Tag Archives: missile test

Domestic Politics, Misperception, and North Korea’s Missile Launch

North Korea's missile launch produced fear, anger, and condemnation from many in the international community. But was it really all about domestic politics?

North Korea’s provocative missile launch last week evoked a feeling of deja vu.  On its surface, it seemed to be just another instance of “saber rattling” aimed at foreign targets–the latest act in a long series of missile launches, nuclear tests, verbal threats, and other provocations calculated to signal strength, to deter, or perhaps even to coerce or blackmail the foreign opponents of the insular Communist regime.  But there is reason to believe that this high profile launch–and many other provocative actions in world politics–are driven less by foreign policy goals than by the requirements of domestic politics.

Many analysts believe that North Korea’s missile launch was part of an effort by 28-year-old leader Kim Jong Un (who only succeeded his father Kim Jong Il last December) to consolidate power through a demonstration of strength.  In a late December blog post we detailed the challenges the young leader faced in consolidating his power, emphasizing the centrality of the military as the most powerful domestic actor and the most important part of the selectorate that would determine the next leader.  Richard Haass, the president of  the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that “…the test’s failure constitutes a humiliating setback for the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. It is likely that a principal reason for the launch was to signal his emergence and consolidate his authority. There is thus a real risk that he will turn to a tried and true path to accomplish the same ends.  If history is any guide, this suggests that a test of a nuclear warhead or some sort of aggressive military action — for example, an artillery strike — against South Korea could be in the offing.”

Other examples of this pattern abound.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis, analysts have linked President Kennedy’s tough response to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba to a need to show resolve to combat domestic charges of his being “soft on Communism” after the Bay of Pigs debacle.  Similarly, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s intransigence and demands for concessions such as the withdrawal of U.S. missiles in Turkey can be traced to his need to placate hardliners in the Communist party.

After the U.S.-led invasion failed to uncover evidence of Iraq’s alleged weapons of the mass destruction (WMD), Western analysts were puzzled at Saddam’s willingness to endure painful sanctions, isolation, and even war rather than simply prove to UN weapons inspectors that he had dismantled his WMD.  But after his capture, Saddam admitted that he had been bluffing in order to deter Iran–and likely to maintain his own power in the cut-throat domestic scene.  Had he admitted to disarming, it is likely that the military would have attempted a coup against him (as it reportedly had on several occasions from 1988-1990, which had encouraged him to demonstrate his toughness by invading Kuwait in August 1990).

In short, many provocative acts in world politics can be traced–at least in part, and sometimes entirely–to the requirements of domestic politics.  But foreign actors often misperceive the underlying sources of this behavior, and assume these actions are driven by aggressive designs on the world stage.  Robert Jervis, in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, notes that a common psychological bias is to assume other countries’ behavior is the product of a rational, unitary actor who is intentionally targeting you.  In reality, your country may just “be in the way” of the other state’s domestic political struggle.

What do you think?   How much of countries’ hostile rhetoric and behavior on the world stage can be traced to domestic politics rather than real international ambitions?  Is this less of a problem in democracies, or does the nature of democratic politics actually promote more conflict with foreign opponents?

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Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been another busy week for President Barack Obama, who started the week laying the foundation for a new arms control agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, then moved on to discuss a range of issues including food security and climate change at the G8 summit in Italy, before concluding the week with a visit to Ghana, where he delivered a speech calling for more effective and accountable leadership in Africa.

In other news from the previous week:

1. In a surprising move, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on Friday that Russia was still interested in securing membership in the World Trade Organization. In doing so, President Medvedev reversed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s June announcement that Russia was ending its bid to secure WTO membership, moving forward instead with a customs union incorporating several of the former Soviet republics. While Medvedev’s spokesperson sought to minimize the differences between Medvedev and Putin’s approaches the policy reversal nevertheless represents the most dramatic policy clash between Russia’s two top political leaders. The uncertainty surrounding Russia’s position on WTO membership further complicates ongoing talks between Russia and its trade partners.

2. A series of denial-of-service attacks against the United States and South Korea on Wednesday were likely the result of a North Korean cyber attack. In a denial-of-service attack, thousands of simultaneous electronic information requests are made, causing computer servers to crash. Wednesday’s attacks were directed against South Korean and U.S. financial sector and government computers, including Department of Defense and FBI networks. The attacks followed a series of increasingly aggressive missile test launches by North Korea, including several launched over the July 4th weekend, and highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. computer networks to relatively simple cyber attacks. Many analysts believe this sort of denial-of-service attack—in an effort to inhibit communications—would precede a North Korean military attacks against the South.

3. Israel’s National Security Advisor, Uzi Arad, considered by many to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closed political advisor, announced that Israel would not return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of any peace deal. The two countries are currently engaged in indirect talks aimed at reaching a “comprehensive peace.” But the status of the Golan Heights remains disputed, as both countries seek control of the region, which is of strategic importance, as well as being a major source of water and a popular tourist destination in the water-scarce region. Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967, after the Syrian army used the strategic position to shell Israeli positions in the Hula Valley below. The status of the Golan Heights, along with the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, remains the major stumbling blocks for a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.

4. Talks intended to resolve the political crisis in Honduras began in Costa Rica on Thursday. The crisis began two weeks ago, when President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and put on a military transport out of the country. Roberto Micheletti has been named interim president, but his government is not recognized by the international community. The Organization of American States has taken the lead on addressing the standoff, sponsoring talks to peacefully resolve the standoff. But so far, both sides are unwilling to compromise on the central question: who should rule in Honduras?

5. The United States and the European Union appear to be on a collision course with respect to new financial regulations intended to prevent another global financial crisis like the one that ripped through markets late last year. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a new regulatory system that would impose stricter regulation on derivatives, including bans on some of the riskiest financial instruments. But many are concerned that stricter regulations in the United States would encourage regulatory arbitrage, where financial companies would simply relocate to jurisdictions with weaker regulatory systems.