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Monday, April 26, 2010

What should South Korea do now?

Nothing. Now the highly relevant Starcraft playing cat and kthxbye.

IMG_0093 by UnstoppableDrew from flickr (CC-NC)

OK, you might be wondering why I think anyone would want to do nothing when another country sinks your ships and otherwise behaves provocatively for decades.

The first part of the answer is economy - entire economy of North Korea is worth PPP $40billion. That's about as much as Alaska or Luxembourg.

Other countries which might take part in conflict - some on South Korean side, some neutral, none on North Korean - are worth:
  • South Korea - 34x as much
  • Russia - 54x as much
  • Japan - 110x as much
  • China - 200x as much
  • USA - 350x as much

If everyone had similar levels of military spending as part of GDP, North Korea would be one big pile of rubble before I even had my second coffee. Now this isn't true, North Korea is the most militarized country in the world. It's hard to get good estimates, but according to some figures ratios of military budgets are:
  • South Korea - 4x
  • Japan - 8x
  • Russia - 10x
  • China - 13x
  • USA - 125x
It shows how insane North Korea is by even trying to catch up with its neighbours - some of which are low military spenders like China, and Japan; others are high military spenders like Russia and USA (and that "high" is still lower than countries like Greece), South Korea is surprisingly sane 2.7% considering environment it is in.

So there's absolutely no way North Korea can hope to actually "win" the war, if it actually started.

War is bad for economy

These ratios don't tell the whole story. Not only is North Korea ridiculously poor - it is about as poor as it was in 1953 and not improving at all.

South Korean economy is growing rapidly. Chinese economy is growing explosively. Japanese and American economies are growing - maybe not as quickly as those, but they reliably grow. Russian grows and shrinks as commodity prices change, that's a story for another post. And what about North Korea? It was doing fine until 1973 - at which point is was still better than the South - when it hit a wall, and stopped growing for tho decades, and then collapsed hard when the entire Communist world crashed in 1991, getting worse every single year ever since.

North Koreans are desperate. With each year, their chance of not winning but even putting up a good fight is diminishing.

This, paradoxically, means that everyone else would really really want to avoid a war. If you're getting richer and richer, while your enemy is getting more and more fucked up - why speed things up? Sure, militaristic dick waving looks good on TV and can get you some extra votes - but if you're anything resembling rational you'd prefer to postpone the conflict - assuming you want one in the first place.

How empires are built

This grow-economy-and-wait approach is how empires get created. Did Brits try to engage in European Continental Wars? They mostly let the Continentals bleed each others, while they kept themselves safe with the Royal Navy, picked only easy fights, and let the stability led to explosive economic growth which eventually led to their global domination.

That's how American Empire started as well - other than the infamous 1812-1815 war with Canada Americans mostly stayed isolationist, picking up Indians and growing their population and economy - after all other empires bled themselves to death twice USA became the world superpower by default.

A quick aside - it is commonly incorrectly believed that America has seen significant fighting in two world wars, or like ever. In the First World war it was rather laughable - Americans joined when the war was nearing the end, and by the time Americans reached Europe, it was over. Even countries like Bulgaria and Romania had seen far more fighting.
That of course without civilian deaths, Spanish flu deaths, countless wars following WW1, and such. WW1 was essentially Germany+Austria vs France+Russia+Britain.

WW2 was even simpler - being basically Germany vs Soviet Union, with a second unrelated front of Japan vs China - Americans and for that matter British had very little active role in either.
And the entire Western Front? For German soldiers fighting Soviets getting sent to the Western Front was like getting sent for holidays. The only reason Western Allies even managed to land in Europe was because Nazis were forced to move everyone they could to fight the Ruskis, and there was barely anyone left to defend anything.

America didn't get its empire by winning wars - it got it by not getting involved in wars too much. Lend-Lease , the Marshall Plan, and a few successful CIA operations here and there did far more for the empire than the actual military, which is only good at bombing whoever cannot defend themselves.

And this is precisely what all East Asian powers do. Why even bother spending buckets of money on armies? Japan and China have ridiculously small armies by international standards. Taiwan and South Korea are closer to world average - but considering what kind of danger they're facing close-to-world-average shows incredible levels of restraint. No, they just sit there quietly, making shoes, building iPhones, drawing tentacle porn, steadily growing their industries to catch up with the West - time is on their side.

