The United States vs. North Korea: A Game Theory Investigation into Nuclear Conflict


Since the institution of Kim Jong-Un as the leader of North Korea, the nation has been found to be violating many basic human rights, which has caught the attention of many powerful nations, namely the United States.  North Korea has also been developing their nuclear arms program to the point where they could potentially attack Seoul, a nation with a population of 10 million. North Korea has been frequently asking for aid from many powerful countries with the threat of attack as punishment if they do not meet the demands.  One of the major forces stopping the United States from declaring war on North Korea is that China, a very powerful nation, said that they would side with North Korea if the United States attacked North Korea. North Korea has to decide if they are going to attack Seoul, attack the United States, demand aid and back up those demands with potential violence, demand aid and not actually intend to attack, or do nothing.  The United States needs to decide whether to provide aid to North Korea if they request it, not provide aid, or attack North Korea.

One of the major areas that has been threatened by North Korea is Guam, a United States territory, which is where my dad was born and where his entire family lives.  I have spent many nights worrying about my family and the danger that they were in, and I know that many of my family members had countless restless nights worried about their island’s fate.  Below is an image of the proximity of Guam to North Korea.

Image result for north korea bomb range

As someone who would be directly affected by this conflict, I believe that this is one of the most important issues that faces the United States right now, and a solution must be found as soon as possible.

While discussions on this topic are often fueled by national pride and senses of obligation to any particular party involved in this crisis, I attempted to look at this conflict through a game theory lens. To begin to analyze this situation, we must first identify all possible courses of action for both sides.

North Korea:

A:  Demand aid from United States but do not back up threats with violence if they do not cooperate

B:  Demand aid from United States and back up threats with attack if they do not cooperate

C:  Attack United States territories

D:  Do nothing

United States:

A:  Attack North Korea

B:  Do nothing

C:  Do not attack but provide aid if requested

Before I explain my analysis of the situation, I would like to take a moment to ask how you would rate each of the possible outcomes for both the United States and North Korea.  Please take a quick survey here.

Here is the matrix that I created for the North Korea vs. United States conflict.  The left column represents the actions of the United States and the top row represents the actions of North Korea.  I assigned each side a utility that I believe they would experience with each outcome, with 100 being the best outcome and 0 being the worst. The outcomes are expressed as (Outcome for United States, Outcome for North Korea).

A (0,5) (0,5) (1,1) (0,5)
B (100,60) (5,0) (5,0) (95,70)
C (80,100) (80,100) (5,0) (95,70)

For North Korea, B is dominated by D (this means that for every action that the United States takes, North Korea gets a better outcome by picking D than B, therefore we can disregard B as an outcome).

New matrix:

A (0,5) (1,1) (0,5)
B (100,60) (5,0) (95,70)
C (80,100) (5,0) (95,70)


For the United States, A and C are dominated by B.

New matrix:

B (100,60) (5,0) (95,70)


For North Korea, D dominates A and C, so the solution is (B,D) for an outcome of (95,70).  This solution means that both sides should completely avoid conflict.

My findings show that due to the greatly destructive nature of this conflict, the best option for both of these countries is to do nothing.  This does not mean that both countries shouldn’t attack each other; this includes threats and overall instigation of conflict. This is not to say that there is not a theoretical outcome for each country where their utility would be higher, however, due to the negative effect that that outcome would have on the other country, the other country would not allow that outcome to occur.  As far as real world policy, a potential peace offering or treaty between the countries to stop the aggression between the two states would be, in my opinion, the best possible outcome.  At least, that is what the game theory model says.  In reality, these decisions are being made by people who prioritize the image of a nation over the well being of its people, which explains the discrepancy between the obvious statistical solution and the indecisiveness of both governments.  In a more general sense, the solution to this conflict is for the governments of both of these countries to make the interests of its citizens a higher priority when dealing with situations such as the current one with North Korea.

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  1. April 26, 2018 by Jennie Kim Reply

    Very informative. Great job Cam!

  2. April 27, 2018 by Jenny Carlson Pietraszek Reply

    Cam – This is really interesting! Do you know of any current governments that employ game theory as they strategize? Fascinating. I’d love to learn more from you about this. (FYI, the Gform didn’t work for me; it would not accept two of my answers even though they were in the same format as the others. It’s probably a user error – me! – but you might want to check it out so others can utilize that step.)

  3. April 27, 2018 by Ethan.Ash Reply

    This is really interesting! The topic and threat of North Korea is such a huge problem to tackle, and I think it’s so cool that you decided to use game theory to find a viable solution. Even though this is the best option fro both countries (according to game theory), do you think this will be a probable outcome?

  4. April 29, 2018 by Ben Snyder Reply

    Super interesting approach to this, Cam. Congrats to taking a unique approach to this!

  5. April 29, 2018 by Michael Denning Reply

    Cam, This is really interesting. I am very interested in game theory, and I would love to discuss your work on this. Let’s try to find a time.

  6. April 29, 2018 by Ayako Anderson Reply

    It’s interesting to see the solution based on the game theory is aligned with how most of us (I think??) feel intuitively. Super cool to look at the international politics through the lens of numbers. But what I appreciate most about your project is your personal story … how this issue is important to you, and how you are concerned about your family in Guam. I will be looking at the North Korea topic differently. Thank you, Cam!

  7. April 29, 2018 by Michael Hoe Reply

    REALLY interesting and well done, Cam! Nice work — congratulations

  8. April 29, 2018 by Coley Goren Reply

    I like how you differentiate between the clear statistical solution and the real world policy. The face of a nation vs the well being of its people. Really well done!

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