Playing the long game

Tyler Cowen may have just answered the Big Question about North Korea, namely: What does Kim want?

If we think through the North Korea nuclear weapons dilemma using game theory, one aspect of the problem deserves more attention, namely the age of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un: 33. Because peaceful exile doesn’t appear to be an option — his escaping the country safely would be hard — Kim needs strategies for hanging on to power for 50 years or more. That’s a tall order, but it helps us understand that his apparently crazy tactics are probably driven by some very reasonable calculations, albeit selfish and evil ones. […]

So if you are a dictator planning for long-term survival under a wide range of possible outcomes, what might you do? You don’t know who your enemies and your friends will be over those 50 years, so you will choose a porcupine-like strategy and appear prickly to everyone. […]

One way to interpret Kim’s spat with U.S. President Donald Trump is that he is signaling to the Chinese that they shouldn’t try to take him down because he is willing to countenance “crazy” retaliation. In this view, Beijing is a more likely target for one of his nukes than is Seattle.

More radically, think of Kim as auditioning to the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India as a potential buffer against Chinese expansion. If he played his hand more passively and calmly, hardly anyone would think that such a small country had this capacity. By picking a fight with the U.S., he is showing the ability to deter just about anyone.

This explanation feels right to me. At least, I haven’t heard a better one. In which case, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the North Korean regime is neither irrational nor suicidal. Kim is not Jim (Jones), and a “nuclear Kool-Aid” scenario is most unlikely. North Korea will be a serious irritant, but not a genuine threat. Indeed, by spurring Japan and/or South Korea to get their own nukes, Kim could even (paradoxically) make the region safer – in theory.

The bad news? Under this interpretation, Kim is a skilled and strategic leader who is motivated to stay in power forever. His nukes shield him from external attack and, for all his bluster and provocations, he is cunning enough to stop just short of crossing any lines that would trigger a military response by an adversary. The rest of the world would simply have to learn to live with him, because there is no alternative. Meaning, we could be looking at another 50 years of Kim’s nonsense. Maybe a lot longer, if radical life extension technology allows for it.

“He brought reforms and unexpectedly high rates of growth to the North Korean economy, and he seems to have retained the loyalty of a significant fraction of the North Korean populace,” Cowen writes. North Korean GDP grew by an estimated 3.9% in 2016, the fastest pace since 1999. This raises the interesting possibility that Kim could reinvent himself as a Deng Xiaoping-type reformer who ushers in a new era of growth and rising living standards just by continuing to ease up on some of the totalitarian controls on the economy. If successful, that would boost his popularity, of course, which would further shore up his power.

I think Cowen’s guess is right, and Kim is in this for long haul. The very long haul.

Just 50 more years of this

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