a political science professor at that.
  • Mass panic among the general population. South Korea is not super prepared in terms of infrastructure nor public safety procedures.

All of these are pretty 'far out' scenarios that I do not take that seriously.


Most likely nothing is going to be made of this particular scenario that has brought you here to read my ramblings on the matter. The path to war leads through many critical decisions on all sides. In spite of the madman theory that is so popular, there are smart people on the North Korean side as well, fully capable of making rational decisions with the end goal of maintaining the survival of their regime.

Even in a worst case scenario where all out war breaks out again, we may find ourselves on the tail end of the conflict thinking that it was not nearly as bad as we expected when it started.

There are, however, further questions. North Korea's internal state seems to actually be strengthening in recent years. It is not exactly flourishing or anything, but the years of mass starvation seem to be over. Yet we continue to proceed as though it is on the brink of economic and social collapse that will inevitably lead to a golden era of democratic reform, so we just need to wait things out for internal pressure to collapse the government.

The really scary question is: Is this whole house of cards sustainable?

In the long term, it is more likely that mistakes will be made than it will be that every actor involved will continue to perform flawlessly.

To top it off, I could be wrong. You may be comfortable gambling your life savings (or, as in my case, your life itself) that there will not be a renewed conflict THIS time. But how comfortable are you making the same gamble that there will not be any bad decisions made in the chain of commands for any of the relevant nations over then next five or ten years?

That is the topic I plan to address in my next article on this subject: how to separate the signal from the noise and make decisions about living in or visiting South Korea.