The Korea Crisis: When human politics apes that of chimps

This post appeared in Small Wars Journal. Link available here

At this point it’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that current events on the Korean peninsula have given much of the world’s news-consuming public reason to stop and listen. In recent months, the long-simmering dispute between the United States and North Korea has intensified – marked in part by an escalating war of rhetoric between the Trump and Kim regimes but also by a bout of tit-for-tat weapons tests and military exercises conducted by both countries.

As the situation threatens to spiral, a significant amount of attention has been centered around three key aspects of the crisis – 1.) the specifics of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (including the strategic consequences of and the science behind a nuclear-capable ICBM in Pyongyang’s arsenal); 2.) the current layout of the regional geopolitical chessboard (with the strategic dispositions of Japan, South Korea and China providing an additional layer of complexity); and 3.) what might be called “the temperament debate” – the ongoing public discussion about the comparative rationality and/or irrationality of both the incumbent “supreme leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the President of the United States of America.

To make sense of this broad swathe of topics – nuclear physics, international relations and political psychology – the discourse has oscillated between broad-outline explainers of great power politics right through to the atomic minutiae. Discussions about the practical differences between fusion and fission reactionsDetailed lexicological dissections of the words and phrases used by the main parties to the dispute (what, for example, does Trump’s use of the words “fire and fury” or “totally destroy” mean in real terms vis-à-vis troop movements?). All of this is rounded out with psychology-heavy think-pieces on likely scenarios for when narcissistic personalities collide.

The coverage on the topic is expansive and yet, despite the attempts of many to simulate the future using game theory et al, one less-considered variable – an entire field of study, no less – is missing from the equation. Primatology.

Indeed, while systems analysts, nuclear strategists and even psychologists provide vital insights on many key issues, perhaps the best way to make sense of the behavior currently displayed by actors on all sides of the de-militarised zone is – strangely enough – by looking at the political behavior of other Great Apes.

Owing simply to the fact that the realpolitik of other non-human primates often resembles our own, a primatological perspective offers a way to simplify an overly-complex discussion – allowing us to disassemble the crisis into its constituent parts and identify the basic animal behaviours being displayed.

While the rhetoric deployed by both North Korea and the United States might come across as erratic, inscrutable and wholly irrational to some, by comparing Kim’s and Trump’s bluster with the bluster of chimpanzees, for example, it becomes clear to the observer that both actors are behaving in a way which harkens to our species’ primal quest for power.

Bluster & Bluffing

The political behaviors of our closest relatives have been studied in great detail by Frans de Waal in his seminal work Chimpanzee Politics – an examination of a colony of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo. For the most part, the “politics” observed inside the enclosure centered on the struggle for dominance between three male chimpanzees – Yeroen, Luit and Nikkie – the former being the colony’s traditional alpha male. For de Waal, the simian triumvirate that formed with Yeroen as the alpha, Luit as the beta (that is, his inferior and would-be usurper) and Nikkie as the gamma (the swing-voting, politically-ambitious youngster whose allegiance ultimately determined the outcome of any leadership struggle) provided an archetypal portrait of elementary competition in primate society.

At the core of these chimpanzees’ political lives, as with the spat between Trump and Kim, were two recurring behaviors– 1.) bluff displays and 2.) alliance-building – while a third behavior – 3.) war – loomed constantly as a possibility in the event that de-confliction failed.

Many of de Waal’s observations can be easily transposed into the human politics and chimpanzee bluff displays in particular, are a perfect case-in-point of where the politics of the Arnhem Zoo seem to ape those of North Asia.

For example, the following tantrum from Yeroen is worth quoting at length not only because it demonstrates how chimpanzees assert dominance but also because the bombastic style is so clearly recognizable in the public personae of both Trump and Kim today.

