In the game of chicken, two opponents drive towards each other at a full speed. The one who swerves first to avoid the crash loses, while the other who has not “chickened” out wins. The caveat of this game is that if nobody swerves in the fear of being called a chicken both of them will die. What North Korea has been trying to do for the last few months is to engage global stakeholders in this game. North Korea heightens the level of its aggressive rhetoric as well as shows tangible moves towards nuclear and missile development, testing how far it can push until the U.S. and many other countries crack. What is particularly dangerous about North Korea’s version of the game is that Pyongyang is playing it with multiple parties at the same time, and one slip of any party can start a chain of destructive collisions.
North Korea has been making extra efforts to corner the U.S. and South Korea into thinking that they have no other option than conceding if it wishes to prevent military confrontations. Following a missile launch in December last year, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February 12. Protesting against U.S. Security Council’s resolution on sanctions and accusing U.S.–South Korea annual joint military exercises as preparations for a northward nuclear invasion, North Korea has “nullified” the armistice agreement, signed at the end of the Korean War, on March 11. Massive cyber attacks that shut down South Korean banks and TV stations on March 20 are also thought to be conducted by North Korea.
On Tuesday, Pyongyang also declared that it plans to restart a nuclear reactor that has been shut down since 2007. Since Wednesday, South Korean workers have been banned from entering Kaesong Industrial Complex, which has been the last bastion of North-South cooperation. Repeated war-mongering rhetoric by North Korea has finally started to affect otherwise resilient South Korean economy, as foreign investors and manufacture companies contemplate leaving the country in the face of seemingly imminent danger. On Thursday, it was found out that North Korea moved a long-range missile, which could reach Guam, closer to the coast. While the campaign promise of “trustpolitik” by Madame Park Geun-hye, the newly elected president of South Korea, is already flushed down the toilet, the escalating military tension is only exacerbating her domestic struggles. On the American side, the Obama administration’s official policy of “strategic patience” is facing greater criticism, as people are growing increasingly worrisome despite Washington’s attempts of reassurance.
North Korea’s testing patience of other countries as well. David Cameron, in his recent controversial speech, argued that the United Kingdom should retain its Trident nuclear deterrent as North Korea’s missile can technically reach it. According to Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation and disarmament at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “North Korea does not have any missile capabilities that could hit Britain and it is difficult to envision circumstances when North Korea ever would want to attack the UK even if they could.” Given such analysis, Prime Minister Cameron’s alarmist statement shows that Britain might be already sucked into North Korea’s game of chicken.
North Korea also “advised” on Thursday that U.K. and Russian embassies evacuate its staff since the “North Korean government would be unable to guarantee the safety of embassies and international organizations in the country in the event of conflict from April 10.” To be sure, this is only a “suggestion” and the government has not indicated that it will forcefully remove the diplomatic staff if the suggestion was not accepted. To be sure, North Korea is willing to push on the diplomatic front to gain leverage.
China, a rare ally and blood-line of North Korea, still hasn’t shown a significant change in its policy, but its public opinion is starting to show change in China’s attitude toward North Korea. The Chinese public, referring to Kim Jong-un as “Fatty Kim” or “Fatty the Third,” is slowly moving away from regarding North Korea as friends “as close as lips and teeth.” On the policy level, Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group, argues that “Beijing was ‘fed up’ at the distractions being created by Pyongyang while it tries to focus its energies on other problems.”
In North Korea’s strategic imagination, all the stakeholders are already in the game of chicken with North Korea on the other side. What it wants is to appear as if it is going at them full speed until it crashes with them so that others can’t help but swerve in order to save their own lives.
With the ever-increasing media hype around North Korea’s threat, it is easy to get bogged down this very dangerous framework. Once stuck, these countries, which believe they can force North Korea to swerve with their military capabilities, will refuse to be called chickens and therefore never stop their accelerated counter-advances. Then, no one will be the winner of this game. This is why it’s important that we all keep a cool head and approach the problem with restraint and patience. All parties should understand the underlying motivation for Pyongyang’s continuous provocations and calmly assess its actual capacities and limitations before making any move that might get played into its game. Nobody should play North Korea’s game of chicken from the beginning.