Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea and Game Theory

I had an op ed on Sunday in the Washington Times about what to do about North Korea:

Although deeply injurious to U.S. interests, nothing that Kim Jong-il has done is irrational, crazy or, that old orientalist favorite, inscrutable. The North Koreans have repeatedly stated that they would abandon their nuclear weapons for a normal relationship with the United States. In pursuit of this goal, North Korea seems to be following the simplest — and most effective — strategy from game theory: tit for tat.


As a strategy, however, tit for tat is not perfect. “The trouble with tit for tat,” as [Political Scientist Robert] Axelrod wrote, “is that once a feud gets started, it can continue indefinitely. … The injuries can echo back and forth until the original violation is lost in the distant past.”


The solution in this case is neither to continue the escalation — that’s how we got the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006 — nor to ignore the provocation.

Rather, the solution is to develop a policy that, in effect, returns only a fraction of a tit for a tat. This means provocations are punished, but the “echo” of retaliation is dampened.

There is a companion piece by Heritage’s Bruce Klingner who, as you might imagine, prefers a rather larger TAT than I do.


  1. Bruce Klingner (History)

    I enjoyed your op-ed as I always do the articles and expertise here on your blog. We may disagree, but that’s what makes things more interesting!
    All the best,
    Bruce Klingner

  2. rkelly (History)

    Trading a Pawn for a Bishop is hardly “tit for tat.”

  3. Major Lemon (History)

    Richard Nixon once said that in international politics “one does to one power what they do to you”. Kissinger, standing next to him smiling was heard to add “Plus 10%!!”.

  4. Andy (History)


    Interesting piece, but I have a couple of problems with your analogy.

    First, what was the “tit” that resulted in the “tat” of the North Korean TD2 launch?

    Secondly, you mention that the way to go is a policy that “returns only a fraction of a tit for a tat. This means provocations are punished, but the ‘echo’ of retaliation is dampened.” A strongly worded UN statement seems like that fraction when compared to a missile test, ditching the six-party talks, and reversing disablement. What lesser measure could/should the US have done that would have “punished” the North Koreans without the “echo of retaliation?”

    Finally, I think you need to consider that North Korea knew exactly what it was doing and intended this exact result – in other words, this was an easy way for them to scuttle the six-party talks.

  5. Yossi

    Nice piece, Jeffrey!

    I have a few comments:

    * If NK uses an “equal tit for each tat” policy and escalation occurs it must be that the other side has increased its “tats” relative to NK “tits”? You seem to accept this evaluation when you say that the new US administration “fearing the appearance of weakness in its first few weeks overplayed its hand”. Of course one can’t say NK was ok and we are to blame, otherwise he would be marginalized as a left fringe and lose his respected audience. Funny how truth is the first victim of false patriotism.

    * Your solution is for the US to play the benevolent super-power and unilaterally decrease the “interaction coefficient” thus dumping the geometrical growth. Instead of the alleged Kissingerian explosive 1.1 coefficient adopt 0.9 and ensure exponential attenuation.

    * But why treat NK nicely? Why not hit it with cruise missiles etc? Some people think that the new US administration prefers talking softly to hitting with the big stick because President Obama, maybe because he knew hardship like us simple people, has a soft heart and can’t stand the widespread anti-Americanism. The skeptics remind us that Roosevelt did the same in 1933

    In the tough world of international politics few players act out of mercy and compassion and being nice is an almost sure sign of weakness. The ascension of Iran means the end of US control over Middle East oil and thus the possibility of China refusing to buy more Treasury bonds or heaven forbid demand real assets like real estate as debt payment.

    * If the US is now lacking on “hard power” why not fall back on “soft power”? Alas, reserves of soft power hit bottom

    But maybe not all is lost, a weak US may be good for everyone, even US itself. The cliche of “saving someone from himself” never looked so appropriate.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    1. Your assumption that the TD-2 was a tat is part of the problem — it seems at least as likely to me that North Korea’s activities are aimed at the collapsing relationship with the Lee government as anything else. If it was a tat, it might not have been aimed at us. (Hence, the silly “space launch” story unlike the last TD-2 test.)

    2. Separate your tits and tats. The rocket launch is one thing; the other threats came in response to the UNSC resolution.

    As I noted above, it seems at least as plausible that Pyongyang was trying to pressure South Korea as the US. If so, from their paranoid world view, we would appear to have escalated the situation by multilateralizing it.

    I am not agreeing, just observing that they might see things differently.

    3. It may be that North Korea intended to scuttle the Six Party Talks, but this is an awfully baroque way of doing so. Why would North Korea go through the process of launching a rocket, luring us into a UNSC declaration, reversing disable, etc., etc., when it could simply say “No, we are not coming back to Six Party Talks.”

    I really think the most parsimonious explanation for their behavior is tit-for-tat, with two slight elaborations.

    They tend to return two or three tits for each tat (A highly escalatory player). This is irritating for us.

    They also tend to be prone to misinterpret events as tats (a high “false tat”) ratio. This is also irritating.

