North Korea continues its march towards a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting anywhere in the U.S. Military experts agree they will eventually have this ultimate weapon, although maybe not until the end of Trump’s 4-year term.
What can be done to stop it? All the proposals have terrible drawbacks. A pre-emptive strike to knock out North Korea’s missile launchers, storehouses and military facilities would certainly fall short of 100%, leaving North Korea able to retaliate by killing tens of millions of people in South Korea and Japan and conceivably a few American targets. And if we didn’t also obliterate their ground forces, artillery, and submarines, their conventional weapons could devastate Seoul and elsewhere. A covert plan to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un would be extremely difficult to arrange, given his paranoia and lack of insider information about his precise whereabouts; and there is no guarantee his successor would be any different.
The remaining alternative-- tightening economic sanctions-- does not look promising. It has been attempted against North Korea unsuccessfully for decades. And in general, economic sanctions have a very poor track record in dissuading rogue regimes anywhere.
Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. We are back in a Cold War situation with North Korea. But our 45-year Cold War with the Soviet Union and China has some favorable lessons. Nuclear war did not happen, above all because of mutual deterrence by nuclear weapons. And both the Soviet bloc and Communist China succumbed, unexpectedly, to what might be called the blue jeans offensive: the lure of Western consumerism.
There are also good sociological grounds for reversing North Korea’s hostility. Here we need to remind ourselves of the social psychology of collective hostility, as well as of de-escalation. Isolating an enemy is just the wrong way to change their behavior. Our historical experience with Russia and China shows how to do it right.
The Cold War Nuclear Standoff
The U.S. exploded its first atom bomb in 1945; the Soviets four years later in 1949. The pace picked up: the first U.S. hydrogen bomb was 1952; the first Soviet H-bomb 1953. By 1957 the Soviets jumped ahead with their Sputnik rocket. This was not just the prestige of the space race, but an ICBM-- an intercontinental ballistics missile capable of hitting targets across the globe. The US soon had their own ICBMs (not to mention long-distance bomber fleets with aerial refueling, and submarine-launched missiles). By the late 50s magazine articles were explaining how to build backyard bomb shelters. When I was a kid, being woken up by a lightning storm made me think nuclear war had started. In 1964 Dr. Strangelove showed us on screen how the end of the world could happen.
By the 1970s, Soviet and US nuclear arsenals were so large that they could annihilate all animal life on the planet, through poisonous radiation drifting around the globe and the likelihood of a nuclear winter when the sun didn’t shine for years.
But it didn’t happen. Nuclear weapons were never used in war (except against Japan, when only one nation had them), even with proliferation to the UK, France, China, Pakistan, India, and probably Israel. Why not? In retrospect, we can see that mutually assured destruction (MAD) made everyone realize that escalation on that scale was too risky. Even conventional war between the great powers (i.e. nuclear-armed powers) ceased as well. Despite threats, the last direct great power war was the Korean War during 1950-3, when Chinese and US troops fought. Since then, wars have been proxy wars with conventional weapons supplied from outside. At the time, we thought MAD was madness-- an unconscious joke in the acronym. But in fact it worked. Governments were not crazy enough to start a war that is certain to annihilate their country.
This is the first piece of good news from the Cold War: a nuclear arms race is survivable. And it leads to a second piece of good news: devastating threats on both sides eventually foster negotiation.
The Slow Process of De-escalation
As awareness grows about the consequences of nuclear war for both sides, another process sets in. The steps at first are small, putting in place safeguards against accidental escalation. Some steps came from the scare of looking over the brink. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis started with intelligence that the Soviets were shipping medium-range missiles to Cuba. Their motive was adding another arm to Russia-based ICBMs, and bolstering a new ally, while the Soviets basked in a wave of global decolonization and left-wing revolutions. But after John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, and their secret emergency committee found a way to combine their own nuclear threat with some small concessions, Khrushchev backed down and withdrew the missiles. Next year, they established a telephone “hot line” between Washington and Moscow to be used in case of nuclear threats.
Further steps happened in following decades. In 1979, Carter and Brezhnev agreed on a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) which set modest ceilings on particular kinds of nuclear stockpiles. Things went back and forth. Reagan ran for president in 1980 on the issue of the “window of vulnerability”-- that the Soviets had so many extra missiles they could destroy our missile launchers in a sudden first strike, then have enough left to threaten a second strike against our cities unless we surrendered. This was probably not in the cards, since our nuclear tripod (missiles, bombers, submarines) could not be knocked out in that way-- paralleling our problem today with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. At any rate, Reagan got elected (probably more because of the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran), and proceeded on a renewed arms buildup. Nevertheless, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Reagan established a personal relationship with him, and opened further SALT negotiations. Part of the widespread enthusiasm for Gorbachev during those years-- not only in the USSR and its satellites, but Western Europe as well-- was the feeling that the threat of nuclear war was finally over. In this atmosphere came the popular movements that broke up the Soviet bloc, and eventually massive reduction of armaments in the 1990s on both sides.
