Foreign Policy Blogs

Gunboat Diplomacy Returns to Korea

The United States and South Korea have planned joint exercises in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.  The move is in response to the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel named the Cheonan, which is believed to have been sunk by a North Korean attack.  While the North Koreans are criticizing the move as a needless escalation of tensions in the region and threatening a possible counteraction, the move is actually designed to de-escalate tensions between the two Koreas, which have formally been at war since 1950.

Any attempt to understand the situation must begin with a look at what makes North Korea tick.  From firing missiles over Japan to this latest incident, North Korea has a strong track record of erratic behavior.  Erratic, that is, in the sense of acting provocatively in specific situations that catch the world by surprise, creating panic.  In a broader sense, however, there is a pretty straightforward logic to North Korean crises.

(Courtesy: AFP/AFP/Getty Images and Google Images)

(Courtesy: AFP/AFP/Getty Images and Google Images)

North Korea is run by a crazed – but shrewd – dictator who is a wizard at staying in power but whose government cannot feed its own people.  The government has developed one of the world’s largest standing armies (force size estimated at around 1.2 million), but it lacks the ability to execute even basic functions in other areas.

To justify this state of affairs, the Kim Family Regime (KFR) needs North Korea to have enemies, preferably of the existential variety.  Unfortunately for the KFR, North Korea’s neighboring states don’t actually relish the idea of the regime falling – the quality of life is so disproportionately low in North Korea that China and South Korea would undoubtedly be forced to deal with a variety of new challenges they do not want, including the possibility of a massive refugee situation.  Those problems belong to the KFR today, and their poor governance has meant that North Korea is in desperate need of external aid, especially in essential areas like energy.  However, the KFR is not willing to make any concessions in human rights, government reform or other areas to gain that aid.

Two Koreas at Night (Courtesy: Google Images)

Two Koreas at Night (Courtesy: Google Images)

To deal with both of these needs, the KFR engages in brinksmanship through manufactured crises.  Brinksmanship creates antagonists to justify the KFR’s militarism, doesn’t require North Korea to reform itself or observe human rights standards, and it allows the KFR the opportunity to trade the one thing they are willing to give up – basically nothing, packaged as a de-escalation of tensions – for aid and/or a drawing down of sanctions.  This is a pretty good example of the phenomenon known as “evil genius”.

Which brings us to the role of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in this latest crisis.  North Korea sinking a South Korean ship is an act of war that scares everyone.  But South Korea isn’t going to war on a nuclear North Korea without some serious back-up in the form of the U.S.  But no one – the U.S. included – wants a second round of the Korean War, so the U.S. won’t provide that support.  But back-up in some form is coming in the presence of the U.S. Navy.  The U.S. knows that North Korea is not going to attack its ships because an act of war against the U.S. risks an actual U.S.-North Korean hot war it cannot win that would expose the KFR to a significant amount of  danger unnecessarily.  There is simply no upside for North Korea in attacking a U.S. ship, so they won’t.  By operating alongside South Korean ships, the U.S. is preventing North Korea from acting out again.

As counter-intuitive as it appears on its face, the U.S. is actually initiating a de-escalation here.  The KFR is threatening nuclear war over the U.S.-South Korean joint action, but this is more show than anything else.  After all, the next move is theirs.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.