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Jul 17, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

On a Warpath Paved With Rational Decisions

A war between the United States and North Korea is not inevitable, but it is growing increasingly likely — and not because their leaders are crazy.
(CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images)
Editor's Note:

North Korea demonstrated at least a rudimentary capability to launch a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile with its latest test of the Hwasong-14. At the extreme estimates of its range, the missile has the ability to strike parts of the western United States. More tests and developments will be necessary to increase the Hwasong-14's range, payload and re-entry system, and questions remain about North Korea's ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and make it rugged enough to mount on the missile. Even so, Pyongyang is clearly well on its way to realizing its goal of a long-range nuclear weapons capability. This is the first installment in a three-part series examining the implications of this development for the United States' relationship with North Korea.

War is rarely the first option for countries trying to preserve or enhance their strategic positions. The United States and North Korea alike would rather avoid a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which would be complicated and costly for all parties involved. Neither wants war; each side strongly prefers an alternative path to resolve the core issues underlying the crisis. Yet their differing strategic imperatives and desired end states leave little room for compromise.

As North Korea draws closer to achieving long-range missile capabilities, something it sees as a security guarantee, the United States faces mounting pressure to act. But as Washington tries to coerce North Korea to end its quest for more sophisticated arms, Pyongyang feels compelled to accelerate its nuclear weapons and missile development. Each country is merely acting to preserve its interests. But their interests are driving them closer to a physical confrontation.

The Rational Assumption

Geopolitics teaches us to assume rationality on the part of actors on the international stage. The assumption doesn't suppose that individual leaders are somehow beyond the influence of emotion, misinformation or miscalculation. Rather it acknowledges the deeper forces at work, from the interactions of place and people that shape national characteristics and strategic culture to the systems and structures that develop in countries over time. No leader operates free of these constraints and compulsions. Though they still have leeway to shape their policies and actions, leaders, as individuals and as a collective group, do so within limits defined in large part by the environments in which they emerged. The rationality we assume from leaders is not universal; it is the product of their place and time under the influence of factors such as history, geography and economics.

The key, then, is to understand what guides the rationality of a country's leadership, on an individual level and in the government as a whole. After all, no one individual rules a country, since no single person could extend power over an entire population without the help of intermediaries. And each layer of leadership adds another set of constraints to the exercise of power. Disagreements arise in governments and in the populations they preside over. But the forces that influence the options available to leaders are far larger than the concerns of the individual. It is an analyst's job to understand and explain these factors, and a policymaker's job to take them into account when considering how to achieve a desired outcome. 

Even so, it is sometimes simpler in international relations to assume one's adversaries are crazy. They don't follow the desired path or react in the anticipated way, so they must be acting irrationally. If one makes the wrong assumptions of an adversary (or even of an ally), however, the response to a given action may be far from what was intended.

Of course, understanding the other side doesn't guarantee the desired outcome, either. Irreconcilable differences in interests and perceptions of risk can get in the way of compromise. The most viable solution often is to constantly adjust one's actions to manage these contradictions, even if they prove insurmountable. At times, though, the differences can be so intractable as to drive nations into conflict if each side's pursuit of contrary interests leads to fear and insecurity for the other. Moves by one nation to constrain the threatening behavior it perceives from another then perpetuate the cycle of action and reaction. In the case of North Korea and the United States, the contradiction in their interests is growing ever starker as Pyongyang accelerates its nuclear weapons program and nears its goal of developing a missile capable of striking the continental United States.

As Pyongyang draws closer to the deliverable long-range nuclear weapon it has long pursued, Washington will be forced to decide whether to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and live with that reality or to take the necessary steps to disarm it.

A Mutual Misunderstanding

Misunderstandings, misapplied assumptions and mismatched goals have characterized relations between the United States and North Korea for decades. Washington expected — or at least hoped — that North Korea would collapse on its own under the force of economic and social pressures. The evaluation misjudged the country as the Asian equivalent of an Eastern Bloc state waiting for the Soviet Union's demise to break free from the shackles of a foreign-imposed power structure. North Korea hasn't collapsed. In fact, in times of trouble, its neighbors (and even the United States) have helped stabilize the government in Pyongyang for fear that the consequences of the country's failure would be more dangerous than the risks entailed in its survival. North Korea, meanwhile, considered itself a fixture on the United States' target list, a remnant of the Cold War that Washington was trying to toss on the ash heap of history.

The two have had many opportunities for some form of reconciliation over the years. Time and again, though, progress has run afoul of perceived threats, diverging commitments, changing priorities, domestic politics and even extraregional events. As Pyongyang draws closer to the deliverable long-range nuclear weapon it has long pursued, Washington will be forced to decide whether to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and live with that reality or to take the necessary steps to disarm it. The cost of action is high, but so is the perceived threat of inaction.

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