The fence of almost-facts consists of four negations and three assertions. A common element is a blur between fact, and what Kim is likely to consider as fact. Theories that implicitly predict successful negotiations assume that the end of North Korea’s nuclear program is required for these benefits to occur, which is false:
- Lifting or weakening of sanctions.
- An increase in the political legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
- An increase in the stability of the regime. Stability and legitimacy are not the same.
- Accession of North Korea to the “community of nations”, a term which implies acceptance instead of ostracism. Although unlikely, this could happen anyway.
The assertions are:
- North Korea’s nuclear program, instead of being dismantled, can be concealed. While programs of nuclear proliferation have been approximate recapitulations of the programs of the original five, it is not necessary. Many more options exist for clandestine development.
- A single personality cannot combine the nature of Kim’s rule with the emotional “glasnost” on display at the recent conference.
- Termination would not result in accession to the “community of nations.” It is neither a requirement or a benefit. There is no coupling at all.
Let’s first consider weakening or lifting of sanctions.
The discrete and dramatic events of the current confrontation have captured our imaginations as as kind of chess game. Once a game is identified, it becomes an unconscious assumption that the game will continue under the same rules to checkmate or stalemate. And cheating at chess does not mean you aren’t playing chess. When the game changes, there is great fanfare. It seemed that the game might switch to poker, with a Western saloon gun-fight as the culmination.
Kim Jong-un has, in what may be a masterstroke, switched from a competitive game to a noncompetitive game. See The Ungame. We don’t have to judge his sincerity to observe that foreign policy mavens, anticipating that chess and poker will continue, have not considered all the twists and turns an ungame would allow.
Rather than immediately negate the potential of the ungame, make a list of Kim’s possible goals. Put yourself in his shoes. If you were Kim, would you actually de-nuke which amounts to maximum concession, no game at all, or would you play the ungame for a while, perhaps for an indefinite period, spinning webs and veils of silk, gauze, and gossamer?
This sudden wisdom may not be entirely his creation. It happened after a train trip to the Celestial Kingdom, the repository of centuries of foreign policy wisdom. Perhaps he was gifted a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. For 2500 years, it has been the wise guide to foreign policy for Eastern rulers. Some sample quotes:
- “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
- “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”
This is not theoretical. With 2500 years on the book racks,The Art of War is the best-selling “The Art of…” book of all time. Km Jong-un took a train to Beijing. A complete makeover resulted. What edition did he come home with? Leather-bound, web links, or merely the impression that it is very important? So important that one maxim popular among risky livers is misattributed to Sun Tzu, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” The gem owes to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.
It may now suddenly occur to you that you have no idea how Kim Jong-un can play the Ungame. You grab your Hoyles Rules, and it isn’t even listed. You find you are completely unprepared to estimate whether he can use it to lift sanctions, partly or totally. You discover that
- A significant part of dollar denominated trade, mainly for bulk cargoes that originate and deliver in Asia, could be conducted in the renminbi.
- Another part could be done as goods-swap.
- Yet another could be by service swap, such as facilitating drug transactions via North Korea’s huge submarine fleet.
But with the cooperation of China, how could the above happen?
If someone does you a favor, do you always know why? Is China cooperating with the U.S. solely because of pressure, or is there an additional reason? Is their real concern nukes, or that they want North Korea to evolve in the direction of a civilized state? This could be one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Evolution in North Korea, modest by our standards, could be enough for China to return to a purely regional approach. Their thinking: With time, things will only get better.
So, as per Criticism of Administration Policy Towards North Korea ?, the game is embedded in the international ecosystem. China’s attitude towards North Korea, up till the current sanctions regime, is explained well by Henry Kissinger in his book On China. China has another approach to regional problems, requiring Eastern patience.
It goes back to the need to deflect the border tribes, beyond the Great Wall and elsewhere in central Asia, that posed the same threat to the Celestial Kingdom as the Gauls, Visigoths, Vandals, et al did to Rome. The Romans chose to co-opt; the Chinese chose to corrupt, as in, “Show them the good life”, and make them dependent. China has tried this with North Korea in the form of cross-border commerce, and encouragement of entrepreneurship. It hasn’t worked so far. But while our basic interval of time is 4 years, China’s policies have the patience of centuries.
So sleep on this, the Ungame, and let your Zen-master talents soar to the heights:
If you were Kim Jong-un, how would you effect the wisdom of Sun-Tzu in the short term?
To be continued shortly. In the meantime,
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.