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Thinking Relationally about the IR of the Koreas

May 2, 2010

If you use social network analysis software you realize that the way that the programme draws network maps  is not ‘objective’:  there are lots of different ways that you can  visualize the same data.  One of the most common ways of doing this (for instance in Pajek or Visone) is using a ‘stress minimization algorithm’. What happens is that the software treats the relations as if they were a set of steel springs and tries to  minimize the stresses that would exist within the physical system.  What then tends to happen is that you (at least me) begin to think about relations as springs…..

I was reminded of this when I saw this piece about the relationship between the two Koreas and China.  [A disclaimer: I’m not an expert on the international relations of the Korean peninsula I’m just using the story as an example of a relational way of looking at things so if the story is wrong the post is wrong] The previous South Korean government sought to build up economic  and humanitarian ties with the North.  The current Southern government changed direction and tried to put leverage on the North by cutting back on these ties.  In response the North cut political relations with the South.  From a network perspective this creates a structural hole in the political relationships of the two Koreas.  China gains the advantage because both Koreas have closer relations with the PRC than with each other.  The North becomes more dependent on China  while the South forced to try and use China to put pressure on the North even though its leverage has declined.

The spring visualization tells you that if you remove a link between two nodes they get pulled closer to their remaining ties.  By weakening the relations with the South North Korea gets pulled closer to China.  The print version of the piece in the International Herald Tribune describes how Chinese companies are buying up facilities in North Korea at ‘bargain prices’.    Following the logic of this argument you might envisage a situation where China is able to manage the ‘decompression’ of North Korea because its growing ties give it more tools to influence the situation.

So what does this have to do with rethinking public diplomacy in relational terms?  Firstly, if we are seeking to build and use relationships we need to recognize that the value of our relationship with someone depends not only on the strength of the relationship we build but on the other relationships that they side have. Secondly, relationships between actors are interdependent and dynamic;  a change in one affects the others  ie North Korea’s relationship with China is influenced by the state of its relationship with the South. Thirdly, we need to think through the interaction of multiplex relationships.  Where two actors have multiple different ties how much do these different ties affect each other? South Korea tried to use its economic ties as a political lever.  The North called its bluff – at the cost of becoming more dependent on China.  To what extent can Chinese economic ties bring political leverage? Fourthly, this is another way of looking at the policy-communication gap that we always complain about in thinking about US external relations. If you want PD practitioners to build relationships at a micro level their ability to do so is affected by macro level choices about  relationships with other countries.  Policy and PD don’t exist in different world they are both choices about relationships.

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