The Game of Chicken and U.S. Policy toward North Korea After North Korea’s 6th Nuclear Test
I am Jong-Gu Lee, a visiting scholar from the Republic of Korea conducting research at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs. I am honored to study at the Elliott School, which is known to be one of the top schools for international relations. These last six months in Washington D.C. have been the best time of my life because I was able to learn many things. I spent my time here taking several classes that I was interested in and attending meaningful seminars and colloquiums. I am sure that the experience here will lead me to a better future.
During this period, I conducted a research project about potential U.S. policy responses to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test by applying a specific variant of game theory known as “Chicken-Game.” My study also includes policy suggestions for the ROK government. Chicken game theory was applied to the research because the nature of the conflict between the United States and North Korea aligns with this theory’s proposition. In other words, the theory is applicable to my study because the conflict of the two states is related to the nuclear issue, and neither side can abandon their stances on the issue.
The primary assumption of chicken game theory is as follows: two teenagers, here designated as player A and player B, who line up at opposite ends of a stretch of roadway drive stolen cars at full speed directly toward one another. Each player has two choices - to swerve or not to swerve - but whoever swerves first is “chicken” and loses the game. Thus, there are four possible outcomes for this chicken game:
(1) If A and B players swerve at the same time, both are “chicken,” but neither loses face;
(2) if A swerves and B does not, then A is“chicken” and B gains status among peers;
(3) alternatively, if B swerves and A does not, the payoffs are reversed;
(4) finally, if both continue straight ahead without swerving, they both crash, and then
the payoff in this case is death.
The result of my study shows that the U.S. and North Korea have both increased threat levels to compel other states to change their behavior to serve their own respective goals. The U.S. government will continue to maintain a hawkish stance on North Korea in the future. While the U.S. will increase pressure to compel significant changes in North Korea’s behavior, it will also prepare for contingencies with military options. At the same time, the U.S. will continue to conduct negotiations with North Korea under the table for a dramatic agreement.
Based on the result of my study, I have three suggestions for the ROK government. First, the ROK should recognize that it is riding in the car with the U.S., and based on that notion, the ROK must pursue consistent policies toward North Korea’s nuclear program along with strengthened U.S.-ROK cooperation. Second, the ROK should perform two-track policies by continuing sanctions and pressure against North Korea, while maintaining room for negotiation. Third, in terms of military measures, the ROK should validate the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrence; furthermore, it should be ready to retaliate against North Korea’s potential provocations or full-scale war by establishing and declaring practical rules of engagement.
Last but not least, I want to emphasize once again that repeated “Chicken-Games” can significantly reduce the chances of survival among players. We have to genuinely consider whether we have
become desensitized to North Korea's provocations and nuclear threats. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not acceptable for the prosperity and peace of the Korean Peninsula, and the chicken games with North Korea should no longer be repeated. Therefore, the ROK and the United States must establish an effective and mutually-agreed strategy to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue at this time.
While this summary does not fully explore or explain the details of my research I hope it will help anyone who is interested in researching about North Korea’s nuclear program and potential U.S. policy responses to that program. I would like to thank the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, the Elliott School, and the George Washington University for providing me with the opportunity to conduct this
research endeavor, and thank the readers for their interest in this topic.