“Among the apes on the ground was Yeroen, one of the dominant males, who was in the process of warming up for a bluff display. His hair was already standing slightly on end and he was hooting quietly to himself. When he stood up his hooting became louder and some of the apes hurried off the drums, knowing that Yeroen’s displays generally ended there with a long, rhythmic stamping concert… After Yeroen had produced his customary din and had made several wild charges through the hall, things quietened down. The other chimpanzees climbed back onto the drums and resumed their activities.”

Apart from Yeroen’s noteworthy ability to create a din (and the key takeaway that the finale is usually anticlimactic) one feature of this archetypal bluff display is the presence of “piloerection” – the standing on-end of body hair that accompanies an increase in anxiety in a male chimpanzee. While this reflex is the direct consequence of physiological changes within the chimpanzee’s body, piloerection also serves as a visual warning to other primates that the ape in question is in an excitable mood – a veritable wearing of the heart on the sleeve.

Of course, the ready-made parallel to be drawn between chimpanzee piloerection and the rhetorical back-and-forth between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is in the realm of visual and aural signaling. After all, a primate’s ability to appear dangerous to a competitor is intrinsically linked to his ability to make noise and transmit visceral, threatening imagery.

Echoing Yeroen’s “long, rhythmic stamping concert”, the loudest, most threatening piece of theatre in the Korean dispute is manifest in the symbolism of the nuclear missile – the quintessential obelisk to destructive power (always televised), often shown upright on a launching pad, ready to be fired sky-high (and noisily so) over the Sea of Japan.

Although some feminist voices have alleged the existence of phallic symbolism in the “missile envy” of nuclear arms races (as Carol Cohn described nuclear strategy conferences: [they are] filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thruster-to-weight ratios, soft lay down, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks), what the Kim regime’s public display of missiles on military parade grounds probably represents is simply “the baring of fangs” – a bluffing display designed to disturb the international system’s hierarchy of dominance.

Similarly and on the US side, the arrangement of F35 bombers in a delta formation during show of force exercises with South Korea serves not only as a basic demonstration of the US Air Force’s tactical prowess but also speaks to an ape’s elementary fear of “aposematic signaling” in dangerous animals. Early primates, according to one study, “evolved an aversion for aposematic signals in the form of potentially harmful triangular shapes”. Pointy things – zigs and zags on snakes, erect body hair on snarling primates, fangs, claws, nuclear-tipped missiles, fighter-bombers arranged like supersonic triangles across the sky are menacing to us as primates. It’s in our evolution.

South Korean and US Aircraft in Delta Formation Near the DMZ. (Source: NY Times)


Alliances too, being equally important in the political world of the chimpanzee, also occupy center stage on the Korean peninsula. As Mira Rapp-Hooper recently outlined: “arguably the most significant strategic implication of North Korea’s technical achievements this summer is not the magnitude of the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang, but the political consequences for U.S. alliances in Asia.”

Certainly, with countries like South Korea and Japan hedging their strategic bets on the co-signing of mutual defense treaties with Washington, it is not merely the fate of American cities at stake but also the viability of the alliances that uphold American hegemony. The rise of a powerful usurper, in short, necessarily threatens the status of the alpha’s alliances.

With this in mind, and granted de Waal’s observation that “physical strength is only one factor and almost certainly not the critical one in determining dominance relationships”, there’s perhaps only one question needing to be asked where US alliances in Asia are concerned. The military might of the US notwithstanding, how is it that an oceanically-remote predominantly-English-speaking country maintains alpha status in the regional primate super-colony of Asian nation-states?

The answer, of course, lies not only in America’s “power” (that is, its ability to project military force) per se, but also in what a primatologist would call the US’ “formal dominance” – its ability to entreat potential allies into postures of deference in order that they do its bidding (or, as Jane Goodall might put it – its ability to solicit “pant-grunt greetings” from submissives in the colony).

For South Korea or Japan, the incentive to defer to America as alpha comes not from a position of fear that the United States will attack them but rather from a position of hope that the United States will protect them in the event of untoward aggression from North Korea.

