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North Korea could collapse without China, say student strategists

North Korea should diversify its allies in the region rather than just relying on China for economical and political support, according to a team of Sussex students currently flying high in a global political strategy contest. 

This is just one of many suggestions and findings of the eight Sussex Masters students who are playing the challenging role of pariah state North Korea in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Wikistrat is an online environment for strategic thinkers to interact and conduct live geopolitical simulations. 

Over the course of four weeks the team have talked and negotiated with 30 other teams from elite international schools, such as Oxford and Yale, and world-renowned think tanks including the UK Defense Forum and Center for Strategic and International Studies.  The teams linked ideas and worked together using a wiki (a collaborative website allowing content to be added and edited by multiple users).  

Each week the Sussex team has created a 10-15,000-word collective paper, exploring a number of issues such as nuclear proliferation and global energy security. They have also had to plot the state's trajectory over time and analyse its strategic resilience to 'shocks' such as natural disasters and terrorism. 

Judges have been particularly impressed with the Sussex team's "magnificent" strategies relating to the China-USA relationship, placing them first for this aspect of the competition. Judges praised their "solid marshalling of facts, sophisticated analysis, and differentiated strategies cleverly explored". 

Head judge, former Pentagon strategist Dr Thomas P. M. Barnett, said: "One of the pleasant surprises of the first week grading process was how creative the North Korean teams were on certain issues, primarily because they kept things very simple regarding acceptable regime survival." 

Elad Schaffer is one of the organisers of the competition, which pits the brightest young strategic minds in the world against each other. He said: "The Sussex team is extraordinary in its collaborative approach, getting all the members to work together well and meet deadlines.  

"They have quickly mastered the wiki, and were thus able to produce high level of analysis, and learn to conduct real strategic planning for one of the tougher international actors (North Korea).  

"The Sussex team has great potential, and are solid candidates to participate in future analysis projects with Wikistrat." 

Among its many strategies and findings for North Korea, the Sussex team:

  • Looked at ways that North Korea could diversify its support in the region
  • Researched ways that North Korea could retain its military defence, while simultaneously beginning to inject funds into domestic infrastructure, food and energy security, eg taking on green technology
  • Argued that limited, and monitored, foreign investment could take place on a secure basis
  • Found that, should the state shift from a military-centred policy directive to follow the Chinese and Vietnamese market socialist model, economic development could take place

Team leader Heloise Crowther (MA Geopolitics and Grand Strategy) said that the competition, which has a main prize of $10,000, has highlighted to the team that North Korea's behaviour is not as erratic as its international image suggests. She said: "Behaviours such as backing out of treaties, nuclear testing, and so on, appear to be defensive reactions to international pressure and threats, rather than driven by a desire to behave as a 'rogue state'. 

"Undoubtedly its military-first economic policy has crippled its population. However, without its defence, North Korea would simply be an impoverished state with little control over its sovereignty." 

Team member Charlie Wykes added: "North Korea is a Cold War legacy in the 21st century, and it has been stimulating imagining the future of this isolated country in a globalising world." 

Dr Fabio Petito, Lecturer in International Relations at Sussex, has been "very impressed" with how competitive the team has been. He said: "The 31 teams playing the game are from the best organisations worldwide for this kind of strategic analysis and it's simply great to see our team doing so well." 

The team were, after the week two scores were announced, 10th in the four-week competition, which ends on Sunday (3 July). The final results will be published mid-July. 

The other Sussex team members are Sarah Barter, Robert Blaszcsack, Gabor Bolgar, Evren Eken, Hannah Ledger and Christoph Unrast. All members are studying towards an MA in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy; MA in Conflict, Security and Development; or MA in International Security. 

For more information on the competition, go to the Wikistrat website

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By: James Hakner
Last updated: Thursday, 30 June 2011