Monday, July 10, 2006

a diplomacy game

[NB: Check the current-events update at the end of this post.]

I'm giving my Intensive 4 class a rather ambitious discussion activity tomorrow (Tuesday). I'm placing it online here, without their knowledge, because I'd actually appreciate a good deal of feedback between now and noon tomorrow (Seoul time) regarding the information I present in the exercise.

I developed this activity at the behest of a student who is very interested in the current NK missile debate. The activity is essentially a role-play in which the students will assume the roles of delegates from the countries participating in the on-again, off-again six-party talks. The goal of the activity, you'll note right away, is very, very open-ended, and this was a deliberate choice on my part. While I think there's a place for "convergent" learning, this is most assuredly a "divergent learning" exercise that will stretch my students' vocabulary and grammar to the snapping point. I expect to be peppered with questions about how best to phrase this or that argument as "diplomacy" becomes heated.

Obviously, the underlying point of the exercise is the continued development of my students' English skills. The students have proved to be good note-takers thus far; I may ask them to make contributions to a "language kitty," a little coffee can into which they can toss slips of paper, on which will be written new vocab, grammar, and expressions learned in class (copied into their notes as well, of course). The kitty will become a sort of word bank and, very likely, a source for quiz and test items later on.

Because the nature of this exercise is so complex, I seriously doubt the students will arrive at anything close to a meaningful diplomatic resolution, but then again, you never know. Miracles can happen.

What I want from my readers is this: please look over the exercise and see where I've gotten things factually wrong (I suspect I've done so in a lot of places, especially with Russia), and where my hidden biases are. If you want, please add some advice on how best to collapse this avalanche of information into a more concise, digestible form. As the goal of the exercise is primarily ESL-related, it might be necessary to boil the many issues down to just a few salient ones for each country. Keep in mind, however, that I am not going to ask all the students to read all the entries on each country; each set of diplomats will read only the section pertaining to their own country, which ought to save time as well as spice things up by keeping others' motives initially hidden.

Without further ado, the exercise:



China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States have sent diplomats to meet and discuss the current situation, in which North Korea has decided to test-fire some of its new missiles. There is some fear that North Korea is doing this as a show of aggression and/or defiance of the world community, but North Korea insists that it has every right, as a sovereign country, to defend itself. What can be done?


Representatives from each country will read only the paragraph pertaining to their country. Feel free to correct any perceived misinformation.

What China wants:
China wants regional stability and continued economic prosperity in the region. It does not desire a war. It is sometimes a bit nervous and annoyed about North Korea’s behavior, even though it has a military alliance with North Korea. North Korean refugees coming across the border are a diplomatic embarrassment to China, which is forced to deal, indirectly, with the spillover of North Korea’s internal problems. China also provides North Korea with a significant amount of food and fuel, but North Korea offers China little to nothing in return. In a recent incident, China shipped aid to North Korea by train, and North Korea kept the trains! China wants to be good to its ally, North Korea, but China also has very important business, political, and cultural ties with the other four countries in the talks: the US, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner). China has reasons to be frustrated with its dialogue partners. For example, the United States’ ambiguous treatment of the Taiwan issue is vexing for the Chinese government. China also views Japanese actions in the region with some suspicion, largely for historical reasons.

What Japan wants:
Perhaps because it is the most powerful economy in the region, Japan also wants regional stability, but is somewhat angered by North Korea’s behavior, which appears to be an attempt to destabilize military power in the region. Japan is also angered by South Korean diplomatic attempts to “minimize” the situation by sounding sympathetic with North Korea. However, Japan is also a major trading partner with South Korea and China: a diplomatic fallout would have immediate economic repercussions. Many conservative elements in Japan are arguing that Japan needs to remilitarize in case North Korea becomes too unstable. Japan, which has only a minimal military right now, feels it may become vulnerable to North Korean aggression. It wishes that South Korea would put more pressure on North Korea to change its erratic behavior.

