If the warmongers are to be believed, we are slipping into nuclear apocalypse. They insist that a tyrannical and insane North Korean executive is plotting to exact nuclear oblivion upon the Western world. Recent news seems to confirm this: the Musudan-ri missile launch site is nearing completion and rumours of another nuclear detonation are abound. Luckily, we actually have nothing to worry about.
Most analysis of North Korea fails because it assumes a level of ideological insanity that doesn’t correspond with reality. The North Korean authorities are not a West-hating militant-communist regime, but rather a cold, rational, well-educated junta whose primary goal is to continue their totalitarian power. Rather than some communist ideal, machiavellian brutality is their only doctrine. Assuming that Pyongyang is some brooding delinquent is intellectually lazy and politically dangerous.
Economic thought focuses on the management of scarce resources. This is usually done through market economies, but that needn’t be the case. One prominent field of economic research, game theory, focuses on rival institutions employing strategy to gain control. By recognising the rationality of competing actors, we can make sophisticated predictions.
When studying militant states, this rigour matters. Setting aside our naive conception of North Korea as an indoctrinated zombie, we discover a more realistic image; the imaginary mad dog is revealed to be a calculating despot. North Korea will never launch a nuclear missile. They are no hive- minded suicide bomber; their elite’s focus is maintaining control. Bombing the West is an idea unparalleled in its stupidity–the retaliation would be overwhelming. Though they could cause damage, that is irrelevant. Their intent is not to do damage, it is to entrench power. They cannot achieve that by attacking the West.
Their missile-building programme is an exercise in extortion–by developing nuclear capacity, they are seen as defenders of their countrymen and a credible threat to other nations. They prize their manufactured status as ‘protectors’ because there is no other reason to support their tyranny. And they need to threaten the West in order to level the power imbalance of the Six-party talks, and so extort aid and tolerance from those south of the demilitarised zone.
Any military response to the “North Korean threat” will threaten that extortion. Seeing their power-base under threat, the North Koreans will move to quell rebellion. That will involve the murder of domestics and renewed attacks upon South Korea. By threatening their establishment, we give them excuse to strengthen it. Last week, North Korea executed thirty of their own officials, scapegoating the failure of inter-border reconciliation. The response to a military attack would be an order of magnitude larger. Jingoistic bravado has its appeal, but more insight is gleaned from a cynical approach. The liberation of North Korea will involve no air-strikes or raids, but a cautious awareness of strategy and a compassion for those whose lives are determined by the rashness of our decisions.