The Blue Jeans Offensive
The slow process of pulling back from the nuclear arms race was accelerated by an unexpected development. Up through the 1980s, citizens of the communist regimes were restricted from traveling to the West, but gradually European and American tourists began to trickle inside the Iron Curtain. There they found it was worthwhile to carry an extra pair of blue jeans, because they could barter it for the cost of their trip. Consumer goods were scarcely available, and communist citizens were eager for anything that looked fashionable and hip. The cult of American jazz had existed in Russia-- usually the records were years out of date, but the Soviets at least approved of Negro musicians as an oppressed group. More up-to-date styles from the 60s and 70s gradually filtered into awareness of communist youth.* The state-run economies had made great strides in recovering from WWII, but concentrated almost entirely in heavy industry and military buildup. As long as the communist regimes controlled culture and propaganda, they promoted an image of the evil capitalists of the West keeping their workers in poverty. Once contacts started to open up, another reality seeped in.
* I remember traveling to Budapest with my daughter in 1986, where a man at the train station, eager for western currency, offered us a bargain rate on a hotel, which turned out to be his apartment in a collective living complex. In the dining hall were a tour group of Russians, dancing to a rock n’roll band from the 50s. They were allowed to go as far as Hungary, on the border of the West, but no further.
Gorbachev’s turn towards reforming the communist system started in the 1970s, when as a reward for political loyalty he was allowed to travel with his wife on a visit to Italy. They had their own car, saw how many other people had cars, TVs, and nice clothes, and returned with a vision of what the real Soviet future should be like.
China, too, after the first steps towards opening to the world were made in the 1970s, discovered Western consumer goods in the 1980s and 90s, and became their mainstay of production for the world market.
America’s greatest asset internationally is its consumer way of life. Not just that we have more stuff; we have more cool stuff. The communists’ most vulnerable point is that they are not cool. We beat them when we’re not fighting them because they want to be us.
Isolation Breeds Group Solidarity
The policy of isolating an enemy until they change their behavior does not work. It has not worked in the past. Basic social psychology of solidarity and conformity shows why.
The ingredients that produce high levels of group solidarity are a combination of:
-- isolation of the group from outsiders
-- mutual focus of attention, all paying attention to the same thing
-- a shared emotion
When the three ingredients get stronger, they feed back on each other. Paying attention to other persons and seeing them express the same emotion makes one’s own emotion stronger; stronger emotion makes one pay more attention to what’s causing it; both processes increase isolation from people not in the loop.
When people experience a rush of these ingredients, they feel a sense of solidarity and group identity; heightened identification with the symbols of the group; stronger attachment to our beliefs, and decreased tolerance of non-conformity. We’re in this; you should be in it too. At high levels of solidarity, people are ready to fight over perceived insults from outsiders, even when there is no material damage.
Conflict with an outside group has an especially strong effect. Conflict makes both sides set up barriers; it makes us concentrate on the enemy and on our own leaders. The more violent the conflict, the more we feel fear and anger towards the enemy, while we pump up pride and support for our team. This has been called the “rally-round-the-flag effect.”
The ingredients of solidarity and conformity operate on the level of small groups of individuals; but also on medium size groups like organizations and social movements. They also operate on very large groups like states, provided they have mass communications so that everyone can focus on the same thing. That is why the era of nationalism began in the era of newspapers in the 1800s, and strengthened when other broadcast media developed like radio in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s.
The strength of the ingredients determines the strength of the outcomes. But most ingredients cannot remain intense for a long time. I measured these processes in the days and months after the attack of 9/11/2001, and found that the maximal amount of displaying national symbols (flags, images of firefighters) was in the first three months, then began to decline. Political discussion and dissent was more or less forbidden during those months; but around Christmas time, articles started appearing about “Is it okay to take our flags down now?” For those few months, President George W. Bush, whose approval rating before and afterwards was rather low, shot up to 90%, the highest on record.
In a complex society like the modern U.S., it takes a tremendous amount of shared emotion to keep people coming to public gatherings like those commemorating firefighters and police in the fall of 2001. After a while, their focus of attention goes back to their local and private concerns, their emotion falls, and their commitment to the cause of defeating the enemy declines. We saw the growing division of pro-war and anti-war factions from 2002 onwards.
All this is understandable through sociological theory of solidarity. The tremendous shock of the 9/11 attacks, stories about the victims’ families, the heroism of the firefighters and cops, were broadcast everywhere and monopolized everyone’s attention for the first few months. But a complex society has many things to pay attention to, and a media-rich democracy cannot force people to keep replaying the high-intensity solidarity ritual when they no longer feel like it. This is different in a dictatorship, which monopolizes the media and enforces attention on a single message from the regime.
