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Coping With Korean Conflict: Prisoner's Dilemma Unending

Problem. Many political conflicts, especially major international disputes, conform to the parameters of the prisoner’ dilemma—a two-person, two-option, imperfect information choice situation expressing a cooperative move or a competitive one. Acting out self-interest, players’ rational choice leads to a non-rational outcome, where both sides become worse off, a product of selecting the option leading to the best result individually while preventing the worst possible outcome (the minimax solution) but their joint outcome yields the second-to-worst result. This so-called security dilemma offered a theory accounting for the US-USSR superpower conflict in the Cold War and applied to many internationalized civil wars in that period. When the era ended, the international system providing the structure of the conflicts ended. Structural shift, not direct player moves yielded the solution to explain civil war endings. Insights from experimental studies of prisoners dilemma iterative plays show how direct player moves can affect outcomes by strategic learning to avoid the endless trap of loss. Alexrod’s tit-for-tat solution (player matches the last move of the other side) is the most efficient outcome. The carry-over of experimental results to the real world have limited validity: iterations are less frequent and not evenly spaced in time intervals, third party support may affect choices of both sides, risk-taking behavior may differentiate strong and weak powers, and preference orderings and expected utilities of long-term strategic thinking estimated by the model to motivate actions might be incorrect. Yet prisoner’s dilemma applications have illustrated how parties do cooperate sometimes by tacit or direct agreement to improve their relations through for example, negotiations on arms limitations and cease-fire accords, although these pacts do not stabilize the resolution of conflict and are often violated, due to the game’s opportunity for a player to seek greater gain. Understanding real world applications of model dynamics is important.

Conflict Puzzle. The conflict in Korea—ongoing more than 75 years—offers a fascinating case of the prisoner’ dilemma application: how it arose initially and deepened over time under the Cold War international system and why it did not end as expected when that global order fell apart but took an altered course to reset continuation of the security dilemma. Why would a party choose the direction that locks into another conflict escalation? Because there is no flexibility in preference ordering intensity, a deduction derived from player behavior over time. Each Korean state has viewed the very existence of its rival as a threat to its own existence. Thus, it has sought to eliminate the other side as a threat through a zero-sum control solution. Although the parties have discussed reunification plans for three decades, such discussion and declarations may mask strongly held preferences for a hierarchy, not equality, in an imagined future ordered system due to decades of psychological impact of the prisoner’s dilemma tunnel vision. The North seeks military domination; the South seeks economic domination (plus external military assistance). This cases raises questions about prisoner’s dilemma duration within a conflict environment and how it affects solution outcomes plus preference ordering intensity.

Data. The conflict is traced from great power domination in the Korean civil war, through peace negotiations and provocations that followed; a very short interlude of transition at the end of the Cold War; North Korean rebuilding (after the collapse of its benefactor, the USSR and Satellite states who established relations with South Korea) widespread famine, and military missile testing; and South Korean economic cooperation plans with the North, broken down into detail using Pruitt and Kim dual concerns model (contending-fight, yielding, problem-solving-negotiate) to categorize numerous event developments. Each episode is identified by an issue and its outcome. At the end of 2022, the conflict had intensified: North Korean missile tests expanded exponentially; the US added a Space Forces unit to deter missile attacks in December and currently deploys more than 28,000 troops in South Korea.

Conflict Episode 1945-1954: Korean Civil War Outcome: Civil War ends; Korea divided into North and South Sectors Episode Outcome: Stalemate

Conflict Episode 1953-1991: North Korea - South Korea Conflict Continues Outcome North Korea threats against South Korea continue Episode Outcome: stalemate

Conflict Episode 1991 – present North Korea-South Korea conflict over Nuclear Proliferation North Korea nuclear proliferation program continues Episode Outcome: Stalemate

Background: Korea was ruled as a Japanese colony from annexation in 1910 until the end of World War II thirty-five years later when American and Soviet troops entered the Korean peninsula (a small, prominent piece of land extending southward off the northeast coast of China), following Japan’s capitulation to the Wartime Allies in late summer 1945: by Allied power agreement, the victors would take immediate control over all territories of the loser. The USSR occupied the northern sector and US troops occupied the southern sector (the two regions were separated by a temporary marker, the 38th geographic latitude line) in order to repatriate Japanese from the area and to establish local government. The Allies had decided at the 1943 Wartime Conference in Cairo that Korea should become free and independent, but failing to agree on a way to unify the country, they established two separate governments in their respective occupation zones: the Soviet-aligned Democratic People's Republic of Korea (drawing on the anti-Japanese communist guerilla movement developed in colonial times, its leader Kim Il-sung, and people’s committees for independence) in North Korea, and the Western-aligned Republic of Korea (headed by Syngman Rhee, a nationalist who had lived in exile, primarily in the US, for roughly 40 years—until returning to his native land in 1945—personally chosen by American military occupation officials) in South Korea. Each leader desired to head a single legitimate government of an independent Korea; both were passionate about national unity.

On June 25, 1950, civil war broke out when troops from the north (the industrialized, communist sector) invaded the south, intending full takeover, an attack interpreted by the West as unprovoked Communist aggression ending hope of peaceful Korean unification for the near future. The US created an international coalition of military forces dispatched to the area in order to defend South Korea. The USSR and newly formed People’s Republic of China supported North Korea while fending off US-led attacks into its territory. A cease-fire agreement was signed in 1953. The DMZ was set roughly at the 38th parallel—the original dividing line. To date, no peace treaty exists. Conflict between the two sides remains intense in spite of international mediation and negotiation efforts.

In September, 1991 following the end of the Cold War, North Korea and South Korea were admitted simultaneously as separate, independent, UN membership states. South Korea had held observer status since 1948 and decided to apply for regular membership. North Korea, always opposed to separate membership, felt resigned to apply in the new environment, knowing the USSR and PRC would not cast a veto against the Republic of Korea.

International Mediation and Negotiation efforts have been held to resolve outstanding issues: in 1994 (US-North Korean “Agreed Framework:), 2003-2009 “Six Party Talks,” 2018-2019 US-North Korean summits and Five Inter-Korean Summit (2000-2018). The Kaesong Special Economic Zone, set up by North and South Korea in 2004 to foster economic integration closed periodically but functioned until 2020. The main building for liaison relations evacuated in January 2020 due to covid-19 was blown up by North Korea in June.

Karen Feste
University of Denver
United States


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