Tensions on the Peninsula: Why Sumo Wrestling Won’t Help Us

Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport and tournaments are held several times each year to sold-out stadiums and emotionally charged fans. A sumo match is a contest between two opposing giants maneuvering and colliding with terrific force. Many observers of the sport will say it is as much a clash of opposing wills as it is a clash of force. Thus, the sport can serve as a just metaphor for ongoing tensions between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), despite recent events and political overtures.

Like sumo wrestlers, these state actors default to viewing their positions from a vantage point of competition—a high stakes environment where the only acceptable result is to win while the other loses. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea do not have to be viewed in such fatalistic terms. American political leadership, through some fresh thinking, can employ its military through educational and operational initiatives that reduce tensions on the peninsula, build a measure of trust, and protect security interests.

Meeting between Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, and Donald Trump, President of the United States. (ADP)

Today’s international security environment is viewed in zero-sum terms with clear winners and losers. Some would argue that these states, continuing with the wrestling analogy, vie for position using diplomatic, economic, or even military means to gain leverage. This plays nicely into the narrative of what one author termed great power politics, with great and emerging powers alike looking for “…opportunities to gain power at each other’s expense.”[1] However, there are alternative behaviors that could achieve a measure of mutually benefitting interests that do not reduce power or standing. There is little to lose by stepping outside of the ring to look around and find other ways to improve one’s position without relinquishing ground.

The current tensions between the United States and North Korea is as good an area as any to examine, particularly over the issue of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. goal of denuclearization of North Korea has been “…a failed policy objective of the United States and South Korea for twenty-five years.”[2] By some estimates, North Korea possesses  approximately thirty nuclear warheads with the ability to increase its arsenal by a rate of two each year. Successful launches of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles last year placed much of the U.S. mainland within striking range. In a continuing show of escalation, independent news organizations confirmed Pyongyang launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile late last year. James Minnich, Deputy Dean of the College of Security Studies at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, asserts a plethora of risks continue to lay squarely in front of the United States: nuclear strikes, conventional conflict escalation, deteriorated diplomatic relations, proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapon technology, and a weakened Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty.[3] Despite recent overtures from the U.S. administration and political breakthroughs in North and South Korean relations, there should be no doubt that major hurdles still exist.

The main hurdle, of course, is resolving an apparent standoff between the United States and North Korea that the Korean peninsula becomes, and remains, free of nuclear weapons. A North Korean nuclear or conventional strike on U.S. personnel and/or allies on the Korean peninsula would constitute an act of war. By the same token, North Korea has a national security interest in ensuring regime survival. Maintaining and preserving the current regime in Pyongyang and the culture and institutions of its state are—and will always be—vital interests. To advance the relationship, the United States and North Korea require assurances from the other that are credible, trustworthy, and verifiable.

A different form of negotiation might achieve stronger assurances. In The Global Negotiator, Jeswald Salacuse outlines several different models of negotiation, including the integrative bargaining model, which seems particularly relevant to the current tensions on the peninsula. He writes that this approach views negotiation not as compromise or combative but as a collaboration. Both parties can confirm their primary interests (e.g., security assurances) and seek to “…fashion a deal that takes those interests into account and integrates those interests into a well-crafted transaction (i.e., agreement or set of agreements).”[4] Both parties may have many different interests, but the focus on the negotiation is to introduce options or solutions within an agreed upon space of mutual interest, in this case state security, as shown below. This is where leaders can, in good faith create options for improving relations and then achieving some level of negotiated settlement that de-escalates a charged environment.

Overlapping interests between the United States and North Korea. (Author’s Work)

Salacluse calls this approach interest-based negotiation. He writes, “To arrive at an integrative solution, the parties’ interests need not be identical…the parties need to recognize the extent to which their interests, though different, are compatible, or at least not mutually exclusive.”[5] For example, the United States may define state security differently from North Korea, but fundamentally they both have a similar mutual interest. With a mutual interest defined, both parties can then generate options for mutual benefit. For example, with national political leadership on both sides there are a number of military-to-military efforts that would engender goodwill, greater cooperation, increased understanding, and some level of assurance and trust during this tense period.[6] These recommendations are categorized into two themes: Educate and Empower and Collaborate and Assure.

