North Korea is a “rogue” country. It’s autocratic leader, Kim Jong-un, who inherited the leadership of the state from his father, Kim Jong-il, who himself had inherited the title of supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from his father, Kim Il-sung who was the founder of the DPRK, is a dictatorial leader who rules North Korea via a cult of personality and disinformation about the outside world. Even as Jong-il comes under intense international scrutiny for his threats of a preemptive nuclear attack and his continuation of ballistic missile launches which further unrest in the region and fuel specualtion regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, he solidifies his power at home via executions and purges of presumed challengers.
In the past efforts by foreign states such as the United States to effectively impose sanctions and other forms of coercive diplomacy were hindered by China, as they have an alliance with North Korea. However, it would appear even China has grown tired of Jong-il’s increasing provocative and seemingly reckless rhetoric and posturing. The difficulty becomes that as Kim Jong-il continues to remain in power he continues to consolidate his hold on the country. To reference selectorate theory, his “winning coalition” grows smaller and smaller as his tenure endures. The smaller the winning coalition the more difficult it is to depose the leader. This bodes ill or not only foreign relations with North Korea but for the people of North Korea as well.
New research from Scott Abramsom and Carlos Velasco Rivera, forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, demonstrates that in autocracies leader tenure as a non-institutional source of stability is a crucial point of political power. Exploiting the random times of natural deaths the authors show “that leaders with longer tenures tended to be succeeded by their sons and had successors that were less frequently deposed and less likely to face parliamentary constraints”. In other words, constraints on autocratic power must come from external forces.
In a separate article, also forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, Colin Krainin and Thomas Wiseman find that as a country’s military strength varies stochastically over time war becomes inevitable given state patience. That is to say that as the military strength (or power) of a country, such as the United States, naturally varies over time this strength is likely to reach a state of parity with another country, or countries. Applying existing evidence that states which approach power parity are more likely to be conflictual (which these authors substantiate), this means that over time war becomes more likely unless power inequalities can be sustained. Therefore, unless actions are taken to continue power inequalities, or at least sustain peace between two states of relatively equal power, war will occur.
These two articles describe two opposing forces: 1) State power naturally ebbs and flows over time due to endogenous sources, causing power parity; 2) Autocratic leaders increase their power over time as the consolidate their standing at home. While these two processes are not absolute and there is no guarantee North Korea would ever become equals in strength to the United States, it is an empirical possibility. Also, it is a possibility whose outcome may increasingly favor North Korea. This is not to say North Korea would ever win a war against the United States, but in time may be able to inflict greater damage.
So as North Korea continues it’s belligerence and damages its reputation with both enemies and allies, and seems intent on demonstrating its capabilities to the outside world, when is the proper time to take action? And what action is adequate in order to stem Kim Jong-il’s contentious foreign policies and ruinous domestic policies? Sanctions thus far do not appear to have had much effect, and historically many times do not work, and in some cases actually harm the sanctioner. Other forms of coercive diplomacy have similarly failed. And to this point China seems unwilling or unable to place enough pressure on Kim Jong-il to make him alter his actions and his rhetoric.
Thereby, the case for war.