What South Korea wants:
South Korea understands that it is in a very delicate and painful position. While its government does not approve of North Korea’s extravagant behavior, it feels a strong historical, cultural, and linguistic bond with North Korea. Many South Koreans agree that North Korea has the right to defend itself, but many others believe the North needs to change its behavior. South Korea contributes a significant amount of aid to North Korea. As is the case with China, South Korean aid is received thanklessly, and North Korea often feels entitled to make even more demands on South Korea. South Korean citizens are anxious to avoid war on the peninsula, but there is no clear consensus about how best to approach the North Korean problem. South Korea is also frustrated with what it sees as Japan’s exaggerated concerns about North Korea, and is frustrated by the ongoing Tokdo issue as well. Further, South Korea is frustrated at what it sees as American “bullying,” i.e., the attempt to force a smaller country (in this case, SK) to conform to the will of a larger one (the US). South Korea disagrees with the American suggestion that North Korea should be placed under even more international pressure, and is worried about the possible return of Japanese militancy.

What the United States wants:
The US government does not consider war to be its first option. However, the possibility of sanctions against North Korea—accomplished through the UN or unilaterally—is being considered. A military option is remotely possible. As with South Koreans themselves, most people in the US government are anxious to avoid a war, which is not in the US national self-interest because both China’s and South Korea’s economies would be adversely affected, perhaps destabilizing the region even further. The US is extremely frustrated with South Korea’s hesitancy to deal strongly and directly with its “brother” to the north. It is also somewhat frustrated that China is not putting more pressure on North Korea. As with China, Japan, and South Korea, the United States has many deep political, cultural, and economic ties in the region. South Korea is considered a major military ally, and South Korean products have deeply penetrated the American market. The US advocates “six-way” talks because it believes that the countries physically closest to North Korea have a greater responsibility for dealing with it. The US also worries that North Korea’s weapons activities might include illegal transaction with states known to sponsor terrorism. If a North Korean bomb is sold to a Middle Eastern country, then transported to the States and detonated, the US will ultimately hold North Korea responsible along with the state (or organization) that deployed the bomb. This would motivate US hawks to push for military action against North Korea.

What Russia wants:
Russia is culturally Eastern and Western. It has vast reserves of oil, and has supplied North Korea with some. It also has certain political and economic links with China, and is trying to play a balancing role in the “six-way” talks. Russia is also interested in keeping the East Asian region stable. It has expressed disagreement with the United States on many foreign policy issues, but is not willing to provoke an outright conflict with the US. Russia does not appreciate American demands that it apply more pressure on North Korea. At the same time, Russia, itself a nuclear power, does not relish the prospect of an East Asian arms race—a nightmarish repeat of the US/USSR arms race of the 1980s and early 1990s. Russia quietly recognizes that the North Korean government tends to act in an unstable and untrustworthy manner. It also finds itself nervous about political trends in Eastern Europe, where many countries have proven themselves sympathetic to America (thanks to America’s role in the fall of the USSR and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc). Russia is resentful of recent demands by Western and Eastern Europe to lower the costs of the oil it sells, and is ever mindful that political instability in Asia will negatively affect its economy. Russia’s ties with North Korea are not as strong as China’s ties with North Korea.

What North Korea wants:
North Korea has repeatedly demanded official, written diplomatic recognition from the United States. North Korea also does not wish to participate in the “six-way” talks because it believes the sole problem is the US’s lack of diplomatic recognition of North Korea. The North would also like the US to drop its military posture and to offer an official guarantee of peaceful intentions. North Korea remains angry at Japan for what it sees as Japan’s historical offenses against NK. North Korea has also expressed disappointment with China for having changed to a more market-style economy (which appears to be succeeding), a move NK sees as disloyal to communist thinking. However, North Korea, despite its “juche” ideology of self-reliance, remains radically dependent on other countries for the basic necessities of life: food, fuel, and so on. North Korea feels extremely threatened by the United States, and often claims that the US is trying to start a war (NB: technically, the Korean peninsula still exists in a state of war, as no peace treaty has been signed by any party). The Kim family's 선군 (military first) policy has probably contributed to the starving of an unimaginably huge number of its own people, but NK claims that the c.1994-97 famine was largely the result of natural disasters, not bad economic policy. North Korea considers itself a sovereign nation, with every right to defend itself against attack. It also considers the South Korean government to be in thrall to American foreign and economic policy. North Korea desires reunification, but wants it to occur in the North Korean style. The country does not allow aid workers to closely monitor the distribution of food and resources throughout the country. It also routinely broadcasts strongly anti-American rhetoric.


