Playing Chicken at the Brink

“Did Seoul just win a terrifying game of chicken?” This question (from a Tweet by Beijing-based Globe & Mail correspondent Mark Mackinnon) was on many minds this week.

On Monday, 20 December 2010, the South Korean military completed a provocative 94-minute live-fire drill as part of its military exercize on Yeonpyeong Island. Despite threats of a deadly response, North Korea failed to take action.

A month earlier, a similar exercize prompted North Korea to launch a deadly artillery barrage on the island, destroying the homes of villagers and leaving two civilians and two soldiers dead, many others wounded.

DPRK: Stop shooting into our territorial waters!
ROK: Stop shooting onto our islands!
DPRK: You do that again and we’ll shoot harder!
ROK: Just go ahead! Make our day!

A game of chicken—for those unfamiliar with this North American idiom—is a contest of wills in which competitors try to demonstrate their opponents’ cowardice (chicken = coward) by forcing them to back down first. It can be as innocent as children staring into each other’s eyes until one of them blinks, or as deadly as two cars speeding toward each other until one driver swerves to avoid a head-on collision.

The “winner” in a game of chicken is the player demonstrating the most reckless, suicidal disregard for outcomes; Or the player confident enough to guess when the opponent is bluffing. Intelligence rarely plays more than a peripheral role, since intelligent people don’t play games of chicken.

During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, it was said that Soviet leader Khrushchev “blinked first” when he withdrew nuclear missile installations from Cuban soil. By threatening all-out nuclear war, US President Kennedy had won a strategic game of chicken.

But as we now know, that wasn’t really a game of chicken at all! The USSR was responding to the deployment of more than 100 US-built missiles in Europe that could strike Russia with nuclear warheads. As a result of back-channel negotiations, these US missiles were removed as part of a deal for the removal of USSR missiles from Cuba.

Far from a game of chicken, this was a well-orchestrated case of brinkmanship. Brinkmanship is a willingness to expose oneself to major risk in order to achieve some purposeful outcome. Used by governments, this is not a game, but a political tactic. If there is a “winner” in brinkmanship, it is not the most reckless player, but the one who has achieved a specific goal. The point of brinkmanship, however, is to illustrate that a “win” by either side is impossible. Taking a conflict over the brink will result in unacceptable losses by both sides.

In an unequal contest of power, brinkmanship favours the side that has the least to lose. This fact alone has made the DPRK masters of brinkmanship. And being the most sanctioned country in the world has strengthened their hand. Raising the spectre of war and destruction does not strike fear into the hearts of North Korean citizens (or affect their stock values) nearly as much as it does citizens of South Korea. Brinkmanship has been used effectively to show defiance and unity of purpose, to extract information, to test defenses, to distinguish the enemy’s rhetoric from actionable warnings, or just to make visible their lines in the sand.

So to answer your question, Mark:
No, Seoul did not win a terrifying game of chicken – unless they were playing solitaire.

There was no need for North Korea to react to the latest live-fire exercize at Yeonpyeong Island. They had already demonstrated a willingness to defend their territory during the last round. Their brinkmanship had already achieved its purpose: to re-focus American attention to the North Korean issue and to expose South Korea’s empty cupboard of options.

If the only response that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (LMB) and US President Barack Obama can muster is further military escalation, their dismal political weaknesses are laid bare. These weaknesses became even more apparent during the deadlocked UN Security Council’s deliberations on the matter over the weekend.

The DPRK’s decision not to engage a second time at Yeonpyeong coincided with the farewell from Pyongyang of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, following four days of unofficial, but high-level meetings. The DPRK is willing to return to Six-Party Talks. They are willing to allow the return of IAEA inspectors to their nuclear facilities. And they are ready to sell 12,000 fresh nuclear fuel rods (enough to build 8-10 nuclear bombs) to the ROK.

These offers are “nothing but a trick to justify their illegal uranium enrichment program,” opines an LMB staffer.

