Most Americans ‘cannot find North Korea on a map’; What game theory tells us about Kim Jong-un

Almost two-thirds of Americans cannot find North Korea on a map; What game theory tells us about nuclear war with North Korea

Only 36 per cent of Americans were able to correctly identify North Korea on a map in a recent Morning Consult survey.

The experiment, as reported by The New York Times, found that there’s a relationship between geographic knowledge and policy preferences. People who can locate North Korea are more likely to favor diplomatic ways to deal with the country: economic sanctions, for instance, or increasing pressure on the country’s chief ally, China.

This July 28, 2017 file photo from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-14 being launched at an undisclosed place.

On the other hand, people who could not find the country were statistically more likely to favor doing things the old-fashioned way: by sending in ground troops. They were also more likely to feel we should not do anything at all. It is worth pointing out, however, that this group still preferred diplomatic approaches to North Korea, they just did so by a significantly smaller margin than the people who could actually find the country.

These results are similar to a 2014 study on another international flashpoint: Ukraine. That study found that the less knowledgeable people were about the country’s location, the more they favored aggressive US interventions, like the use of military force.

The geographical questions are a novel way to illustrate a basic truth about civic life: “Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want the government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda,” as political scientists Kyle Dropp, Joshua Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff wrote in The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in 2014.

“War,” the old saying goes, “is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

Given what we are starting to learn about geographical knowledge and its relationship to policy preferences, it might be time to flip that saying on its head: Geography is God’s way of teaching Americans about avoiding war.

On Wednesday, Trump praised North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for apparently making a “wise and well-reasoned” decision to back away from his plan to strike the US Pacific island territory of Guam, a sign that Washington and Pyongyang intend to soften their week-long military threats against each other.

Trump’s comment came after Kim said he would ‘watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees’ before executing any order.

What game theory tells us about nuclear war with North Korea

According to Tim Roughgarden, professor of computer science at Stanford University who focuses on game theoretic questions, nuclear war — to attack or not to attack — has a prisoner’s dilemma-like aspect to it. But there’s an important caveat: The prisoner’s dilemma assumes there is no future. If you’re just playing once, your dominant strategy would be to betray — or attack. “But in a repeated prisoner’s dilemma, where players — say the U.S. and North Korea — are in long-term interactions, they’re reasoning not just about today but about the chances of retaliation tomorrow,”  said Roughgarden in an interview with The Washington Post.

“In the presence of a credible threat of retaliation, now each country has an incentive to cooperate — to not attack. They act against their own interest in the short-term because it assures them no retaliation.”

This is what happened with the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. To the extent that the scenario today with North Korea is analogous to that with the Soviet Union, the same parables that were helpful for thinking about strategy then could be helpful today as well, says Roughgarden. “But the current situation has not quite reached a prisoner’s dilemma because North Korea doesn’t yet have a symmetric ability to retaliate against us as we do against them. They’re developing that ability so that the situation becomes a prisoner’s dilemma.”

How does game theory suggest the U.S. should act?

Roughgarden says there are situations where you apply game theory and it gives you crisp, clear prescriptions about what you should do. In principle you could use game theory to decide what is the best way of bluffing in a game like poker. But in real world applications it doesn’t always tell you what you should do. It can give you the possible outcomes, but it’s doesn’t give you a whole lot of advice about how you should guide things to the endgame you want.

According to Roughgarden, game theory is very helpful, though, when you have a clear belief about what the other side is going to do. This is the notion of a “best response.” If you know that another country will bow to a threat rather than retaliate, then there’s a much stronger case for issuing a threat. If you don’t know how they’ll act, reasoning about a best response becomes much more difficult.

“This is one aspect in the situation with North Korea that has everyone a bit on edge: Neither side has a very good understanding of the other. Kim is young, there’s not been much direct interaction between him and the U.S. government and not a lot of confidence in understanding how he might act in different situations. And given the things Trump has been saying, North Korea might not be sure how the U.S. will react either.”

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