With all the posturing and hype assaulting our news cycle, one wonders whether Occam’s Razor might help us predict the most likely short and medium term outcomes. We won’t bother with trying to predict the long term as, in the words of a famous pederast, “in the long term, we’re all dead”.
The Main Actors
Kim Jong Un – North Korea’s current iteration of the dynastic dictatorship
Donald Trump and the USA administration and military
The South Korean leadership
The Japanese leadership
The Chinese leadership
For the purposes of keeping this exercise to a manageable level of complexity, we’ll ignore our previous advice and view those last three governments as individuals. Given that they are all led by an individual who will have the ultimate decision-making responsibility, perhaps this is an acceptable delusion.
What is Kim Jong Un’s motivation?
Firstly, let’s assume he’s a rational actor. It’s too lazy to write him off as insane and, anyway, if that were to be the conclusion of the other actors, their only rational course of action would have to be his immediate destruction as a self-defence strategy. As this has not happened, we must assume the other actors have assessed him to be rational.
Due to the isolation of North Korea, Jong Un has really only one main stakeholder, the North Korean population. True, China is supporting the regime but this is not out of fraternity but geographic necessity; there are no natural borders between South Korea (a NATO country) and China. Even a basket-case buffer state is therefore more acceptable than having the Americans parked next door.
Kim can care less about anyone else’s opinion other than the population he tyrannises. If they were to lose fear/faith in his rule, he would be dead. As Machiavelli said, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved”.
What is Trump’s and the USA administration and military’s motivation?
At its simplest level – regional stability and no further escalation of the threat of nuclear or conventional weapon use against the USA or allies.
In the case of Trump, there is also a domestic credibility concern. He was elected with an image of strength and was quick to flex military muscle in Syria despite previously stating a less-interventionist policy. North Korea is stepping over lines drawn in the sand and, with each step, he will be feeling the need of all politicians; to be seen to be doing something (regardless of effectiveness).
What is South Korea’s motivation?
Not to get nuked or be invaded.
A long way down the list of priorities after that would be re-unification, although, the longer the North Koreans are kept in solitary confinement on starvation rations, the higher the cost to be paid by the Southerners if that were to ever happen. There’s a well-documented height difference (3 to 8cm) between the two sides of the same genetic pool, for example. It might also follow that a divergence in IQ may also have occurred.
What is Japan’s motivation?
Not to get nuked or have a unarmed rocket fail on the way over a city.
There might be some elements within Japan who perhaps see a credible threat from North Korea as a good excuse to increase the Japanese military budget and take a more active role in the world. We’re a long way from Japan showing any signs of expansionism, apart from some nearby desolate rocks with oil underneath.
What might happen next?
1. North Korea might attack South Korea, Japan, Guam or maybe even have a brain snap and attack China.
2. North Korea might keep testing rockets and nuclear weapons as good internal PR.
3. North Korea might stop rattling sabres and come out of the cold like a good world neighbour.
Short Fat Elvis with a silly haircut isn’t insane and he’s not stupid. He’s not going to launch a unprovoked attack on anyone if there’s a credible risk of a military response.
Similarly, he’s not going to risk presenting himself as weak to a population tightly-controlled by violence and starvation; opening up communications with the outside world would immediately show how dire their conditions are relative to everyone else.
Perhaps the simplest and therefore most likely solution is more of the same, a continuous cycle of rockets and nuclear tests but staying just the right side of international law or precedent.
If this is correct, then the real question is how great is the pressure “to be seen to be doing something” for the Americans? And that’s another question altogether……