Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 April 2013

North Korea: A Test of Emotional Intelligence

[For a recent post on the “Defense of Marriage” Act, click here.]

Introduction: Emotional Intelligence and Leadership
Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
The Problem of the Kims
Korea’s Macho Culture
The Intelligent Triad

Introduction: Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

This blog has already explored the difference between emotional and analytical intelligence. A good leader needs both: analytical intelligence to know what to do, and emotional intelligence to get people to do it, even when they can’t quite see that it’s in their own best interest.

The two types of intelligence work best when in rough balance. With strong emotional intelligence and weak analytical intelligence, a leader can draw his people into the jaws of Hell. Just think of Hitler, Stalin or Mao in his later years, with his Great Leap Forward and Red Guards marginalizing and persecuting all of China’s experts on anything.

If analytical intelligence dominates, you get a good but ineffectual leader. Think of Woodrow Wilson. He helped the Allies win World War I. Then he tried mightily, but failed, to get Europe not to squeeze a beaten Germany. Or think of Jimmy Carter, who got our hostages back from Iran unharmed (one minute after the end of his term), but only after a failed military mission to free them.

History will vindicate both men. In fact, it has vindicated Wilson already. Instead of stomping on an again-beaten Germany after World War II, we unveiled the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt it. That plan did exactly what Wilson had prescribed, just one world war too late. There was a small matter of fifty million premature deaths, plus the first use of massive fire bombing and nuclear weapons to slaughter civilian populations—all because Wilson couldn’t get his self-righteous allies to follow his good advice.

Some day, history will vindicate Carter, too. People will realize how much worse our relationship with Iran would be if our military rescue had failed only partially, and Iran’s zealots had slaughtered most of the hostages, with the inevitable US response. As it was, Carter got them back with no slaughter and no war. Not bad for a peanut farmer from Georgia!

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

Although Wilson and Carter were both good presidents, neither will be lionized like Reagan, who, with far less analytical intelligence, made many more mistakes. Wilson helped win the first great war but couldn’t close the deal for lasting peace. Carter made the best of a very bad situation (partly of our own making) but let our right wing paint us as losers.

Reagan drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy with an all-out arms race. But he brilliantly closed the deal for peace when he told his opposite number, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall!”

A good man, Gorbachev probably wanted to tear it down anyway. And it was hard to tell from Reagan’s tone whether his famous line was an order or a plea. But with that single sentence, Reagan got the Russians and the whole world to see what a senseless, wasteful and unsustainable human tragedy the Cold War was. It and the Soviet Union faded into history just four years later.

For that single act, we can forgive Reagan his equally senseless and unsustainable economic policies, which have just driven us nearly into bankruptcy, and which will take decades more to reverse. The Cold War was, after all, the greater evil. It nearly led us to species self-extinction in October 1962.

And therein lies perhaps greatest tale of emotional intelligence, one which saved us all from extinction. The Soviets had precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis by installing medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Several were fully assembled and operational. We surrounded Cuba with a naval blockade to keep more from coming in. As we learned only much later, the Soviets sent submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes. Their commanders were authorized to use them at will, without resort to higher authority; and they couldn’t contact Moscow anyway.

As the Soviet fleet approached our naval blockade, Armageddon was just minutes away. All our Cabinet but the President’s brother Bobby Kennedy (then serving as Attorney General) wanted a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

But our President JFK believed that the Soviets wanted a nuclear holocaust no more than we did. He contacted Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev and made a deal. Like most of our people who had any sense, Khrushchev was so relieved and grateful for that species-saving arrangement that, upon hearing of JFK’s assassination a year later, he wept. This was the once-peasant Communist leader who earlier had banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations, crying “We will bury you!”

The emotional intelligence and empathy of these two men, leaders of inimical states, saved us all from species self-extinction, or something very close. Hard, cold, rational analysis could not have done the job. Our generals did that and wanted war, which they thought we could “win.” Only the emotional understanding that the Soviets loved their children and their nation as much as we loved ours saved us. (The saving also required a realistic understanding of what nuclear weapons can do.)

