NK Summit: “There Is Death In The Hane”

NK Summit: “There Is Death In The Hane”

Whether immediate denuclearization or some alternative gradual path to achieve denuclearization of North Korea is achievable, it is clear that the summit between North Korea and the US is a meeting with extremely complex and long term strategic issues at play. Positively influencing the denuclearization of North Korea is an intelligent, tactical move that could go a long way toward achieving one of China’s long-term, strategic objectives of diminishing American influence in the region, further isolating Taiwan from Western influence, and establishing itself as a superpower on the world stage. Alternatively, denuclearization could also be a move by North Korea to reduce China’s influence in their internal affairs. Attempts to fully understand North Korea’s motivations and the effect of external influence have been considered “an excruciatingly difficult subject to comprehend.” It is not our goal to do so here. Rather, we wish to discuss how the U.S. and its allies should approach this strategic challenge through use of the lens of mankind’s oldest game of strategy, iGo (Japanese) or weiqi (Chinese). The claim that “China plays weiqi … Russians play chess … and the U.S. plays checkers” is not a new claim. It infers that the US is not good at “the long game” and suffers from poor development and equally poor execution of a strategy. While this may or may not be true, it is worth considering in the context of the upcoming summit, especially since those sitting on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) side of the table grow up playing the most complex board game of strategy ever devised.

The genesis of this article comes from the author’s participation in a 2015 delegation of senior US naval officers to China. When presented with the comparison of the South China Sea and iGo during a one-on-one Q&A, a senior People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) officer dismissed the comment and went on to express his dismay at the purportedly childish responses of junior US naval officers, especially those who worked for the US Navy’s Pacific Admirals, to China’s moves in the South China Sea. Interestingly, the senior officer demonstrated hubris typical of Americans, which was uncharacteristic for this intelligent and thoughtful leader. The dismissive and nonchalant response was insightful for two reasons. First, in cultures with a strong iGo influence, one does not treat a worthy adversary in such a manner, even if that adversary is less accomplished. iGo adversaries seek balance and harmony, not just on the board but also between each other. The senior Chinese officer’s behavior showed that he did not consider the senior US Navy officers, most of them current sitting commanding officers, as worthy adversaries. Second, the hubris, unexpected because it differed from the typical confidence and humility exhibited by this senior Chinese officer, as well as officers of similar rank from other nations, reinforced an attitude of superiority, in his and the PLAN’s case. Altogether, it was apparent that the PLAN did not think much of the US Navy and that the growth of the PLAN’s and China’s influence in the region was beyond the ability of the US to understand.

Chinese Play Weiqi (Japanese iGo), Americans Play Chess (or Fortnite)

There has been a great deal of news related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the board game, iGo. While the game of iGo saw some increase in popularity in the West during the latter half of the 1900s, its status as the most difficult game to be mastered by computers recently elevated its popularity. Even so, Western interest has been primarily focused on the AI aspect, rather than the game itself. Despite iGo being played by hundreds of millions of people worldwide and for several millennia in the East, in the West chess has remained the dominant board game. But, ‘dominant’ does not accurately portray chess’s status where gaming is concerned. In March, 2018, the TechSpot Staff reported that Fortnite Battle Royale “had quickly become the most streamed title on Twitch {people watching people playing the game} and current favorite game among celebrities.” To provide further clarity, each Fortnite game is played with among randomly selected multiple players or teams with the goal of being the last player or team standing. Each game lasts approximately 20 minutes. In comparison iGo, professional games can exceed 16 hours, and “the question of whether to take smaller profits now or build up influence for possibly greater gains later…is constantly arising.”

As reflected by chess and Fortnite, it is not surprising that the development of strategic thought suffers in the West. While the US is distracted by quick, head-to-head interactions, it is not surprising how denuclearization of North Korea (a status which can easily and quickly be reversed by North Korea), fits nicely into China’s and North Korea’s iGo-like strategy of building influence by going around barriers and taking a longer term approach.

Taking advantage of the US’s short attention span and assumed poor strategic abilities, China’s and North Korea’s plans have been deliberately executed over a period of time sufficiently long so as to not draw attention to their overarching goals. Increasing the capability and number of ballistic missile launches while simultaneously developing nuclear weapons capability increased tensions with the US and its allies in the region and created an international appetite for a non-military solution without overt Chinese involvement. Studying the disarmament of Libya, China and North Korea waited until the moment was right, then started their charm offensive. Also, studying Libya’s history, China brought North Korea’s leader to China for an unprecedented two trips to ensure there would be no deviation from the plan. Starting with the Winter Olympics, North Korea began charming the world, followed by the return of three American hostages and the signal to dismantle of North Korea’s nuclear bomb test site as fait accompli signaling some sort of US victory. However, China and North Korea could consider those events as their own victory because they removed leverage for the US and may well force President Trump, eager to earn a Nobel Peace Prize, to offer additional concessions. While that ‘something’ for China could be in trade concessions, for North Korea it is most likely the diminished presence (and eventual complete withdrawal) of US forces on the Korean peninsula – something neither China nor North Korea would have to bargain for as they patiently wait for budgets and regional and domestic political pressure to do the work for them – another example of the long game. With US forces diminished or absent on the Korean peninsula and Chinese ties strengthened with the Philippines, this ‘hane’ then spells the eventual ‘death’ of the Taiwan’s relationship with the West.