And starting a war now? Not only your odds are worse than in foreseeable future, you risk messing up with your economic growth. There's nothing particularly Black-Swanish about it - wars take much more time and much more money than anyone predicts more often than not. Ask Americans about Afghanistan. Or Soviets about Afghanistan. Or Brits about Afghanistan. I'd like to see a list of wars which were actually won on budget - it would be a really short one I believe.

A small distraction - nukes

Every discussion of North Korea invariably gets sidetracked into an entirely irrelevant issue of nukes. Here's the only funny Subnormality strip ever:
Strip from Subnormality. Fair use.
This is highly accurate. Nuclear weapons never had any use. Manhattan Projects was a highly misguided idea of getting nukes to get long term strategic advantage over the Soviet Union - Japan never being a serious threat - and it lasted only 4 years before Soviets managed to catch up.

And as far as everyone knows, North Korea does not have nuclear weapons. Yes, they've probably managed to setup a nuclear explosion, but amount of damage a few tiny nukes without proper ICBMs can do is fairly low compared to the power of conventional artillery aimed at Seoul right now. This is the same mistake Nazis did with V2 - sure, they were cool, but they cost so ridiculously much compared to spending the same amount on conventional hardware Alies were very probably very happy about them.

Projects like North Korean nukes and V-2 are not military projects. They are half propaganda, and half massive cases of optimism bias in planning.

And even if North Koreans had large number of good nukes on good missiles, it's not at all certain they'd use them. Everyone during the Second World War - and you don't get more total war than that - had massive stocks of chemical weapons. And yet, they weren't used at all. At least against people who could retaliate in kind - Japanese had no qualms about mustard-gasing Chinese, just like Brits had no qualms about mustard-gasing Iraqis, and so on.

Demographic transition

And now we're getting to my main point - why South Korea is extremely unwilling to take part in any war. Unlike Americans, who can sit at home, eating supersized burgers, and drinking gallons of HFCS-laced soda while their missiles drop on Pyongyang, or even Japanese, Chinese, and Russians, who might get a few missiles here and there but will be mostly fine - the largest population center of South Korea is just 40km from the border. It doesn't require fancy guided ICBM to kill someone - a totally straightforward dumb howitzer can reach it just fine, and good luck evacuating a 25M people big metropolitan area in a hurry.

If war starts, there will be blood. Now you might be wondering - what happened to the world that it's so unwilling to have people die? Countries used to be totally blasé about a few thousand of their citizens here and a few thousand there dying. In some places like Afghanistan and most of Africa this is still the case. Yet - most of the world is highly unwilling to risk that. Even when wars take place - ridiculous amount of money is spent on protecting their soldiers' lives.

And the simple answer is demographic transition. In countries with high birth rates life is cheap. So what if someone dies? If your son dies, you make another - it's not terribly hard. Yes, you'd rather he didn't, but on the scale of most important things in life a small chance of child's death is not that high.

On the other hand once demographic transition happens, people have fewer children and have children later - it's all different. People spend ridiculous amount of money and effort on their children, are highly overprotective (limiting children's liberties in process, but that's another stories), and under no circumstances would they be willing to risk death or injury due to politics. And if your child dies? Not only you lose all investment you put into them, you are probably too old to have any more children, and your grandchildren aren't coming. There is probably some deep Darwinian reason why it works like that, I won't be getting into this - but the correlation between demographic transition and unwillingness to risk your lives in war is huge.

Notice this doesn't apply about lives of others - Americans don't give a shit if a few hundred thousand Iraqis here and there die; Israelis don't give a shit about bombing a Palestinian school here or a hospital there - seriously, who cares about "them" as long as "we" are fine?

Here's the best test case - WW1 and WW2. In 1913 total fertility was 6.3 in Russian, 3.52 in Germany 2.93 in UK, and 2.47 in France - they were at different stages of demographic transition, but still long before the point at which lives become scarce. So who cares if a million young men die meaninglessly in trenches?

In 1938 it was very different. Russia (I wonder how gapminder draws boundaries from these times, anyway...) was at 4.74 - still in the "so who cares if a ten million of our citizens die?". Germany was in "we should put serious effort into blitzkrieg - a few deaths due to quick war are acceptable, but painful" territory with 2.25. But France and UK were already well into "surrender if you can see tanks from Paris/London" territory with 2.13 and 1.84 - the only reason UK didn't surrender was its ability to wage war remotely, protected by the Royal Navy. And just look how ridiculous was their overreaction to small amount of bombing. So 43 thousand civilians died? These numbers are a rounding error compared to what was happening on the Eastern Front or in Asia.

