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Confronting What We Don't Know About the Korean Crisis

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War cries, threats and counter-threats, moves and counter-moves are emanating from the Korean peninsula. Pundits have pronounced on what's going on and where things are headed. So this may be a good time to engage in some humility and to reflect on how little we know.

To make things easy, let's start with what we do know, as a matter of fact.

North Korea has a young (he's 30), untested leader, Kim Jong-un, who has been at the helm for barely a year, following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, a domineering presence. The Korean peninsula is crammed with soldiers and armaments, more so than any other place on the planet. A war would thus be a catastrophe -- no question about it.

There's no way that the United States could stay clear: it has alliance with South Korea and 28,000 troops stationed there.

Ditto for Japan, which hosts some 49,000 U.S. forces (11,000 are offshore) and over 80 American military installations, and would come under immediate attack by North Korea.

North Korea is the weaker side, based on the standard measures of power. The South has a GDP that's close to 40 times the size of the North's and a defense budget larger than the North's entire GDP. Its arsenal is much more advanced than the North's, which consists of Chinese and Soviet weaponry dating back to the 1970s, much of it even older.

The United States is treaty-bound to defend South Korea; North Korea lacks an identical arrangement with China, its principal patron.

Now for what we don't know, which is where the problems begin.

Who's calling the shots in North Korea? Is it the young, unseasoned Kim Jong-un? If so, he may fear that looking weak during his first big test will undermine irreparably his newly acquired authority. That might induce him to ramp up the rhetoric and to back it up with bold moves. That's one possibility and it's worrisome. Another is that he doesn't want to lose his newly acquired patrimony and will look for ways to wind down this crisis. There's no way to tell what's in his mind, though, apart from guesswork.

Or are North Korea's generals, much older men, who have held their posts for many years, running the show, at least during this crisis? If that's the case, how does the world look to them? For all their bluster, they are experienced military professionals and should -- I emphasize the word -- understand what the balance of power is and realize that they can't win a war and that it would bring down the North Korean state. Well, that's a plausible conclusion.

But maybe the old warriors of Spartan North Korea have contempt for South Korea's leaders, seeing them as American lackeys. Maybe they believe that the South, because of its astonishing economic success, has become a bourgeois society that's too addicted to creature comforts and the good life to risk war, or to prevail if it occurred anyway. The generals may also believe that their military machine is in fact as formidable as their boasts proclaim. Well, these too are reasonable inferences.

South Korea has a new and untested leader as well, indeed its first woman president, Park Guen-hye. She also may be under pressure to demonstrate that she's tough enough for the job -- and in Korea's male-dominant culture, no less. (It was hardly accidental that North Korea's propaganda machine blasted her "venomous swish skirt," whatever that means.) And, like Kim, Jong-un, she has big shoes to fill. Her father, strongman-president Park Chung-hee, a general before he seized power in a 1961 coup, ruled with an iron hand for 18 years.

But how exactly will this legacy shape her thinking now? Again, there's more than one possibility, especially because we haven't really seen her in action; she been in office for barely three months.

What about South Korea's alliance with the United States? This crisis overlaps with the U.S.-South Korea "Foal Eagle" military exercises (which have enabled Washington to flex its muscles by, for example, flying its B-52s and the B-2 stealth bomber over South Korean airspace). Does that reassure South Korea, or make it overconfident, risk-prone, and determined to get Kim to back down? Or does the alliance give the United States, which doesn't want to get dragged into a war, the influence to ensure that Seoul exercises caution in what it does and says? These too are questions to which there are no incontrovertible answers.

Then there's China. Does Beijing, as is sometimes assumed, have a lot of leverage with North Korea because of the aid it provides Pyongyang? Or does North Korea just take China's money, because it knows China needs to prop it up, and then do what it wants, as some say is the case? If it's the latter, Beijing, which has been urging calm (as has Russia), may be little more than a bystander. We should hope that what Beijing says does matter to Pyongyang. The problem: we don't know what the China factor amounts to.

The upshot is that we're in crisis where the wrong decisions could lead to calamitous consequences -- now that's a certainty. But good decisions require -- in addition to wisdom and luck -- good information. That's where the deficit is. Too many important, yet essential, questions have more than one plausible answer, in part because, when it comes to North Korea, there's no such thing as expertise, only varying degrees of ignorance.

There's another problem. Crises like these are notorious for generating what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Under conditions of extreme stress (like crises that could lead to war), those responsible for making big decisions cling to established ideas and practices, which become security blankets.

Leaders under acute pressure become resistant to new information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, precisely when they should be engaged in nuanced thinking. They misread the signals sent by the other side, filtering them through persisting perspectives. They overestimate their strengths and chances for success, and underestimate the other side's power and resolve.

They become convinced of their reasonableness -- and convinced that this is evident to the adversary. They dwell on the pressures that constrain their freedom of choice and see themselves as victims of circumstance. But they believe that the other side has plenty of choice but has chosen to act the way it is acting deliberately and out of animosity and malice. If both sides are caught in this cognitive trap, it becomes hard to tamp down crises.

Some wars, like World War II, are started deliberately, by aggressors or gamblers. Others, such as World War I, occur because fear, foolishness, misperception, and hubris combine to create a terrible outcome that no one wanted. This is the slip-slide path to war.

Full disclosure: I've bet that the current crisis on the Korean peninsula will not boil over into war, that the diatribes will be dialed down and that deterrence will prevail. But if there is a war, it will be produced by the forces that precipitated World War I. And psychologists will have a better explanation for it than generals will.