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NOTE: North Korea’s Three-Level Game

Over the course of the last week or so, several events in North Korea have occurred which shed light on the nature of the regime and thus its role in the strategic environment.
The typical view of North Korea is as a “communist dictatorship,” or less charitably, as an ideologically driven state with a child (or, formerly, a wingnut) at the helm. Alternatively, the DPRK is seen as a totalitarian monolith. However, there is more to the state than this. As is more fully discussed in David C. Kang’s article in International Security, there are actually several competing elements at the sub-national level, each vying for control of the state’s foreign policy, namely the party, the military, and the cabinet.

The recent constitutional amendment declaring the DPRK a “nuclear armed state” or “nuclear power,” depending on the translation, bring this into particularly stark relief. In a dictatorship, constitutional amendments are little more than publicity stunts, since the dictator can by definition do as he pleases. This means that negotiations with dictatorships, regardless of any applicable constitutional provisions are one-level games. This is of course one of the reasons that they are popular as allies in difficult regions: they are more manageable.

Democratic and bureaucratic states, on the other hand, have to play the same game on two levels: the international and the national. That is, in addition to pleasing the negotiating partner, the negotiator must not offend the constituents at home. Such two-level games cause obvious difficulties, but also benefits. After all, the negotiator can fall back on the inability to garner public support at home (true or not) as a reason to reject a proposal he dislikes, increasing his leverage in the negotiations.

An example of this could be seen in President Obama’s recent remarks to Russian President Medvedev that he will have “more flexibility” regarding the anti-ballistic missile shield after his reelection. This was not intended to be heard at home, but to convey a firmness in present negotiations that was out of his control. This increases Obama’s negotiating power: Medvedev cannot expect a result that Obama cannot produce. However, because it was caught by a “hot mic,” the gambit actually did have second-level effects, negatively affecting public support and weakening his negotiating power. This illustrates the simultaneous constraint and empowerment of the democratic negotiator’s two-level game.

Similarly, in an ideological state with competing factions, such constitutional provisions can become significant roadblocks to negotiation. Just as a US negotiator would face certain reprimand for attempting to negotiate away 2nd Amendment rights, a North Korean negotiator would now be in severe trouble if he committed the constitutional crime of agreeing to give up the nukes. The DPRK has thus created significant leverage in nuclear negotiations by constraining their negotiators.

Interestingly, the sub-national actors are not the only ones that North Korea must please (or avoid offending too badly). North Korea is heavily dependent on China for aid and international support. China is therefor another constituent whose views must be taken into consideration in negotiations with the West. According to Nightwatch, a party official recently told the South Korean media that “North Korea is prepared to attempt a second space launch but is concerned about Chinese and Russian reaction as well as the prospect of another failure.” While the DPRK sometimes asserts its independence by defying Chinas wishes, it will be hesitant to launch another missile or test another nuclear device for fear of going too far and risking its status as client state.

This adds a second dimension to the two-level game (now a three-level game?) which may be exploited by the West. If the US can convince China that it is in China’s interest to not only limit proliferation on the Korean peninsula, but to reverse the progress the DPRK has already made, it will effectively be changing the conditions within the DPRK’s constituency. This will increase the pressure on the North dramatically, forcing a change of policy.


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