The North Korean situation developing currently raised a lot of fundamental questions. Is Kim Jong Un that insane, that deluded, that he would risk national suicide by starting a war with the Republic of Korea? After all, attacking the ROK will result in a fight where the DPRK not only has to face the ROK military (itself a formidable force) but also the might of the U.S. military’s presence in Korea and the Japanese Self Defense Force. Does Kim Jong Un (henceforth KJU) believe he can win against such odds? Conventional wisdom says no. However, it is possible that our analysis failed to account one of the most important factor that begins wars throughout human history: The psychological factors that allow for different perceptions of victory and the burden of necessity. When viewed from this angle, then war on the Korean peninsula – although unlikely – is closer than we think.
First of all, let’s examine the conventional, widely accepted wisdom of war: No one starts a war they think they’ll lose. On he face of it, it sounds really basic and at that level, it is true. However nearly every word in that sentence is subject to interpretation. War, at its core, is fought by two or more parties with different perceptions of reality that compelled them to go to war. A classic example is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 07DEC1941. The Allies would say that they started that war on that day of infamy. Pro-Japanese scholars, however, will say that the United States started the war by her embargo of oil and steel. Japan could not survive with that embargo in place and, from their point of view, the United States and its allies forced them into war.
War itself is a curious word. A classic definition of the word would be an armed conflict between opponents. However, von Clausewitz said that war is extension of politics. By that definition, taking political action to put pressure – and thus impose your will – on another nation can be seen as the opening moves of warfare. In KJU’s, or the DPRK’s perception, the embargoes placed upon it by the United States and the United Nations may well be designed to degrade its ability to conduct military operations against their old enemy the ROK. Furthermore, it is highly possible that they view these embargoes as attempts to weaken their home defense, thus paving a way for the dreaded – yet – anticipated invasion by its enemies.
Finally, to lose in war can also be viewed from different perspectives by each combatant. In asymmetric warfare, for instance, the the victory conditions of the insurgency/guerrilla army is always very different than those of the conventional army its fighting. This has been true throughout history. During the American revolution, George Washington knew that he did not have to win every battle, every fight, against the British. As a matter of fact, he didn’t need to beat the British Armies. He knew that in order to win, all he had to do was survive. To keep an army in the field until Britain said enough, realized that their war was taking too long and was too expensive, and quit the field. So, Washington won some battles, lost quite a few too. But knowing that his ultimate victory didn’t require beating every British army, he withdrew, kept his army intact and fought another day. Does this sound familiar to you? It should.
Vietnam is another classic example. The Viet Cong was pretty much defeated as an armed force after the Tet offensive in 1968. The rest of the Vietnam war from then until the U.S. withdrawal of 1973 was fought by the NVA. At the beginning of the 70s, U.S. innovations in the field of precision guided munitions, weapons systems and ground tactics started to turn the tide. If the U.S. had kept at it, they would’ve defeated the North Vietnamese by 1975. However, by the 70s, public sentiment at home was such that the U.S. was forced to withdraw, and the communist regime in the North survived. In 1975 they invaded south with a conventional army possessing more tanks than Hitler did at the beginning of Barbarossa. The U.S. wasn’t willing to return to war and they won. They just needed to survive.
Afghanistan was and is more complex. Both for the Soviets in the 80s and against ISAF and the GoA currently. But essentially its the same scenario: The Taliban is still there. They’re waiting for the invaders to pull out so that they can come out of the woods and try to regain the power they lost. They know that the Western society isn’t ready for a war that lasts generations, so they just wait. All they have to do is survive.
KJU and the DPRK may be operating along similar principles. Their condition of victory might be as simple as the preservation of their regime; domestically in the face of their starving population, and internationally in the face of opponents on all sides. They may believe that if they push for a confrontation and throw the nuclear card right in the middle, they may survive a brief war with ROK and its allies. Not only will they be hurting the ROK – and the ROK will hurt in the fight – but they may secure concessions in a conditional peace that will involve food aid, economic and construction help, and medicine. This will, in turn, strengthen the faith of their people on the state – staving off the angry peasants from storming the castle – and allow them to remain a significant regional presence. The alternative is seeing their deterrent capabilities dismantled and disarmed, thus placing them at the mercy of the superior conventional forces of the ROK and the U.S. If they see this as national suicide, then it is understandable that they’re spoiling for a fight.
The problem for us, and for the rest of the world, is of course how to interpret this correctly. There’s an engineering term that I like to use to illustrate my point: Tolerance stack. Every mechanical part is made to a certain specification. There are desired, perfect dimensions, but in reality, they are made to those specs with a +/- tolerance. Most of the time, if you put these things together, the stack will align and the machine will run. But there are times when the tolerance is stacked the wrong way (every part happened to be parts with the lowest or highest permissible tolerance, or a combination thereof) and the machine does not work.
Why do I bring this up? Cultural interaction is this way. It is easy for us, people from the same culture, to understand how far to push, how far is too far, when not to cross the line. But when we are dealing with a fundamentally different culture – like the DPRK – things get blurry. The danger of miscalculation due to cultural tolerance stacking is high and wars easily result when one side thinks they’ve been reasonable and the other side just hasn’t responded in a manner that would result in peace. And both sides think that way.
It doesn’t make any logical sense from our perspective that North Korea would try to pick a war with the ROK and the U.S. We know they would lose. This results in a reticence to believe that they will actually attack, despite the signs. From the DPRK perspective, however, their domestic situation may be more desperate than we know, and the sanctions are projected to cause a collapse of the country. They see the military exercises as a prelude or even staging for war. During the Cold War, NATO and the Warsaw Pact watch each other’s wargames carefully because of the surprise potential when mobilized troops in the field suddenly move from a wargame to an attack.
As food for thought, this is not the first time the world is shocked by a war that broke out despite all analysis that said otherwise. Here’s a short list:
-WWI couldn’t happen because France and Germany were each other’s greatest trading partners and had too many commercial connections.
-Germany couldn’t attack the USSR because they were still involved in a war with Britain in Europe and Africa.
-The U.S. wouldn’t fight for S. Korea because on 12JAN1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined President Truman’s Asian policy in a speech in which he “drew a line’ of countries the US considered essential to the U.S. national interests. That line included Japan, Okinawa and the Philippines, but it did not include Korea or Taiwan.
-Saddam Hussein believed he was safe in invading Kuwait, in large part because the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told him, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”
-Saddam also thought that he was safe in 2003 because, after all, there had been more than 11 UN resolutions since 1991 and no one had invaded when he didn’t comply with them.
In the end, the tipping point to action may not be discernible by the other side due to cultural “tolerance stacking”. KJU might be saber rattling and bluffing like he always had, or war might break out tomorrow morning. Either one is entirely possible and our thoughts on what is logical is in reality, largely self comforting fantasy.