June 19, 2009

High Seas Poker

The American media has a new game to play - follow that North Korean ship. The Kang Nam, flying the North Korean flag, recently left port with cargo suspected of violating the freshly stamped UN resolution 1874. Bound for Singapore, its final destination is unknown.

President Obama better put on his poker face because he’s entering a game of no-limit Texas hold 'em.

The die has been cast, there's no folding. American officials have vowed to uphold the UN resolution, which calls for boarding or escorting suspected ships to port. If Obama has actionable intelligence he must do something, anything, or pay the price of weakness.

The Kang Nam could be free of weapons, illegal ones anyway, and so one game could be void. Therein lies the first bluff, because another game would continue. The ship itself, with a history of transporting questionable material, suggests North Korea is strategically testing America and the UN.

"We intend to vigorously enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 to include options, to include, certainly, hail and query,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen said. “If a vessel like this is queried and doesn't allow a permissive search, it can be directed into port.”

North Korea has violated countless UN resolutions and superpowers without sustaining too much punishment; its people suffer most. Since UN resolution 1874 is supposed to be the toughest yet and America has pledged to implement it, North Korea is testing Obama's reaction. He can't bluff. Letting a guilty Kang Nam pass unchallenged would be a victory for Kim Jong-il.

And to test, North Korea must provoke. Kim Jong-il might not believe the American Navy will stop the Kang Nam, board it, or direct it to port for inspection, but he must consider that outcome. Militaries prepare for the most contingencies they can think of, so what is the North Korean Navy thinking?

Last week North Korea’s Navy chief warned that his soldiers would cut the hand off those who touch their ships. North Korea’s leadership claimed any attempt, not just to board a suspected ship, but to stop it in any way would be considered an act of war. North Korean officials have promised to retaliate a thousand fold.

This is a more obvious bluff. No one is certain of North Korea’s logic, but starting a large scale war because of one shipping incident is suicidal. Hawaii isn’t likely to see any long range missiles. Bluffs have range though, and North Korea looks like it wants to fight. A sea battle between North Korean and American soldiers could become reality if the Kang Nam is confronted.

How likely that battle becomes a war is the pot of this game. What are the odds and limits, how far can America go? These aren’t Somali pirates. Can the Navy even engage a North Korean ship without drawing fire? Can it halt a suspected ship and direct its course to a port for inspection? Can American soldiers board and confiscate cargo? Could a gunfight be contained to an isolated incident, or will any interaction be an act of war?

No-limit hold ‘em breaks many people for good reason.

President Obama must expect North Korea won’t comply with his orders, leaving him few options. The best case scenario is that the ship is a decoy designed to test the American Navy. Underneath sweet bait lies poison. The ship must be avoided if possible, giving Obama more time to develop his countermeasures.

But North Korea will keep launching ships and eventually transport nuclear material as tensions escalate. Obama must halt suspected ships if he wants to prove America won’t completely back down. This action alone may lead to nothing. However, attempting to divert the ship’s course will likely trigger legitimate threats. Boarding is asking for battle and possibly war.

While nuclear war is unlikely to erupt in the event of confrontation, the odds of real hostilities between America and North Korea are increasing over time. Assuming Obama and his officials uphold their pledge, the Navy will confront the Kang Nam or another ship if it has solid evidence of wrongdoing. Both sides go all in, which means defeat for someone.

Texas hold ‘em is a dangerous game that shows incomplete information until the last moment. Information isn’t everything either. Gambling and risk are inherent to poker, and only Obama knows how much risk he can stomach.

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