The Problem of the Kims

And so we come to North Korea—a hermit hereditary monarchy run like a medieval feudal state. With its level of social advancement and economic progress, it should be fielding horsemen with lances and crossbows. But instead it has nuclear weapons and missiles that some day (not now!) might be able to deliver them.

North Korea is so pathological a society, and so isolated from the rest of our species, as to require extraordinary emotional intelligence. Analysis is not the issue.

It takes no genius to see that starving a whole people to build a fearsome but ill-fed army and a nuclear arsenal is not a viable long-term national strategy. It takes little talent to ken that living by extortion and smuggling, without being able to feed one’s population or produce anything of lasting external value, is no more so.

It also takes little insight to see that such a society can sustain itself, even temporarily, only by fear, both internal and external. The internal fear—of a supposed “invasion” that never comes—maintains the pathological tyranny’s power. The external fear allows it to maintain its pathological isolation, without which it would soon collapse from within.

The little nation has less than 25 million people, fewer than any two of China’s big cities, or than Greater Tokyo. Yet its instability makes it a powerful time bomb. The teenage mutant tyrant was raised on American movies, rich foods (in a starving nation!) that made him fat, absolute power, and the sort of public fear and adulation that we’ve not seen since Stalin, Hitler and Mao. His psyche is a bizarre concoction of myth, arrogance, others’ sycophancy, youth and inexperience.

Kim is self-evidently seeking to maintain and consolidate a tenuous hold on national power. Wherever he goes in public, a cloud of short, much older men surrounds him, wearing broad-brimmed military hats that look like flying saucers. How many are sycophants? How many want his job or his head? How many are under the influence of his uncle, who reportedly is his tutor and the power behind the throne?

We simply don’t know. But Kim could believe he can take South Korea, let alone painlessly, only if he believes in his own divinity.

Maybe he does. But surely some on his military staff are informed realists. Surely they know that a single nuclear-armed submarine, hiding off Korea’s coast, could obliterate all of North Korea’s cities and most of its population in fifteen minutes. Surely they must know that very smart weapons accurate enough to take out a single Taliban hideout will be seeking Kim and each of them personally if war starts.

If not, we should find some way to inform them, diplomatically of course. Maybe we should send them a documentary of the destruction of Hiroshima, from the records of its Peace Museum, together with video of the 50 megaton thermonuclear blasts over Bikini in the 1950s. Then maybe we should explain that those bigger bombs have over 3,000 times the power of the one that leveled Hiroshima. Finally, we might explain how our nuclear submarines can hide quietly in the ocean, escaping detection even by the Soviets, whose technology was and is decades ahead of North Korea’s.

But we must contend with Lord Acton’s truth. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Maybe it corrupts reason, too. Maybe Kim and his staff, and not the ivory-tower Ayatollahs, are the really crazy ones.

That’s possible. Anything is possible in North Korea’s pathological society, in which people cured of cataracts (for free!) by an altruistic Western-trained doctor tearfully and abjectly thanked Kim’s father, not the doctor, for their restored sight.

But far more likely is what seems obvious to outsiders. Kim is conjuring up an external threat to cow his own people (perhaps including some of the flying saucers in that cloud), strengthen his tenuous grip on power, and suppress any thought of rebellion. He also wants to test whether he can continue to extort rice, oil and patience from the outside world, including his annoyed patron China. But even if this is so, it’s hard to discount the possibility of miscalculation and escalation on the part of such an isolated and pathological leader, a mere boy striding like a man on the world stage, with a nuclear weapon clenched in each untested fist.

Korea’s Macho Culture

Here’s where emotional intelligence matters. Korean culture is the most authoritarian, paternalistic and macho that I have ever experienced. In order to attract Western business, South Korea’s law firms take the form of partnerships, But in fact they are not partnerships at all. They are all one-man shows, with a single boss lawyer and the rest his employees. As soon as a leading employee can, he splits off and starts his own one-man show. (Nearly all of South Korea’s lawyers are men.)

