Responding To: In Search of Resolution on North Korea
Consensus First, Actions Later
The nuclear threat in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not built in one day; it started as early as in Kim II Sung’s regime, when he made the goal of possessing nuclear power a national policy. How did this goal, which seemed rather far-fetched back then, develop into today’s worldwide concerns with a real ballistic missile reaching thousands of kilometers? Certainly it was a long and tortuous road. However, in terms of the containment or negotiating strategies that all of the implicated countries have pursued, the results remain doubtful. Some are even suggesting the possibility of new strategies by the major powers that would add fuel to the fire.
When I began study of international relations, I was told one of the principles should be to consider each country as a rational actor, whose national interests always come first. But in fact a country is not an organization that can be simplified into an individual; neither is it rational enough to automatically optimize all the plans. The theory of limited rationality in behavioral economics fits perfectly here: even a country as strong as the United States or China sometimes is restrained by a lack of adequate information, unintentional bias, and disputes both from without and within. This is understandable because we, the people who are marked with limited rationality, are the pivots and operators of all these activities.
One thing interesting about people is that we tend to interpret the same thing, which in fact is objective, differently or subjectively, sometimes even with unwitting bias. These interpretations reflect our different social, cultural values, and different perspectives. North Korea has always been a special case with a unique system both in politics and culture. China, Russia, the United States, and other Asian countries all built their distinctive value systems through history. Disparities exists and should not be undervalued. For instance, at the very beginning of this nuclear scheme, North Korea’s determination to own nuclear power was indeed their major concern out of national security, and we all underestimated this determination since we probably construed it as merely tool to gain leverage seek more rewards from China and the United States.
These different interpretations are not only among countries, also among different political bodies in one country, which is especially noticeable in the United States due to its special checks and balances. The different opinions we heard during out visit to Washington, D.C. proved this. Consensus, therefore, is hard to achieve, but we have to, because now this nuclear threat ranks at the top in the list. Without consensus, without the same-page moves from all countries, it is hard to predict whether your partners would take any counterproductive measures after you thought you had punched your opponent in the face, and also hard to predict whether any arbitrary move would impair other countries’ interests thus raising more long-term conflicts, since all the countries today cooperate in such a multilateral and multi-aspect way.
In order for us to reach consensus on this issue, I suggest the following. First, we should simplify this issue back to nuclear threat itself, work precisely from point to point, and do not let other competing factors, such as economic concerns, obscure our fundamental goal, although they are also important. Second, we need think about the issue from our partners' and opponent’s angles: what are their goals in this situation? Will they take actions differently from us? Although the differences in ideology exist, the concerns towards global safety and national security are universal. Therefore, we should set aside the former if necessary. Last but not least, the consensus needs to be made fast' dragging on the agenda is only going to buy more time for North Korea’s ambition. Also during the process of negotiations, instead of pointing fingers at each other, we should consider what we can offer first that is a gesture to show our sincerity and commitment.
Talking and tweeting is easier than making actual moves. When a war clearly is no longer big talk or just a threat, for the sake of humanity, we should think twice before putting the war which involves nuclear weapons into real agenda: crises happen on every page of human progress, whereas the hope for peace resides in every line. While other stronger sanctions have not proved infeasible, consensus needs to be achieved before any radical or unilateral move. And instead of using personal interpretations to create more clouds, the best approach that we can take now is to stay committed and effectively push this consensus.
Hongjin Xu is a fifth-year major in psychiatry in the Xiangya School of Medicine at Central South University in Hunan Province, China.
COMMENT FROM CYNTHIA WANG (January 13, 2018):
This blog post brings up a lot of important issues we should be considering in the situation on the Korean Peninsula; factors about culture, perspective, and ideology during negotiations should be examined seriously. However—while I personally don't think a full out escalation is likely—with the DPRK continually building up their military capabilities and showing unstable tendencies, what happens when this situation becomes more of a time-sensitive issue? How do we reach consensus then, when we simply don't have time to talk ideology or culture, and what if we don't actually share the same objectives as the DPRK? Can consensus ever be fully achieved in its entirety?
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