Educate and Empower

The Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies is a U.S. Department of Defense executive education institution located in Honolulu, Hawaii.[7] The Center invites military and civilian representatives of primarily Indo-Asia-Pacific nations to meet and discuss regional and global security issues through courses and workshops focused primarily on improving security cooperation. There, faculty and students share their ideas on the complex interrelationships of military, political, and diplomatic policies that hinder or spur regional security cooperation. Unfortunately, North Korea does not currently have students attending courses or participating in regional workshops at the Center. Such representation would add diversity and welcomed participation in this inclusive, non-attributional professional learning environment.

The introduction of security professionals and educators from North Korea at the Center would enrich the quality of discussions and certainly improve the quality of discussions, sense making, and creative solutions that are generated between the professionals that attend these courses.

Additionally, the Center does not currently have any faculty or staff from North Korea. While it has hosted numerous courses, dialogues, workshops, and events throughout the region, it has not had the benefit of the perspective an academic scholar from North Korea would bring. The introduction of security professionals and educators from North Korea at the Center would enrich the quality of discussions and certainly improve the quality of discussions, sense making, and creative solutions that are generated between the professionals that attend these courses. This would be a small but meaningful start to building a greater level of trust.

Collaborate and Assure

The U.S. military, in collaboration with the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, could also agree to participate in non-traditional joint military exercises of mutual interest. Rather than more confrontational military exercises, the three militaries could begin training to address non-military threats, such as a pandemic bird flu or mass displaced persons movements impacting the peninsula. The U.S. could support joint recovery operations involving the dignified and honorable transfer of service members (from both sides of the Korean War) whose remains have been found and should be returned to their country and their loved ones. In light of recent events, additional repatriation exercises could be conducted, assuring both sides of the 38th Parallel that proper procedures are in place to respect the individual’s right to be returned to their native country.

A soldier carries a casket containing the remains of a US soldier killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on July 27, 2018. (Reuters)

Another recommendation could be that the U.S., South Korean, and North Korea militaries, led by appropriate political leadership, could participate in reciprocal joint nuclear site survey visits, providing assurances of the defensive posture of all parties. Last but not least, all parties  could jointly mark the demilitarized zone. The demilitarized zone is hundreds of miles long, with many of the markers damaged or missing. There is the potential for confusion over what constitutes, in some places, the sovereign borders of South Korea or North Korea. This confusion could lead to unfortunate misunderstandings under any number of scenarios, leading to unnecessary hostile or aggressive acts. By properly marking the demilitarized zone, all parties would have greater assurance, clarity, and understanding of where to apply their sovereign laws over border control. These are several examples that each nation’s military, with political endorsement, could be utilized to increase the type and level of interaction between traditionally opposed forces to work on areas of joint interest and concern.

The Final Chapter? Not yet.

When it comes to nuclear weapons and great power politics the risks are potentially too high and potentially too devastating for states to not creatively engage all elements of their national power, including the military. Like Japanese sumo wrestlers, states have come to expect that conflict will be resolved through deliberate moves and force. There are other ways. It is in the interest of the United States to consider new strategies if it is to make breakthroughs in its current relationship with North Korea. Within the Department of Defense, there are capabilities to positively influence the on-going diplomatic effort. This can be accomplished through military-to-military partnering with North Korea in small but meaningful ways that could increase trust, build confidence, and gain greater understanding on underlying tensions. This can start in small but measured ways—light on effort and logistics but heavy on symbolism and potential effect. These actions should not be seen as weaknesses. America’s allies will see these actions actions for what they attempt to do. In fact, as a global leader, the United States will demonstrate humility, courage, and conviction by making meaningful, patient and deliberate strides that do not compromise American national security interests or those of her allies...or opposing sumo wrestlers.

Alex Carter is a U.S. Army Strategist. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Sumo Wrestlers (Pinterest)


[1] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 5..

[2] James M. Minnich, U.S. Army, Deputy Dean, College of Security Studies, Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, “North Korea Policy: Changed Regime,” Military Review (August 2017), 1.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Jeswalk W. Salacuse, The Global Negotiator: Making, Managing, and Mending Deals Around the World in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 10.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James M. Minnich, U.S. Army, Deputy Dean, College of Security Studies, Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, interview by author, Honolulu, HI, November 27, 2017.

[7] The Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies Home Page, http://www.dkiapcss.org (accessed November 24, 2017).