North Korea: Kindness to Korea

America’s difficulty as the most powerful state in the world, in handling one of the weakest, North Korea – despite its supposed nuclear weapon capability – may not have many historical precedents, but it has been long anticipated by students of international relations. Strength from weakness is no paradox to game-theorists who first saw this strange phenomenon at work in Cold War-era NATO, as small member states cheerfully ensured that a baffled and irritated US always paid more than its fair share into the common defence kitty.

The World Today
Published 1 April 2003 Updated 21 October 2020 4 minute READ

Ian Bellany

Lecturer in politics and international relations department, Lancaster University

No great command of the intricacies of non zero-sum games is required to understand what may be going on between Pyongyang and Washington. All that is needed is an extended metaphor originating from one of the high priests of game-theory, T. C. Schelling.

If a desperate-looking and thoroughly dishevelled man knocked at your door and asked for a little money, threatening to kill himself there and then if you did not give him something, you would probably think it best to accede to his wishes. His apparently crazed demeanour and blighted appearance lend his threat to do away with himself far more credibility than it would otherwise possess.

Subscribe to read all issues

Articles from the current issue are free to read by all, the archive is exclusive to magazine subscribers and our members. Subscribe or become a member to view articles from the archive.