War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 5

Today was one of those days where a gamble really pays off. I assigned a chapter of S.C.M. Paine’s The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, hoping that it would give the class some clues as to why the two main belligerents couldn’t reach a deal over the governance of Korea and avert what turned out to be a pretty significant war. As it happened, we were treated to a textbook story about mutual optimism leading to inconsistent expectations about the likely outcome of the war, rooted in what were essentially different theories of how wars are won: the Qing expected numbers to carry the day, while Japan was willing to bet on its qualitatively superior Westernized forces.

As it happened, war quickly laid bare whose forces were superior, as Japan decimated the Chinese navy and was making quick work of its military forces on the Liaodong Peninsula when China ultimately sued for peace. So it’s a great story for our understanding of war—especially war termination—and asymmetric information, but what I found most fascinating was the account of the debate within Japan about just how far to press the advantage once they had the Qing on the ropes: fearing foreign intervention, especially the Russians and Germans, elements of the Japanese elite wanted to limit their aims in order to guarantee they could keep what they got. So they moderated their aims a bit, and while they still took off a little to much, being forced by the Russians, Germans, and French (the Triple Intervention) to cede the Liaodong Peninsula back to China (who subsequently leased it to the Russians), it was a pretty clear example of the dynamic Suzanne Werner analyzed here: where states that don’t intervene in a war can still have a profound affect on its aims and its course.

So we built on the basic informational account of war by tracing (a) how battlefield outcomes affect war aims and (b) how the shadow of outside intervention can affect war outcomes, even when that intervention may not materialize.

Pedagogically, not a bad day at all.

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North and South Korea: Caught in the Turnover Trap?

It’s been hard over the last few weeks not to get caught up in the near-constant stream of gloriously hyperbolic threats and invective coming out of North Korea (especially in Austin, which appears to be one of several places targeted for destruction just this week). However, while the overheated rhetoric, retro nods to Cold War-era ideological struggles, and visionary mashups of “We Are the World” and Call of Duty may be uniquely North Korean, the situation in which the leaders of both North and South Korea find themselves is certainly not. In fact, it’s a special case of what in my own research I call “the turnover trap“: since neither Kim Jong Un nor Park Geun-hye have been in office very long, both have powerful incentives to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula, however little either side may actually wish for the pot to boil over into a fresh conflict.

The answer to all your questions, after the jump… Continue reading

Succession politics in North Korea

While it’s clear that I’ve got to find something to write about besides North Korea (soon, soon, I promise), I can’t resist linking this blog entry from FP on a (possibly) budding sibling rivalry between Kim Jong-Un, the successor-designate, and Kim Jong-Nam, the elder son whose partying lifestyle apparently led him to being passed over for the throne this spring.

Named successors are pretty rare things, and when they happen, I’m always reminded of Gordon Tullock’s answer as to why they’re so rare: they’re dangerous, both for the incumbent and the now publicly-named next in line. Tullock argues that designating a successor helps coordinate those who would wish to alter the succession but who, in the absence of a focal point, would have trouble overcoming a basic plotter’s dilemma: I want to topple the king, but I don’t want to be the only one (because then I’m terribly easy to kill). Named successors can help coordinate the opposition or, and I’m thinking aloud here, maybe force the hand of rival claimants to the throne…and this just might have something to do with Kim Jong-Nam throwing wrenches into his younger brother’s plans and, in retaliation, Jong-Un’s reported attempt to have his brother assassinated. The counterfactual, of course, would be that in the absence of a named successor, there would be sufficient uncertainty, given the government’s coercive power, to induce caution on the part of would-be troublemakers who seem willing to move only now, once Jong-Un won the family’s favor.

Why bring this up? Well, if named successions are so dangerous, it begs the question of why they’re used. What did Kim Jong-Il stand to gain from naming the heir apparent? I’m working out an answer, so look for more on this later..

Is North Korea “irrational”? No.

It’s been common for quite some time to call Kim Jong-Il irrational, and North Korea’s well-known ability to keep the world “guessing“—careening from talks to no talks, compliance to noncompliance, calls for aid to sinking ships and lobbing shells across the border—has done little to discourage this kind of talk. However, it’s dead wrong to infer “irrationality” (whatever that means) from unpredictability. In fact, one can argue that, in North Korea’s position, being unpredictable is quite shrewd and, yes, quite rational. Far from delusional or incoherent, I’d go so far as to call North Korea’s actions over Kim Jong-Il’s reign “rationally unpredictable.” What do I mean by that? More after the jump…

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