Smiles and gunfire

North Korean officials recently dropped in on the Asian Games in South Korea and offered to renew talks between the two nations, an offer that South Korea was happy to accept. Meanwhile, North and South Koreans are exchanging gunfire across the border. What’s going on?

One of the most common misunderstandings in international relations is the belief that nation-states act like coherent individuals. People say things like “North Korea wants engagement” or “The United States has shifted its focus to Iraq” or, as I did above, “South Korea was happy to accept,” as if these countries were individual people.

Now, you could question whether even individual people act coherently all the time. But when it comes to large nations whose governments comprise thousands and thousands of people, it shouldn’t be strange that some of these people are working at cross purposes, or simply don’t know about each other’s intentions. In democracies, these variations are made explicit. We have presidents and legislators and appointed officials from different parties, and we have layers of government at the local, regional and national level. Politicians openly debate with each other.

In dictatorships, however, disagreements are hidden, as is so much else about how government works. It’s easy to believe that in a totalitarian state like North Korea, everything flows from the leader, and all government actions are under his control. But the reality is more complex. First of all, it isn’t always clear what the leader wants, and in fact dictators are often cagey about how much they reveal of their intentions. It isn’t just the outside world that has to struggle to parse Kim Jong-un’s intentions. North Korean officials have to take actions and make decisions based on cryptic instructions, or none at all, and they can face dire consequences if they guess wrong.

Second, we need to remember that information flows less effectively in dictatorships than in democracies. Totalitarianism is not the same as efficiency. Totalitarian states expend enormous effort to limit the flow of information, and that very much includes the flow of information within the middle levels of government. The top leadership must ensure that no individual or group is able to organize sufficiently to be a threat. That means siloing leaders and siloing information. Any system of information distribution that would allow a high-level minister to call a mass of people to action — the banality of a foreign minister sending a general memo to the full staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — is a danger to the leader. The leader needs multiple paths of information that lead to him, and he needs to limit the ability of those below him to share information widely.

So what does all this mean in terms of the gunfire at the border? Possibly nothing much. Peace talks, after all, do tend to happen in the context of conflict, and that’s what’s going on in Korea. The exchanges of fire, which led to no casualties, had to do first with North Koreans trying to shoot down balloons sent over the border by South Korean private citizens, and later with South Koreans warning North Korean soldiers not to move any closer to the demarcation line. Who ordered the North Koreans to fire at the balloons? Quite possibly a low-level border officer who knows absolutely nothing about the recent high-level exchanges with South Korea. Who ordered the South Koreans to shoot back? Probably a South Korean officer with standing orders to do exactly that, and whose orders don’t change because of the vague possibility of a thaw at the highest levels of his government. And why did the North Korean soldiers approach the demarcation line when they did? Who knows? But it strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that they did so as part of some kind of clever cat-and-mouse game ordered up by Pyongyang. Instead, like so much else from North Korea, it’s probably just noise.