Likewise Japan was very Kamikaze-happy with its 3.88 fertility rate - something Americans with their 2.22 would never try.

Once fertility drops, anyone's willingness to fight does too. And that's why we have so few wars in post-demographic-transition world. You still think I'm making this up? Look at fertility rates top 10:
  1.  Niger - somehow managed to get away with just a few coups, and some minor Tuareg rebellions.
  2.  Guinea-Bissau - had civil war 1998-1999
  3.  Afghanistan - had a war or another every year since 19th century.
  4.  Burundi - had civil war 1993 to 2005
  5.  Liberia - one civil war 1989–1996, another 1999–2003.
  6.  Democratic Republic of the Congo - managed to pull one of the top 10 bloodiest wars of all times, just a few years ago; not counting minor ones.
  7.  East Timor - decades of fighting against Indonesia.
  8.  Mali - doing surprisingly well for the list, just some spillover conflicts from neighbouring countries and minor fights between government and Tuaregs.
  9.  Sierra Leone - civil war 1991-2002.
  10.  Uganda - one war, another civil war, plus participation in the Congo bloodbath on top of that.
And this is what the entire world looked like most almost all of human history. So who's on the other end? This is actually pretty good.
  1.  Macau (PRC)
  2.  Hong Kong (PRC)
  3.  Singapore
  4.  Republic of China (Taiwan)
  5.  South Korea
  6.  Japan
  7.  Montserrat (UK)
  8.  Lithuania
  9.  Czech Republic
  10.  Belarus
So other than some tiny territories - the lowest fertility and therefore least belligerent counties are exactly the most interested ones - South Korea and Japan.

By the way Czechs and Lithuanians are somewhat overstated here - they have fairly large migration to Western Europe, and many of their babies are born abroad. Their fertility is low, but not as drastically low as implied by the rank.

And no, North Korea isn't likely to be terribly trigger-happy either. Their fertility rate is 1.85 - soldiers will be difficult to replace. Not to mention they'll lose the war in a week.


South Korea should go to UN and get some sternly worded letter from Security Council and let it pass. Far more people could be saved by replacing a busy crossing with a roundabout than by stopping North Koreans from sinking your ships (or for that matter, stopping bin Laden from flying planes into your buildings).

Every argument shows that South Koreans win nothing by going into the war, and they will find loses unacceptable.

Now that I made Greeks and Koreans hate me, it's only 190 or so nationalities to go.


NetManiac said...

Just a side note - maybe not only fertility rate impact willingness to fight, but maybe other way too - being faced to war fertility rate goes up...

tom said...

why did so many civilians die during WW2 in china?
Wiki doesn't go into detail why 20 million had to die.

Quickshot said...

I imagine the reason is some what similar to the large losses in the former USSR, namely being invaded. In this case Japan was trying to conquer China and not doing an all to bad job of it, if I remember correctly.

On a side note, I believe military violence has been on a multi century decline, so I figure it isn't just the fertility rate which is controlling the chance of war. This might also explain why some of the high fertility countries in your list weren't especially violent themselves. As in, some other factors were helping to stay stable as well.

taw said...

If you're wondering what kind of stuff happens in high-fertility country vs high-fertility country wars, in 1938 Chinese purposely caused flood to stop Japanese, killing half million people (primarily their own civilians of course) in process - just to slow down Japanese advance.

This self-genocide was actually successful, the following battle of Wuhan bled Japanese quite significantly, even though it caused another half million Chinese casualties.

Imagine anyone flooding own cities with no warning even in WW1/WW2 Europe... Even Stalin might have doubts about such an action.

For the record fertilities we're talking about are 3.88 for Japan, 4.74 for Russia, and 5.3 for China.

thomas said...

thank you quickshot and taw

considering how many people stalin sacrificed he might have been capable of flooding. even if it costs the lives of a few thousand Ukraines... ;)

taw said...

Quickshot: I've heard about this multi-century decline, but I'd like to see hard data. Of top 21 bloodiest wars ever, 8 are 20th century (three are extremely recent: Iran-Iraq, 2nd Sudan Civil War, 2nd Congo Civil War - but all pre-demographic-transition), 4 are 19th century, 3 are are 17th, and the rest 16th, 14th, 13th, 11th, 8th, and 2nd. Yes this is largely due to bigger populations, but I'm somewhat skeptical.

And wars follow power law, not bell curve - so not having a major civil war in the last 30 years doesn't mean Niger/Mali are special, it is most likely just random (and they had some small ones).