Six-Party Talks as a Game Theoretic ‘Stag-Hunt’ (1): N Korea is the Stag


Last week, I suggested that South Korea demonstrate ‘strategic restraint’ vis-a-vis NK if the North truly sank that SK destroyer. Not only are the South’s tactical response options terrible, but there is benefit here to be captured if the South’s restraint is marketed to China as a concession in exchange for more pressure on the North. For all of NK’s reputed autarky, it is in fact highly dependent on Chinese aid and trade, both licit and illicit. Without Chinese fuel oil, the lights in the North would go out; without the imports of booze, dollars, and pornography, the life of the Korean elite would be far less pampered. China cannot force the NK to change, but it can dramatically raise the costs of its continued intransigence.

All this is well-known but could be helpfully formalized in our research. In fact, I am surprised how little game theory (GT) I see applied to NK at the conferences here in Asia, given how obvious its utility is to the bargaining and brinksmanship endemic in NK foreign policy.

The stag-hunt (SH) is the best GT model or ‘game’ by which to map Northeast Asia’s security dilemma. We use GT all the time in IR but usually the prisoner’s dilemma (PD). (If you have no idea what I am talking about, start here for GT in IR; the Wikipedia write-ups, linked for the SH and PD, are actually quite good too.) The PD is cooperation came – how do you get the players to cooperate when there are high incentives to cheat on each other. The stag-hunt is better understood as a coordination game – how do you get the players to coordinate a common strategy to get the big pay-off, the stag.

Here is the basic schematic: a group of hunters can probably bag a big stag if they work together. They can weave a net around the stag that is likely to catch him. However, the hunters will also see the occasional rabbit bounce by. If one of the hunters goes for a rabbit, the stag will escape through the hole created and the other hunters will lose the stag almost certainly. Formally put, the stag is a big pay-off, and there is a good probability of successfully catching it if the hunters all coordinate. Conversely, the rabbit is a sure thing, but a much smaller, payoff. So the trick is to convince all the hunters to coordinate and not take the easy rabbit by cheating or ‘defecting’ on the other hunters.

So apply this to the Six Party Talks: The Hunters (players of the game) are the 5 parties besides NK: Japan, US, SK, Russia, and China. The Stag is North Korea, or more specifically change by the NK regime. The NK stag knows that if the 5 hunters can’t cooperate, it can escape. And it is widely noted that this is exactly what NK has done for decades. NK’s foreign-policy methodology since the 50s has been twisting and turning to prevent domination. Since the end of the Cold War, this has meant a constant ‘divide-to-survive’ effort aimed at the other 5 parties to prevent their coalescence into a united front against the DPRK. (I even wrote a book chapter about this, in galleys here.)

So the trick then is to build a common front among NK’s hunters to insure that they won’t defect or cheat and go for the rabbit. The rabbit in the NK case would be NK concessions to one party, but not the others: for example, abductee returns to Japan, family reunions for SK, mineral exploration rights for China, etc. These piecemeal, now-one-but-not-the-other concessions are all designed to keep the other 5 players off-balance and disunited. To date this has worked spectacularly well, even though the 5 hunters all know they are getting shamelessly manipulated.

The big problem to date for the hunters’ coordination is that China sees a lot of gain from taking the rabbit. The Chinese rabbit is in fact so juicy, it probably outweighs the tasty stag. The Chinese rabbit is a route of influence into the Korean Peninsula through North Korea’s continued existence. The big stag – change in NK to be a better international citizen in Northeast Asia – is of much greater value to SK and Japan, followed by the US, than it is to China. So long as China perceives a utility from NK as a buffer against SK, Japan, and the US, it is likely to continue to defect on 5 party cooperation, as it did last year, and take the rabbit of propping up NK in order to influence Korean events.

Part two is here.

6 thoughts on “Six-Party Talks as a Game Theoretic ‘Stag-Hunt’ (1): N Korea is the Stag

  1. Pingback: Elmer Fudd and the North Korean Stag « Left Flank

  2. I’m left wondering why North Korea would do something so radical as to torpedo an SK ship? Bob, do you think KJI got drunk and did it out of boredom, or was there some deeper strategic objective behind it?


    • Yeah, that is my next question too. I have been scratching my head over that one also for the last month. I have tried to avoid speculation until the final word from the US and SK comes in that NK is in fact responsible.

      But still, I can’t really figure this one out. I don’t see the gain. Was this a test of SK resolve? Is the North trying to see just how far it can push SK before it will hit back? And if so, why? For what reason? The SK press seems to be coalescing around the idea of a revenge strike, because NK has lost the North-South naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea regularly. But that seems awfully risky.

      My guess is that this is a sign of just how much NK is morphing into a military dictatorship. The KPA elite is pushing more and more on the civilian leadership, and this was probably an ‘over-implementation’ of a vague order from the KWP that ‘something’ needed to be done about the balance in the Yellow Sea. Hearing that, the KPA decided to go wild. This shows the rest of NK (and SK) who is really in charge.


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  4. Pingback: How to Respond if North Korea really Sank that SK Destroyer: ‘Sell’ Southern Strategic Restraint to China for Pressure on the North « Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: NKorea Recap (2): NK is an ‘Upper Volta with Nukes’, so Ignore Them | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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