A few years ago, Korean Air had the worst safety record of any developed country’s airline industry. When consultants looked into it, they quickly found the reason. The pilot was King of the Cockpit. Usually a graduate of the Korean military, he was even more authoritarian and paternalistic than the norm for Korean men. This stern authority figure so cowed the copilot and engineer that they quailed even to mention lapses in proper procedure and other dangerous conditions they observed. It took well over a year of intensive training in teamwork to bring Korean Air’s accident ratio down to international norms.

A third example of Korean cultural intransigence I know from personal involvement (as a consultant). Two Korean vendors in the US made and sold little souvenirs to the tourist trade. One sued the other for copyright infringement, on a disputed, esoteric and unclear point of copyright law. Rather than concede or settle, one mortgaged his house to continue the legal battle. And these men were from the South, not the North.

You might think of “saving face” as a part of Chinese culture. But the Chinese have nothing on Koreans in that regard. If we push the boy tyrant into a corner, he may act like a cornered rat with nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones that could turn Seoul into a living Hell in mere hours.

That possibility no one can discount. Nor can anyone estimate it with anything approaching precision. That’s what makes the teenage mutant tyrant so hard to crack. He may be feigning craziness in a rational but cynical plan to continue his international extortion. Or he may actually be crazy. That’s why emotional intelligence is so important.

The Intelligent Triad

Fortunately, the Korean Peninsula’s fate seems to be in good hands, at least outside the North. All the three leaders facing Kim have every earmark of extraordinary emotional intelligence.

I have already written about our President’s emotional intelligence. I won’t repeat the analysis here. He beat Hillary Clinton at the height her capability and the high water mark of nostalgia for the Clinton Dynasty, right after Dubya’s catastrophic regime. He beat both John McCain and Mitt Romney, two very different candidates, in the latter case despite a still-lagging economy. He did so over the dead body of the greatest propaganda machine in human history (Fox), with mega-financing of superpacs, which our Supreme Court had conveniently (for the GOP) authorized just in time.

He got health insurance reform passed, something that other presidents (including Bill Clinton) had tried and failed for a century to do. Then, when the GOP refused to consider raising taxes to balance the budget, he struck a deal that traded off small cuts in entitlements for huge reductions in our bloated military. It’s called the “Sequester,” and the right wing didn’t even see it coming.

Just recently, he got Israel to apologize to Turkey and so to restore relations between the two most rational powers in the Middle East. Call him a “socialist” or “Nazi” if you like (throwing accuracy out the window), or both in the same breath, as many do. But if you are honest and read the news, you have to acknowledge him as one of the greatest political strategists in our history, comparable to Lincoln.

Here his race actually helps him. What “black” man in still-racist America hasn’t had to use emotional jujitsu just to get someone to listen—really listen—to his good ideas? When President Obama comes up against Kim’s and his minions’ arrogance, “face” and machismo, he will have done that drill thousands of times before.

Next is Xi Jinping. We don’t know that much about him. But two things we do know suggest that he, too, is a master of emotional intelligence. Well before he took the top job in China, he said the following:
“Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us . . . First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”
As the first sentence suggests, that remark came of out exasperation with Western criticism. If you compare China today with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, or even “Red” China during its revolutionary phase, his words ring true.

But even if you don’t believe them, weren’t they just the right thing to say to ease anxiety, give reassurance, and avoid a tone of belligerence? Xi was self-evidently exasperated, but he soothed instead of arousing or offending his audience. Maybe that remark was his “tear down this wall” moment, even before he took the top job.

The second important thing about Xi we know only from circumstantial evidence. Just before he took the top job, the dispute between China and Japan over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands was growing hot. Chinese mobs were surrounding and ransacking Japanese car dealerships in big cities, apparently with official permission, or at least acquiescence. In response and in protest, Japanese mobs were forming in Japan.

Unfettered nationalism and a horrible history were beginning to raise their ugly heads in both countries, threatening a war between the world’s second and third largest economies, one nuclear-armed and the other nuclear-protected by us. So-called diplomats were using blunt and even harsh language. In short, things began to look pretty grim.

