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North Korean Strategy Represents Gamesmanship

For more than 60 years, much discussion and debate has been held on strategies for dealing with North Korea. Discussion has intensified this year following a series of provocative actions by Pyongyang.

Some in East Asia say dealing with North Korea boils down to a simple child's game - rock, paper scissors.

"East Asians are more familiar with the game than our American friends. My suggestion is do as East Asians always do," said Yuki Asaba, an Associate Professor of International Studies at Yamaguchi Prefecture University in Japan. "Since Kim Jong Il is an East Asian, he surely has much more knowledge about the game than Americans. Rock paper and scissors is one of the most popular games among East Asians since they are three years old."

The game is simple and the goal is to choose a symbol that beats your opponent. Two players count to three and hold out a hand. A fist represents rock, a flat hand is paper, and two fingers are scissors. Rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper covers rock.

Professor Asaba suggests a clear strategy emerges over many plays. If one player chooses the same symbol repeatedly, his opponent can win most times. And he says the response to North Korea over the years has been constant. "U.S. President Barack Obama, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are respectively and collectively easy opponents for the two Kims, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-un, to exploit," said Asaba.

Mitsuhiro Mimura is an Associate Senior Fellow with the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia. He says constant, strong economic sanctions against Pyongyang have actually become an internal social tool to help North Korea's regime thrive.

"The fate of economic policy is now easily connected with American imperialism. So for Kim Jong Il, American imperialism is very important. Without American imperialism, he cannot survive. And thus, the U.S. pressure against North Korea is a kind of a protectorate guard for the North Korean regime," he said.

He says changing the strategy is difficult at this point. But in addition to eliminating the North's nuclear threat and developing a stabilized economy, Mitsuhiro Mimura says Japan will have to become a more balanced partner so that Pyongyang does not remain so heavily dependent on China.

But Jonathan Pollack, a senior Fellow of Foreign Policy at the John L. Thornton China Center, says Chinese influence on North Korea is increasing. "There has been a distinct pattern at work that is trying to increase North Korea's dependence and reliance on China. And North Korea's apparent willingness (and) readiness for the moment to align more fully with China," he said.

Pollack says Beijing has been making a steady move toward strengthening its relationship with Pyongyang. "Through economic assistance, energy aid, provision of food, a supply of consumer goods, a slow but measurable increase in Chinese inroads in the North Korean economy, particularly in terms of resource exploitation and infrastructural development," he said.

Pollack says the imminence of a leadership succession in North Korea has convinced Beijing that it must accommodate the regime, its policies and nuclear program for now to maintain stability in the immediate region. He says U.S. policy is taking a similar stance for mostly security reasons.

"The United States is pursuing a strategy in the near term very much of prevention, trying to enhance U.S. response options, heighten collaboration and communication with both of its North East Asian allies (South Korea and Japan)," he said.

But he says the China Center feels a more direct approach is best. "The China Center approach by contrast favors increased engagement with North Korea, commitment to even an emergency session of the Six Party talks that the United States seems noticeably reluctant to pursue. The Six Party talks of course have been dormant for two full years," he said.

Yuki Asaba says that change of approach will help to outplay North Korea's so far successful gamesmanship. "You first need to grasp what the game is all about. And second to come to terms with the rules of the game. It is all the more imperative for both the U.S. and Japan to adjust their respective rock, paper, scissors," he said.

Part of that adjustment in strategy is a call for limited and measured military strikes in response to direct North Korean attacks like the recent shelling on South Korea's Yeongpyeong Island.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.