Similarly, alliance formation in chimpanzee society is rarely about a gamma capitulating to a credible threat from the alpha but often as not the result a weaker ape’s deliberate attempt to seek protection, thereby enhancing its political position by siding with a stronger ape. “Extended deterrence” – a currently-popular topic among nuclear policy wonks – applies to chimps as well.

For chimpanzees therefore, the credibility of the alpha is contingent on its ability to act as both a powerful own-whim-enforcer and a protector (particularly a protector of the gamma male and the females). Likewise for the US, its ability to maintain credibility among its Asian acolytes stems largely from its ability to act as security guarantor.

Yeroen. Alpha Male, Guarantor (Source: de Waal)

De-Coupling and Separating Interventions

What the recent entry of North Korea into “the ICBM club” represents in primatological terms however, is the maturation of a would-be usurper – the veritable “growing-up” of the beta male – one who possesses the ability to strike the United States and do serious damage to American cities.

In many respects, the end of the US’ theoretical invincibility also potentially undermines the United States’ alpha status since it forces America’s Asian allies to rely on a less-certain risk calculus which assumes the US would be willing to trade “San Francisco for Seoul”, as Colin Kahl neatly put it.

This presents a serious problem for the US – as it would for any chimpanzee alpha – since the unassailable guarantee of protection against aggression is the only indispensable benefit of joining any simian coalition. Without such guarantees, the alliance itself can be second-guessed.

This phenomenon, whereby a nuclear-armed adversary can separate a security guarantor from an ally, is known in nuclear deterrence-speak as “decoupling” and its enactment as grand strategy is probably intentional on North Korea’s part. Take the following press release from the Korean Central News Agency (the propaganda arm of the North Korean state), for example.

“It should not be forgotten that the whole of South Korea can turn into ruins if saber-rattling is shown…. The puppet-forces should not run reckless… their insensible acts in relying on the U.S. which is unable to be responsible for its own fate will only accelerate their self-destruction”.

Apart from vindicating the view that North Korea seeks to “de-couple” existing alliances by preying on doubts about the unassailability of the US alliance, what this kind of targeted South Korea-specific language represents is a deliberate attempt by North Korea to punish its southern neighbor for siding with the wrong chimp. Castigating tactics like this are classic examples of what primatologists call “separating interventions” – a frequent occurrence in chimpanzee politics.

In documenting the separating interventions used by Luit (the beta male at Arnhem) during his attempts to usurp Yeroen from power, de Waal describes how the former would violently punish key Yeroen allies (especially high-ranking Yeroen-aligned females). Punishment from Luit, according to de Waal, would come as retaliation for grooming sessions in which Yeroen, the alpha, had been the beneficiary.

To illustrate, during one particularly harsh separating intervention, Tepel, a silver-haired senior female, made a move simply to sit next to Yeroen. Luit, in turn, seized the opportunity to stomp on her. When Yeroen failed to intervene on Tepel’s behalf, the implication for all observers was that Yeroen’s credibility as alpha-protector had been undermined. Luit, by turns, was no longer just an irrelevant beta male – he was winning bouts in the colony’s realpolitik and presented as a credible threat to Yeroen’s dominance.

Ultimately then, the aim of separating interventions (as with “decoupling”), is to isolate the alpha from his traditional allies to such an extent that they are no longer willing to side with him for fear of repercussions from his competitors.

Clearly though, North Korea is not alone in playing the “de-coupling”/“separating intervention” game. Trump, if the veiled threats aimed at Beijing in late-night Twitter rants are anything to go by, has made it a linchpin of his Korean de-nuclearisation policy to embark on Luit-like separating interventions. The aim, of course, is to separate North Korea from its oldest, and perhaps only backer – China.

To some extent, the bombast might be working on China. Heed for example, the words of Zhu Feng, a well-respected voice in Chinese policy circles, writing for Foreign Affairs: “Beijing must face the reality that the Kim family’s nuclear and missile programs are opposed to Chinese interests and a threat to regional stability”.

