Within Risk Paradigm: Is North Korea a Risk?

Dr. Mohammeed Badrul Alam

Whether to risk status quo environment- an appetite for it or an aversion to it- is a meaningful way to explain crisis decision making since it links the strategic and the psychological conceptions of choice. It portrays leaders as calculating goal-seekers while allowing them to have different personal decision making styles.

One can argue that Kim Jong-Il of North Korea is a risk taker perhaps to the point of brinkmanship. According to Utility theory suggested by Italian probabilist Bruno de Finetti and developed by Kenneth Arrow and J. W. Pratt, the risk averse person will prefer not to gamble too hard and accept the best outcome at face value while risk taker will try to push the envelope too far to the point of brinkmanship in order to derive maximum advantage or leverage. Risk acceptance was attributed to Britain and France in their intervention in Suez and to Eisenhower in his deception about the U-2 over-flight; while a cautious decision was the United States staying out of the Suez crisis. The idea is that a risk-averse state is one that chooses policies that reduce others' incentives to attack it. Robert Jervis presents a prospect theory interpretation of crisis instability and suggests that because decisions are being made among losses in territory, reputation or domestic support, a leader intends to order a pre-emptive strike in cases in which the standard expected utility model would predict the actor to cut his losses. It is possible to argue that under extreme provocation and in the absence of plausible CBMs (confidence building measures), Kim Jong-Il, under some situations may adopt a policy of preemption as he may determine that he has nothing more to lose by not going in for the first use of nuclear weapons.

Now, the question arises, is it possible to devise a road map or a master plan to deal with North Korea. According to Michael Hanlon of The Brookings Institution, a plan of action is not only conceivable, it is also the most desirable thing to do in order to assure North Korea's paranoid and pariah regime that other actors in Northeast Asia and even outside of this region harbor no hostile intent towards it (North Korea).

In this regard, the United States—together with regional allies South Korea and Japan as well as China and Russia—needs a new North Korea policy to handle the rapidly intensifying nuclear crisis in Northeast Asia. The current Bush administration policy of refusing to talk and engage until Pyongyang changes course stands too great a chance of failing.

As for North Korea, either it has decided that it needs a substantial nuclear arsenal to avoid being the next target of President Bush's policy of preemption, and of regime change in particular, or it is engaging in nuclear brinkmanship because it cannot think of any other reasonable way to convince the world community to provide it more economic aid and energy requirements.

US policy needs to account for all of the possibilities. The Bush administration should outline a policy toward North Korea, ‘high risk, high return’, ‘more for more’ that is defined by tough conditions—including efforts to scale back conventional arms on the Korean peninsula—but one that holds the possibility of active engagement, full normalization of diplomatic ties, and more economic aid. In other words, what Bush administration can do is to carry a bigger stick with bigger carrots towards North Korea.

The Bush administration needs to devote much more serious attention to opening up channels of direct talks with Pyongyang, and also develop, along with its allies, an agenda for such talks. The point should be to offer North Korea an alternative future to the path it has chosen for regime survival. That alternative should include incentives, but also stiff demands on the regime of President Kim Jong-Il—on issues ranging from the nuclear crisis to missile exports to releasing Japanese kidnapping victims to reduction of conventional forces on the peninsula. This approach would emulate Ronald Reagan's tough negotiation strategy with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and his "trust but verify" concept as well.

In this regard, under the September 2005 agreement, the Bush Administration offered economic aid and security assurances including power plant for mitigating energy crunch provided North Korea abdicated its nuclear program. Off late, in May 2006, top advisors to President Bush have recommended a broad new approach to begin negotiations for a comprehensive Peace Treaty even while efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program are still underway. It can be considered a step in the right direction. Perhaps, what is needed is a concerted effort and revival of Six-party talks in order to bring back North Korea to the negotiating table for conflict management and evolution of viable confidence-building measures.

Author Note
Dr.Mohammeed Badrul Alam, Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi