Over the past few weeks the rhetoric has increased between Trump who threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and referred to President Kim as “rocket man” and Kim Jong Un who, in turn, said, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho on September 25th declared that Donald Trump had declared war on North Korea when he tweeted that North Korea won’t be around much longer.
What are we to make of these exchanges in which both leaders call the other madmen and threaten military action against the other that sounds as if it’s consistent with pre-emptive attacks by either side. And the attacks sound like nuclear attacks as per Trump’s declaration when he threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” How are people to understand such rhetoric?
One way to think about this is via game theory. In game theory one tries to attach values upon different courses of action and then assess the outcome that has the highest benefit. Whenever one result is so cataclysmic that it dwarfs all other expected values, then it achieves the probability status of dominance. Whenever, within a range of probabilities, there is one outcome that is dominant, then this fact dwarfs the other expected outcomes and becomes the focus of attention. In the past, such a game scenario created the so-called MAD (or mutually assured destruction) strategy for any war between the USSR and the United States. Both countries had the largest stockpiles of weapons that were deployed in various regions so that they might respond to an offensive attack by the other party. This game used very high levels of destruction of both sides to create an unacceptable outcome for both parties (i.e., dominance). Therefore, an acceptable stalemate was achieved that was stable save for an accidental freak event—such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
With North Korea the power balance is different. At this writing it seems improbable that North Korea could render a single nuclear weapon against the United States, much less a destructive event envisioned by MAD. However they could reach Seoul, (population of 10 million/ metropolitan area population of 25 million). They may be able to hit targets in Japan, as well. This would amount to an enormous bloodbath. Thus, launching a nuclear or even a conventional attack against North Korea might have some severe consequences.
Recently, I had a conversation with a retired army general about the game outcomes of a surprise conventional attack against North Korean nuclear facilities with the goal of taking out North Korean nuclear capacity all together. He said that the critical game condition would be our intelligence about where all the missile launchers are as well as their stockpile of warheads. Even if we had perfect information (unlikely), there would still be a conventional response against South Korea and a resumption of the Korean War. North Korea continues to maintain an army of around a million. It is one of the largest standing armies in the world. This would certainly be a negative expected value of such a high degree that dominance would be exhibited against the scenario.
As a result it seems that there are no good game scenarios in which a positive expected value might be achieved through the use of military force against North Korea. In each case, dominance exerts itself through the unacceptably high negative outcomes. Thus, it would seem that only diplomatic options should be employed. In the diplomatic game some kind of common ground is thought to be a necessary starting point. Before January 20, 2017 the game played out like this: 1. The United States, along with the world community (through the United Nations), in return for real diplomatic negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear stance would offer the positive possibility of economic interchange that would boost prosperity for the people of North Korea and, by extension, enhance the popularity of the country’s leader. 2. North Korea would often agree, and even sign documents, but would later renege and adopt bellicose language and continue on its nuclear program. 3. Countries around the world, including to a lesser degree China, would put economic sanctions on North Korea. 4. North Korea would yell louder and the rest of the world would pretend that they didn’t hear—and then loop back to #1. This cyclic diplomatic game would repeat over and over while North Korea continued to develop better ballistic missiles and more powerful and compact nuclear weapons. Is this a sable game? There is no way to know for sure. It depends upon the leader of North Korea understanding that he is NOT under attack and that all pressure to be applied will be economic and political. Does Kim Jong Un understand this? It depends upon who you ask. Prior to January 20, 2017 the answer was, “yes.” After this date the game changed to one of bluffing—aka “chicken.” The rules of this game require that each party (Trump and Kim) believes that the other may actually commit a military act to gain advantage—even though that game scenario has dominant negative outcomes from both directions. Thus, one would have to say that each leader is either bluffing for some sort of posturing effect or that one or both is stupid or mentally unfit. Various outside commentators have made assessments about the capacities of the leaders, but thankfully, neither country is totally dependent upon the man at the top, alone.
Kim has a circle of advisors and so does Trump. How much sway do these advisors have? In the United States we have Mattis and Tillerson (who has recently claimed to have forged a direct contact). Both Mattis and Tillerson have shown themselves to have the capacity of independence when the President spoke out about the Charlottesville unrest. Will they have the independence to disobey an order to initiate a nuclear or conventional attack—when either scenario has a dominant negative outcome? Time will tell. But a possible bright spot is the planned China trip by Trump in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Certainly it would seem that this would discount military action in Korea before then (unless it’s all a ruse).
Since I am, by nature, a hopeful fellow, my crystal ball suggests that instead of military action, we will move into a new version of Diplomacy (Diplomacy 2.0) which will have its own game rules built upon a more successful array of economic and political pressures and incentives for North Korea to re-enter the community of nations. A lot will ride on this game.
Michael Boylan is Professor of Philosophy at Marymount University. He has held positions at the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution and has served on government committees. His most recent books are: Natural Human Rights: A Theory (political philosophy), Teaching Ethics with Three Philosophical Novels (pedagogy), and Georgia: A Trilogy (philosophical novels).