The key take away from all this discussion on alliances, both simian and human, is that chimpanzees like nation-states, ascend the political ladder by siding with the most credible ally. As the primatologist Toshisada Nishida described of female chimpanzees – “females are winner-supporters” – while gamma males in the colony tend to employ a strategy of “allegiance fickleness”. Loyalty, by Nishida’s reckoning, lies nowhere and everywhere and only, ultimately, with the self, showing that chimps, perhaps like humans, are fundamentally Machiavellian in their outlook.

The Possibility of War

But even as alliances in Asia seem to be in a state of flux, the likelihood that the US would attack North Korea in a military first-strike without China having first cut-off ties with Pyongyang would seem to be low – at least, if we’re looking for parallels in chimpanzee society.

Relying on data from the Gombe Chimpanzee War documented by Jane Goodall in the 1970s, Harvard’s Richard Wrangham estimates that “lethal raiding” (a violent activity which he describes as “akin to predation”) will only occur under conditions where attackers outnumber a competitor by 5:1.

Similarly, and assuming that the US would not shoulder unreasonably-high risk, so long as China preserves the ratio at “5:2”, it would seem that the costs of engaging with a not-completely-isolated North Korea would be too great for Washington to bear.

The theoretical costs of such a war however, would be catastrophic – just as war is for non-human primates.

Reflecting on the Gombe Chimpanzee War, Goodall describes being so disturbed by the cannibalistic infanticide she observed during clashes between the Kasakela and Kahama male groups that she would wake at night after “horrific pictures sprang unbidden to [her] mind”.

“Lethal Raiding” is Uncommon but Extreme. (Source: BBC)

Such disruptions to ecological homeostasis – chimpanzee-caused, mushroom cloud-caused or otherwise – are often permanent, even if the territorial gains made by the Kahama males at war’s end were only transitory and ultimately arbitrary.

The good news however, if de Waal’s observations at the Arnhem zoo can be geo-located onto the Korean peninsula, is that “real fights” only amount to “0.4 percent of all confrontations between males” even if the political climate is often tense.

Here, of course, it’s important that our analysis does not fall prey to what critics might consider a gauche form of genetic determinism – the notion that just because we share 98.8% of our genetic material with chimpanzees means that our politicking and our war-mongering necessarily mirrors theirs. Indeed, it should go without saying that chimps are not humans, human are not chimps and our own political behaviour – be it intragroup or intergroup – is not a carbon-copy of what de Waal observed in the Arnhem Zoo. All the same, common trends across Great Ape societies still exist and one of them – perhaps the most important takeaway here – is that bluffing displays – even escalated bluffing displays such as we see today – should not give license to hysterical panicking about an “inevitable” nuclear apocalypse, even if North Korea’s foreign minister used just that word.

The final inference then is that even as North Korea test-fires missiles over Hokkaido and even as President Trump regresses to apocalyptic phraseology in his daily threats, our faith in regional de-confliction should not be abandoned entirely. As Hayden and Potts argued in Sex and War: “bluff and bombast may have been selected for by evolution because in certain situations they can establish social order without causing injury”.

This is not to say that we should ignore North Asia altogether nor take comfort in our usual sense of security. Just because a nuclear weapon has not been detonated in anger since World War Two does not mean it will not happen again.

Undoubtedly, what makes the current incumbents in Pyongyang and Washington so disquieting is their shared ability to disrupt the daily transactions of international relations with the bluff and bluster heretofore described. Furthermore, conflict of any kind, in chimpanzee society as in human society, is always preceded by bluff displays – so, the belligerence is necessarily concerning. But perhaps a primatological perspective is exactly what is needed here. For by acknowledging the similarities we share with chimpanzees, we might look at international relations not only as computational behavior (an interaction between warring machinated “states”) but also as a field where cohorts of animals are doing their best (and sometimes failing at that) to survive. Maybe too with a bit more primatology, the impersonal world of nuclear strategy can receive an injection of much-needed biological color so that the costs to human life can be brought more readily into focus.


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