Building Influence

The US and its allies have seen their influence decrease in the Western Pacific as shown by China’s island building program, China’s disregard for the findings of the International Court of Justice, the estranged relationship between the US and the Philippines, reduced presence by the US Navy (and increased presence by the PLAN), and the eroded support of US presence on the Japanese island of Okinawa. If the US plan is to trade denuclearization for open trade and investment with North Korea, as the Secretary of State, the Honorable Mr. Pompeo, has recently asserted, how then do the US and its allies maintain strong influence in the region? How does the US use the opportunity of the US-North Korea summit to reverse the trend and turn it into an iGo-like move that will build American influence for greater gains for the US and its allies in the future?

First, the US must establish that the presence of US forces on the Korean peninsula is nonnegotiable. Peace on the peninsula will make it very difficult for the US and South Korea to justify the current force levels. So, the US should start its own charm offensive to educate the American population, and the world, on the threats presented by others, such as North Korea’s sponsors. The US should sustain its deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in support of South Korea’s defense. As previously stated (and demonstrated), North Korea could rapidly reestablish its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

The US should strengthen its relationship with Japan by removing obstacles which hinder interoperability of US and Japanese forces and prevent development of tactics, techniques and procedures. In particular, the US should make Japan a full partner in the US strategy and capitalize on the excellent work the Japanese have done and continue to do in robotics.

Similarly, the US should strengthen its relationship with South Korea. The US can facilitate strengthening the relationship between South Korea and Japan, to include interoperability and trilateral exercises. The US should look for other opportunities to strengthen its presence in the region, such as placing advanced systems in the Philippines and Australia along with AEGIS Ashore and THAAD in Australia. Increasing maintenance, repair and logistics capability throughout the region, and sharing these capabilities with friends and allies, would also enhance US influence.

Second, considering the central importance of Taiwan to China’s strategy, the US and its regional allies should consider steps to strengthen their relationship with Taiwan. The US’ recent approval of the marketing license required to sell technology to Taiwan and authorizing mutual visits of US and Taiwanese warships is not enough. The US must demonstrate the will to follow through with these and other initiatives which further strengthen the relationship among Taiwan and the US and regional allies.

Third, the US should develop and execute a strategy which reengages the Philippines and other countries in the Western Pacific. If North Korea gets a better deal for open trade and investment from US business than any of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), then the US will be playing right into China’s hands. As a result, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, which is all about influence, will be one step closer to being realized. Instead the US should actively seek an purse economic and military relations with the ASEAN and its member nations.

Fourth, the US must appropriately identify items on which negotiation is possible or the US is willing to give up entirely to be able to give something to North Korea with the goal of improving US-North Korea relations while preventing Chinese long term successes.


While many call the drive to denuclearization a recent and rapid development as a result of President Trump and the international community’s harder stance against North Korea, it has actually been a part of a larger view. China and North Korea must be commended for studying and understanding their adversary(ies), and for learning from similar historic events, such as the disarmament of Libya, in order to develop a long term plan which has, thus far, met with success. The issues surrounding the denuclearization of North Korea are too many and too varied to cover in detail in this one article. But the fundamental issue of and context surrounding the US-North Korea interactions – the loss of US and increase of Chinese influence – is critical to understand. And, it has continued to play out in the Pacific and the world stage. In the face of typical US short-term, head-to-head strategy, China’s long-term, strategic goals appear to be unstoppable and no other sovereign power is able to out maneuver them. However, this does not have to be the case. In partnership with its regional allies and by considering and countering China’s long-term, strategic goals, the US and its allies can reassert influence and avoid “the death that is in the hane”, which is hidden in the agenda of North Korea’s denuclearization. The summit in June is an opportunity which the US and its allies should not approach with the single minded goal of denuclearizing North Korea – there is much more to be gained, and lost.

This article reflects the author’s personal views and are not in any way indicative of DOD, JSDF, US Navy, JMSDF or U.S. Naval War College policies.

Two additional and excellent articles which discuss in greater detail Chinese military theory and the influence of weiqi, or iGo, and which were used in the research of this paper are “An Asian Game Theory: Checkmate” written by Timothy Soh in Sea Defence Review and “Weiqi: The game that holds China’s key to world domination” written by Michael Posner in The Globe and Mail.




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NK Summit: “There Is Death In The Hane”