More on Why I Don’t Think the North Koreans will Carry Real Costs/Risk for Unification


Korea tensions1This is a local repost of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute in January. It is sort of a sequel to my last post. Across these two posts, my point is to argue that North Korea is basically a status quo state and won’t carry serious costs for unification.

I got a lot of heat on Twitter for suggesting this. Hawks were displeased. Josh Stanton particularly had a smart comeback.

So let me try again. Yes, ideally the North Koreans want national unity. In fact, maximally, they may even want socialism. But that’s not what matters. What we care about is what they will sacrifice for, not their ideal wants. We’re looking for satisficing, not maximizing, behavior here.

So what are the North Koreans sacrificing for? Where are they carrying costs and taking risks? A couple obvious areas: 1. Nukes. 2. Luxury imports. Neither of these really advance a unification agenda. Nukes are a defensive weapon in practice, because of their extraordinary deterrent value. And all the counterfeiting, money in Chinese banks, and general sanctions-busting is either to smuggle in luxuries for elites or to promote the nuclear missile program. What North Korea is not doing is launching war-risking strategic provocations, no matter how much crazy stuff they say. (Why we listen much to North Korea when they lie and exaggerate so much never ceases to amaze me.)

Like all other states, they firstly want to survive, and they are in a pretty hostile neighborhood. Before we get carried away that nukes have empowered them to overrun the peninsula, let’s start with what we can prove: the elite their wants to hang on – because they don’t want to die on the run or in South Korean jails – and prosper – hence all the sanctions-running and criminality.

However I do agree with Josh, that the nukes open up a lot of opportunities to blackmail South Korea, bully it into semi-permanent subsidization of the North, and otherwise try to cow it. But that is not unification. It’s subsidization – endless, condition-less South Korean cash is what they want. Not unity.

The full essay follows the jump…

3 thoughts on “More on Why I Don’t Think the North Koreans will Carry Real Costs/Risk for Unification

  1. So we are to believe North Korea when it says it wants South Korean money but we are not to believe it when it says that it really hates (for example) the Chosun Ilbo and wants to have it censored?

    “What North Korea is not doing is launching war-risking strategic provocations, no matter how much crazy stuff they say.”

    https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=vQs3Rt3q&id=C3B60D53855590EFAAEE68807ECD7F133929235C&thid=OIP.vQs3Rt3qG5BM1GdintXEvAHaEc&mediaurl=http%3a%2f%2fstatic.guim.co.uk%2fsys-images%2fGuardian%2fPix%2fpictures%2f2010%2f11%2f23%2f1290543616924%2fSouth-Korea-at-Yeonpyeong-007.jpg&exph=276&expw=460&q=Yonpyongdo+attack&simid=608002882562360480&selectedIndex=0&adlt=strict&ajaxhist=0

  2. Hello my friends & happy New Year. It’s been an epic 2018 new year. But will probably get bloody. North Korea will not give up ICBMs, nukes, chemical & biological weapons or release political prisoners.

    Looks like old foes, Israel & Iran are going to square off in Syria after Iran SAM downs an Israeli F-16. Israel will mow the lawn. Not if, but when.

    Why should Israel be concerned with an Iranian drone in it’s air space? Meet Charlene the drone. As always have a nice day.

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