As soon as Xi took firm hold of the reins of government, all this stopped as if he had flicked some powerful switch. Maybe nationalist elements, like the People’s Liberation Army, had incited the Chinese mobs. Maybe Bo Xilai, a notorious nationalist, had been responsible, and that’s why he was so quickly sacked. (The Party can tolerate a lot of corruption, but not suicidal policies that would destroy the social and political stability for which it has struggled for over half a century.)

But whatever the reason, it’s hard to see the timing as a coincidence. It remains to be seen how quickly and well China and Japan can resolve their dispute over the Islands and neighboring energy and mineral resources. But the result so far is consistent with a top Chinese leader of strong emotional intelligence, who actually lives the remark he made so famously before assuming the top job.

The third point of the triad is South Korea’s new female leader, President Park Geun-hye. We don’t know a lot about her either. But her personal history is indicative. Her father was Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s longest-ruling strong man. He seized power in a coup in 1961. He remained in power until assassinated in 1979—nearly two decades later. His wife, the new president’s mother, had been killed in an assassination attempt five years earlier.

This history suggests that Korea’s new president is fully familiar with Korea’s authoritarian and paternalistic culture. She knows its risks and discontents from painful personal experience. Her response is self-evident from her choice of policy in dealing with the North, at least before the present crisis. She advocates “trustpolitik”—a new regime of détente, trust-building and eventual cooperation, and a stark contrast with the confrontational policies of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak.


Park will supply the softness and the carrots. She will be the “good cop.” Obama and Xi will supply the realism and the sticks. They will be the “bad cops.” (Only Xi will have real leverage over Kim, since China supplies most of North Korea’s oil and much of its rice.) All have every reason, in both their personal and professional histories, to treat Kim’s and his minions’ machismo and face-saving with the sensitivity and finesse that they require.

At the end of the day, this crisis is not primarily a military one. Nor is it a policy problem to be solved analytically. It should be amply clear to the dimmest wit that there is only one pleasant way out for North Korea: slow, careful and steady abandonment of its isolation and Spartan character, and reintegration with the rest of the human race, beginning with the South.

The North can remain a separation nation, aligned more closely to China than to the West. But much like the old Soviet Union, it has to become a normal country again.

Now that the Cold War is long over and China is capitalist in all but name, the models here should be East Germany and German reunification. Sparta cannot win when the other 99.6% of humanity is Athens.

So the problem is not the goal, which is obvious. The problem is how to get there, and how to convince Kim and whoever else holds real power to start down that road. Emotional, not just analytical, intelligence will be the workhorse.

While it is working, it will be hard to read the news. The most important achievements will occur in secrecy, or at least privacy, in closed rooms. There may be public bluster, threats, posturing and even frightening military action. Our military’s readiness, capability, and restraint will all be vital, and equally important. But the most important thing will be the hidden chess game of diplomacy, plus whatever personal relationships the triad can establish with their counterparts in North Korea.

For that game, you couldn’t ask for a better team than Obama, Xi and Park. Let’s just hope that each of them will give the crisis the sober and sustained personal attention that it deserves. That might be just what Kim, with all his unpredictable tantrums, is really after.

Footnote 1: Actually, President Kennedy and General Secretary Khrushchev were not our only saviors. Even before they made their species-saving deal, a Soviet submarine flotilla commander named Vasiliy Alexandrovich Arkhipov had refused to let Soviet nuclear torpedoes fly. His courage and good, human judgment—under appalling conditions of extreme heat, depth-charge bombardment, and no word from Moscow—also saved our world.

Footnote 2: Kim Jong Un is actually somewhere between 27 and 30 years old. (Our newspapers don’t seem to know his age for certain, a fact that reflects North Korea’s extreme isolation.) But I think the phrase “teenage mutant tyrant” describes his probable impact rather well. Although not numerically accurate, “teenage” conveys his youth and inexperience. “Mutant” reflects his hereditary succession from two similarly bizarre tyrants and the so-far-vain hope that he might be different. “Tyrant” needs no explanation.



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