Break into teams representing each of the nations in the six-party talks. The object of the talks is to come to some sort of agreement about North Korean missile testing. Can it continue? Should it continue? Is it really a problem? You can use moral, legal, political, and economic arguments.

Keep in mind that countries generally act according to national self-interest. What are China’s interests? What are Japan’s and Russia’s? What are the Koreas’ interests, and those of the US? Be ready to defend those interests as well as possible in discussion and debate.

Think carefully about the consequences of your diplomatic decisions. Think about the tone and content of your arguments, and how they might be viewed by people with a different perspective. I hope this exercise will allow everyone to see global affairs in a new light.


There is no need to “exaggerate” the tone of NK’s stance. NK negotiates hard, but its diplomacy is not “crazy,” as some people incorrectly contend. NK often tries to push the limits and keep the pressure high, because it cannot survive a sudden and drastic change in the status quo. North Korea will therefore try to do three things: (1) play the other countries against each other, (2) demand as many concessions from each country as it can, and most important (3) isolate the US as the sole dialogue partner. The fundamental purpose of all this is to avoid collapse. NK relies on outside help, but must maintain a sense of pride even while receiving help.

Good luck!

I want a report from all the countries at the end of the discussion period!

UPDATE: I guess this exercise is pretty timely:

Japan Considers Strike Against N. Korea

TOKYO (AP) - Japan said Monday it was considering whether a pre-emptive strike on the North's missile bases would violate its constitution, signaling a hardening stance ahead of a possible U.N. Security Council vote on Tokyo's proposal for sanctions against the regime.

Japan was badly rattled by North Korea's missile tests last week and several government officials openly discussed whether the country ought to take steps to better defend itself, including setting up the legal framework to allow Tokyo to launch a pre-emptive strike against Northern missile sites.

"If we accept that there is no other option to prevent an attack ... there is the view that attacking the launch base of the guided missiles is within the constitutional right of self-defense. We need to deepen discussion," Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said.

I assume our resident Japanbloggers will help put this in perspective. I can tell you that news of such open speculation will not be taken well here in South Korea, where fears of a renascence of Japanese militancy will have been confirmed. I do think, though, that the Noh administration is largely to blame for allowing South Korea to fall into this morass. We dumbass bloggers were speculating for years about the resurgence of Japanese militancy as a consequence of NK's erratic behavior. As predictions go, this ranks among the no-brainers. Physical proximity to the problem is key here, a fact that the SK government has been at pains to hide from itself. Well... that illusion's not going to last much longer, but we can probably expect some feverish anti-Japan demonstrations in Seoul soon.

In Korea's defense, however, I'll note that this issue deserves far more consideration than the Tokdo one, which lacks the same immediacy. But South Korea will need to reckon with the fact that Japan's desire is not to attack South Korea, with which it enjoys a fairly prosperous relationship. A big mistake would be for Korea to interpret Japanese proto-militancy as the return of imperial hegemonism. North Korea, meanwhile, would be absolutely correct to interpret Japanese rumblings as a clear sign of ill will. If the Japanese do decide to turn their frightening economic might toward the manufacture of war technology, I imagine they will have earned Kim Jong Il's full and undivided attention.

The wrinkle this adds to the diplomatic situation is that, while the US's own speculations about preemptive strikes have been going on since at least 2001 if not before, Japan's sudden interest in preemptive strikes, coupled with its unpleasant history with the Korean peninsula, will not be quite as easy for wishful thinkers in Korea to dismiss. I'm not sure how many people actually take the threat of an American strike against NK seriously. Japan, on the other hand, seems to be a country that, once it commits to a course of international action, is likely to stick with it. I, too, would be worried about the manner in which Japan is thinking aloud.

But again, I await the wisdom of the Japan insiders on this. I've seen plenty of street interviews and articles indicating that many Japanese citizens would rather not take to the warpath. Which Japan will win out? On the whole, I see the country going hawkish in the short term.


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