Flip this over to the point of view of our enemies. Their media tells them that we are a terrible threat; they are the heroes resisting the bad guys. Their media are inescapable: in North Korea, loud-speakers are on every street corner. No doubt there is an artificial strain of keeping up the required emotions-- fear of outsiders; love of our Dear Leader. [See Faces Around A Dictator] But the other ingredients are too strong: no alternatives to the single focus of attention; isolation from any contacts to the outside.
Our policy of trying to change enemy states by isolating them is worse than ironic. Isolation is exactly the condition that makes them more confirmed in their beliefs.
Why do we keep on doing it?
If isolating the enemy is such a counter-productive strategy, why does it appeal to us so strongly?
For one thing, conflict processes are symmetrical across both sides. Once a conflict gets intense, we both feel angry at the other, paint the other as a fearful demon, adulate our brave fighters and our leaders. We try to isolate ourselves from having any human contact with them, just as they do towards us.
People who like to think of themselves as civilized may consider isolation a humane way to deal with the problem, rather than resorting to violence. The old-fashioned way of disciplining children was “go stand in the corner until you behave.” This was updated by modern child psychology into the “time-out.” But it only works if-- like a parent with small children-- you have total superiority of power (which is not the case between militarized states).
And it only works when isolating an individual. If the bad-actor is a group, punishing them by isolating them together doesn’t work. This is putting gang members together in prison with members of the same demographic; it recruits new members and strengthens the gang organization and its culture. Isolating a group not only won’t change their behavior; it makes it worse.
How to reduce enemy hostility
The theoretical model of group solidarity shows a solution. To reduce their hostile emotions and the beliefs that support them, break up the single focus of attention. The best way to do this is to reduce isolation, so there are more things outside themselves to pay attention to.
The Cold War gives evidence of how a policy of reducing isolation works to transform international enemies. In summer 1971, Nixon sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a secret mission to China. Kissinger, a political scientist, was trying to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. He worked out a deal that the U.S. would not oppose the PRC taking Nationalist China’s seat (practically speaking, Taiwan) on the United Nations Security Council. Six months later, Nixon himself traveled to China and met Mao Zedong, where they agreed to establish some form of diplomatic relations. This is remarkable enough, considering it was at the time when China was just emerging from the Red Guards movement that nearly tore the country apart in 1966-68; and the U.S. was still bogged down in the Vietnam War. But there is an underlying logic: both sides were trying to get out of their own quagmires; de-escalating at least one piece of international hostilities was a victory for both.
Within a few years, Mao was dead, the Gang of Four eliminated, and in 1977 the reformer Deng Xiaoping was reinstated. Soon came full diplomatic relations and Deng’s visit to the U.S. In the 1980s market-oriented reforms were launched, burgeoning in the 1990s. China soon became the chief supplier of the U.S. consumer economy. In recent years, 30 years in, America has become the place where Chinese want to send their kids to college and where they themselves want to live.
China and Russia are the positive cases of how ending isolation led to a whole-sale shift away from communism and hostility to the West. China is the strongest case, because it has become so highly integrated into the market for western consumer goods, both as producer and consumer. Russia somewhat less so, since its export economy remained heavy industries, oil and military equipment. A glaring negative case is Cuba, where a strict policy of isolation has kept the communist regime stagnant for over 50 years. The presence of a large group of anti-communist refugees in Florida has kept the old polarization alive: the older generation of refugees has been a veto group in U.S. politics, preventing any moves that would actually change Cuba into becoming more like the U.S. We may soon see the effects of more commercial connections between ordinary Americans and Cuba.
The solution to the North Korean nuclear threat
The solution is right before our faces. Pursue the policies of Nixon and Reagan in opening up and de-escalating conflict with China and Russia. This is not a quick process. With China, it took 20 years to pay off. With Russia, results were quicker, but the blue-jeans offensive was already doing its work.
The last is what we should be pushing above all. We do not want North Korea exporting or importing military goods. We have little to gain from letting them open up to the world market in heavy industry. But U.S. policy should be trying to facilitate ways that American consumer products-- for that matter, Western and Japanese consumer products in general-- can get into North Korea. Hello Kitty, Japanese toy fads, American smart phones and action-adventure movies: whatever is hip and stylish. This is the soft offensive that can break the psychological isolation of North Koreans and put them on the Russian and Chinese path.
That means we need to get over the self-righteous emotional jolt of demanding that they go stand in the corner. It is far from clear we will get over it soon. Right now its easy political appeal is shared on both sides of the political spectrum. But sometimes professional diplomats, international entrepreneurs and maverick presidents make a difference.
So there are two hopeful messages, one quite confident: Cold Wars threatening nuclear destruction can and do de-escalate. The second is more chancy, but possible through processes from below: the blue jeans offensive translated into today’s consumer fads. Either way, the world can survive North Korea.
David R. Gibson. 2012. Talk at the Brink. Deliberation and Decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
David Skarbeck. 2014. The Social Order of the Underworld. How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System.
Randall Collins. 2011. “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Violence.” American Sociological Review.
Randall Collins. 2004. “Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist attack.” Sociological Theory.