    Maybe they don’t want a deal, as you say. There is really only one way to find out and that takes patience and some investment of the President’s political capital.

  7. Andy (History)


    Fair points, though I don’t agree with all of them. I think there are a variety of possible explanations for North Korea’s behavior and tit-for-tat seems a reasonable one to consider.

    You didn’t answer my question though: What lesser measure could/should the US have done that would have “punished” the North Koreans without the “echo of retaliation?”

    Finally, I didn’t say that North Korea didn’t want a deal – they certainly do – a unilateral deal with the United States (which we won’t do for a variety of reasons). What the North Koreans don’t appear to want is a deal through the six-party process, which they’ve been fighting from the beginning (and the four-party process before that). Personally, I’m dubious that Obama’s political capital will do much to change that dynamic unless he’s willing to put US troop levels and a separate peace on the table as agenda items, which isn’t going to happen.

  8. rkelly (History)

    Excerpt taken from a recent article by Henry Kissinger (Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenge):

    “I have generally found that the best negotiating approach is to put before the
    other side a full and honest account of one’s ultimate objectives. Tactical
    bargaining — moving through a series of minimum concessions — tests endurance
    via peripheral issues. But it runs the risk of producing misunderstanding about
    ultimate purposes. Sooner or later, the fundamental issues have to be addressed.
    This is particularly necessary when dealing with a country with which there has
    been no effective contact for three decades.”

  9. M Mir (History)

    Dr. Jeffrey Lewis’s comments are right on target. Several posters incuding the opposing commentator in the Times, still think escalation or maintenance of the Bush era hostility is the answer. Of course, it seems all too easy for them to forget that 8 years ago(unchanged from 1994), the US started with a NK with maybe 2 devices worth Pu-239, no tested design, and no advanced IRBMs. And with the brilliant strategy they employed ended up with a NK with 8-12 devices worth of Pu-239, a reasonable first test of a device, and far more advanced missile program. Keep it up and by the end of Obama’s first term, we will have a NK with 20+ devices worth of material, a fully tested warhead and reliable missiles to deliver them to the west coast. And we’ll have the same group of folks calling for escalation and ratcheting up the sanctions. This is an affliction of the wildly inaccurate belief that the US is living its unipolar era, Pax Americana. The same fevered delusion that led to same people to call for action against Russia last summer.

  10. Azr@el (History)

    I’ve always been amazed not only at the utter stupidity of U.S. foreign policy but also it’s complete intellectual bankruptcy. Let’s take the fall of the Soviet Union as a text book example. The greatest arrow in the quiver was not star wars, Washington’s Jihadis in Afghanistan or the number of dead and mutilated in the brushfire wars and anticommunist pogroms of Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. Rather it was simple human greed and mass communication. Russians got tired of seeing economically better off Americans on satellite tv whilst they had to get by with smuggled hand me downs and Soviet designed imitation consumer goods; Oddly enough this was predicted except with role reversal by a short story of Arthur C. Clarke “I Remember Babylon”. Of course in hindsight everyone makes claim to the credit for the cultural collapse of the CCCP, when in fact it was just dumb luck that actually took us by complete surprise. Know what we know now the Cold War could have been carried without Korea, Vietnam, the targeted killings of leftest and alleged leftist and minus the huge outlays for star wars et al. If we ever have to deal with a hostile politically spartan command economy we now know how to deal with it, right?

    And lo and behold here comes North Korea, aka “ the son of Stalin”. We shall deal with them in a cheap effective icy manner as dictated by the past experience? WRONG! For some inexplicable reason, most likely defense contractors, we intend to handle this with a new military push, aka “the son of Star Wars” is being trotted out to deal with “the son of Stalin”. Regardless that history dictates the most effective policy would be to corrupt the North Korean populace with visions of personal wealth until the very fabric of the party state unravels, to the point where North Korean soldiers refuse to fire upon civilian protesters, rather we choose to do the exact opposite; SANCTIONS! My god, my kingdom for a baseball bat and the skulls of the inbreed dolts that populate the halls of American foreign policy. No doubt some senators from states that need not be mentioned feel justified in such an “eye for eye” policy thru some most un-christlike read of the bible; heavy emphasis on the old testament and a cursory skimming of the new. Excuse the rant, but is this obvious to anyone else that the North would fold in under a generation if we just plugged them into the world, instead of slamming the door shut on them and prodding them with sticks.

  11. Robert Brown (History)

    On tit-for-tat, if anyone cares, the basic idea is cooperate until the other defects/cheats and punish with reciprocal cheating. Threatening a massive punishment (a “grim trigger”) of never returning to cooperation is costly to the other player, but once cooperation has broken down, the only solution is for one player to unilaterally return to cooperation and hope, in the other player’s next turn, that they will reciprocate and cooperate.

    The application to NK? It suggests the US is best off by trying to break the cycle and “cooperate.” Personally, I think the Kissinger strategy mentioned above – clarity about goals rather than defect+10% – makes it most clear about what we want from NK. The Obama administration can probably make a more credible claim than Bush that our goals are peace without threats and don’t include regime change.