Besides, according to the Los Angeles Times, Seoul is sending “a more subtle but nonetheless determined message.”

On Tuesday, after years of refraining from a practice that had irked the North, ROK officials (protected by a contingent of South Korean marines) joined church members in lighting a 30-meter-tall steel Christmas tree covered with 100,000 LED lights on top of the 155-meter Aegibong Peak in Gimpo, Gyeonggi. The “tree” is visible to North Koreans living near the DMZ, and was part of an anti- cross-border-propaganda agreement reached between South and North in 2003.

If the North shoots at the tower, Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin told the ROK National Assembly, “We’ll retaliate decisively to take out the source of any shelling.”

Way to play chicken all by yourself, LMB!

[This article has also been published on the US-Korea Institute SAIS website 38North, and can be accessed here.]

Read Response from Pyongyang

10 Responses to “Playing Chicken at the Brink”

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  4. Victor Hsu Says:

    December 31, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I wish it was a game of brinkmanship, diplmatic or otherwise. Too many skirmishes in the past to make this one unique, except for the direct shelling of the island.

    So all the tea leaf reading re motives depends very much on the dinviner’s own perspective including assignment of blame. It gets us no where to analyze cockfights.

    More analysis of the various proposals starting with China’s call of the resumption of 6-party talks, the DPRK message through Richardson and the Security Council “suggestions” by the various members may be more constructive and helpful to policy makers. Anyone has access to some kind of a transcript of the Security Council emergency session?

    Victor Hsu.

  5. cetacea Says:

    December 29, 2010 at 4:28 am

    Although I appreciate your accurate description of inter-Korean relationships, I respectfully disagree with you about the nature of the ROK responses that followed the shelling from the north. You seem to think that those were directed to DPRK without being effective at all. Where I’m sitting they look like they were for domestic consumption. You undoubtedly know the LMB adminitration is not enjoying high level of popular support, and it would have looked like a good chance to garner some support from their conservative base. After all, this is neither the first nor the last time the GNP used “North bait”.

    • Erich Weingartner Says:

      Thank you for reminding us that perspective alters perception, and that perception guides analysis. From a North American (Canadian) perspective, it would be a relief to know that neither North nor South Korea is in reality playing “chicken”. Unfortunately, if you are correct about LBM’s real motives, he needs to be perceived to be winning the game of “chicken”. And that’s where my article began.

  6. Chris Nelson Says:

    Thanks for another interesting discussion…38 North is always a good read. A small kvetch about the Cuban Missile Crisis analogy…the missiles in Turkey were not the cause of the Soviet deployment in Cuba in the way you imply.

    It’s well documented that Kennedy was furious when he found out the virtually antique US missiles were still there. He had ordered them removed long before. But he came to see the utility of offering their removal as a face-saver for Kruschev in the give-and-take that resulted in the removal of the Soviet birds from Kewber. (Kennedy’s pronounciation, if you recall.)

    As someone who lived through the crisis (a freshman at Cal Berkeley) I can tell you we all thought we were going to die. It turns out, so did Kennedy and his advisers. My late Father-in-law was one of the lead CIA briefers on the Latin America team, and was in the White House for most of the crisis. He often told me they saw absolutely no way out and really thought that nuclear war was imminent.

    After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, no way Kennedy was going to risk “looking weak”, even if that meant death for everyone. Some “chicken” game!!

    Let’s hope neither LeeMB nor Dear Leader see Kennedy/Kruschev ‘62 as their “model”!!!

    Chris Nelson, The Nelson Report

    • Erich Weingartner Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. I defer to your more intimate knowledge of the “Kewber” missile crisis. Alas, historical analogies never perfectly hit their mark, and Yeonpyeong ‘10 certainly ain’t no Cuba ‘62, thank God. That said, I’m nevertheless sticking to my differentiation between brinkmanship and the game of chicken.

  7. Playing Chicken: Response from Pyongyang « CanKor Says:

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