Daniel Freedman: Crocodile Dundee Diplomacy For North Korea
May 24, 2010

By Daniel Freedman, Forbes

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When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was asked by the Associated Press in May 2007 to reveal a hidden talent, he told the reporter: “I’m a pretty good poker player.” Being able to call bluffs and recognize poor hands would be especially useful right now in dealing with North Korea’s torpedoing of a South Korean ship (and death of 46 sailors).

Since South Korea announced on Thursday that its investigation found North Korea responsible for the March torpedoing, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has been winning the high-stakes international relations poker game. South Korea only labeled the torpedoing a “military provocation” (how many dead sailors is an act of war?), and promised to be “very prudent in all response measures we take.” It made it clear that there won’t be any military, only an economic, response.

North Korea, in contrast, has been acting like the injured party and ratcheting up the stakes. It (predictably) denied the torpedoing, (laughably) demanded that its own investigators travel to South Korea, and (ridiculously) declared that any South Korean response would be viewed as war. “From this time on, we will regard the situation as a phase of war and will be responding resolutely to all problems in North-South relations,” its Orwellian-sounding Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland declared.

As for the U.S., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the tone by announcing that “we cannot allow this attack on South Korea to go unanswered by the international community.” The words “international community” (cue: United Nations) hardly scares North Korea. Meaningful U.N. sanctions are unlikely as China–Pyongyang’s biggest supporter–has a veto on the Security Council. (China termed the torpedoing “unfortunate,” a phrase more suitable to describe accidentally spilling wine on a foreign diplomat than for deliberately killing sailors.)

The U.S. and South Korea’s meekness is strange given that North Korea has the poorer hand by far. While it has a million-man strong military, its equipment and forces are outdated. It will lose a prolonged conflict with the South–especially a South backed up by the U.S. (28,000 U.S. troops are already in the Korean Peninsula). On top of that, with the North’s economy in shambles and its population close to starvation, any conflict would be destabilizing for the regime.

Kim Jong Il knows this. But he also knows that in international relations, like poker, you play your opponent, not your hand. And he knows that South Korea intends to avoid a military conflict at any cost. It has said as much: It worries about everything from the effect war will have on investors to the (very real) threat of North Korea’s artillery devastating the South Korean capital Seoul.

South Korea and the U.S. in turn need to play their opponent and understand that Kim Jong Il has even more to lose than them from a war. Kim knows that if there is a conflict, he will eventually lose, and lose control of North Korea–and his prime motivation is ensuring the continuation of his regime (and after his death through one of his sons). In fact the torpedoing may have been to shore up domestic support by showing that the regime is as strong as ever. And on an international level Kim is engaged in a strategy of dictaplomacy (making hostile moves and later backing down to gain needed concessions).

In the movie “Crocodile Dundee,” when a mugger pulls a small knife on Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee, his girlfriend, Sue, tells him to give up his wallet because “he’s got a knife.” Mick chuckles. He pulls out a bigger knife and says: “That’s not a knife. That’s a knife,” and the mugger runs off. South Korea is acting like Sue; the U.S. needs to be Mick.

U.S. politicians understand this at least on a domestic level. When they target alleged misbehavior at companies like Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and Google, they back up their rhetoric with a reminder of the bigger knife they carry: lawsuits and legislation. On an international level some countries understand this too: A few years ago when Israel was frustrated with Syria’s Bashar Assad encouraging Hamas, it sent four fighter planes to buzz his palace–while he was home. It was a reminder to Assad that: “Whatever you do to us; we can do far worse. We know where you live.”

 

To read the full article please click on the link below:http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/24/north-korea-kim-jong-il-opinions-columnists-daniel-freedman.html

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