Daniel W. Drezner

The Korean peninsula and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

The Korean peninsula and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

There are two ways to understand the current dynamics playing out on the Korean peninsula.   

First, everything you need to know about the standoff on the Korean peninsula is encapsulated in this James Blitz analysis in the Financial Times

[O]n one point there is broad agreement: military conflict between North and South would have unimaginable consequences, in terms of fatalities and economic devastation.

A range of factors have long convinced military strategists that war is pretty much unthinkable, however unpleasant the rhetoric may get.

For North Korea, the fundamental risk of any conflict is that it would almost certainly lose, given its conventional military weakness. For South Korea, the risk is that while it might ultimately win, it would suffer immense casualties.

Second, in an expert display of connecting any international relations crisis to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps [I’m pretty sure that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon covers something different?!–ed.  Well, it works for IR flashpoints too!!] you can learn the fine art of playing Chicken by watching the tractor fight sequence from Footloose: 

This has been North Korea’s bargaining advantage for decades — everyone else in the world thinks they’re crazy enough to stay on the tractor.  This means that the rational thing to do is to get off the tractor, which translates into granting them concessions.

Alas, Kevin Bacon doesn’t explain everything under the sun in international relations.  As Christian Oliver explains in the FT, there are many possible explanations for the Cheonan incident, and some of them involve internal discord in the Hermit Kingdom.  Paradoxically, as Thomas Schelling explained oh so many decades ago, sometimes domestic weaknesses can be parlayed into international strength. 

This puts South Korea in a big bind.  So long as China is reluctant to sanction North Korea — and they’re very reluctant to do this  — Seoul either needs to out-crazy Pyongyang or come up with a punishment that hurts North Korea without escalating military tensions. 

So my suggestion, based on this Reuters backgrounder, would be to either ban broadcasts of the 2010 World Cup tournament in North Korea, or even better, ban North Korea’s side from participation in the tournament due to start  next month.  There is precedent for this:  Yugoslavia was barred from participating in the 1994 World Cup because of ongoing United Nations sanctions.  It’s also a sanction that would not benefit any internal hardliners responsible for the Cheonan

I confess I’m grasping at straws here — I’m holding out for a hero who can solve this policy conundrum.  Readers are encouraged to offer their own policy suggestions in the comments.