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In crisis simulation, poli-sci students try to tame Kim Jong-un

by Chuck Gordon

Students taking U.S. Foreign Policy at Wingate learn how diplomacy works at the highest levels by role-playing as members of the National Security Council.

How do you solve a problem like North Korea? Students in Dr. Jacob Wobig’s U.S. Foreign Policy class discovered last week that the answer is far from straightforward.

Working off a prompt from the Council on Foreign Relations, the students in the 300-level class debated the pros and cons of using military force, espionage or diplomacy – or some combination of the three – to combat the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Dressed in business attire, the students gathered in the third-floor conference room in the Stegall Administration Building and role-played a crisis scenario as members of the U.S. National Security Council.

Haley Matson makes a point during crisis simulation

The exercise proved to be a test of the students’ power of analysis and persuasion. They spent over an hour going back and forth, providing input to the president, who would make the final call. The discussion helped the students hone their arguments and even altered some of their preconceived notions.

“One of the great things about debate format is that somebody will raise an idea but somebody else will point out a way that the idea doesn't actually work,” Wobig says. “The dialogue improves the ideas over time.”

Each student was handed a role to play on the Security Council: president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, attorney general, secretary of the treasury, etc. They then spent two weeks researching North Korea, finding out the likely stance the person in their role would take, and fine-tuning their arguments.

Last week they gathered to share what they’d learned and try to persuade the president (senior Lauren Mason) to follow their advice. After Council members rose to their feet when Mason entered the room, the national security advisor (senior Anna Holmquist) read out the scenario: intelligence services had confirmed that North Korea had successfully tested a missile with the re-entry capability to land a ballistic-missile strike on the U.S. West Coast.

It’s a hairy situation, the type that presidential administrations too often find themselves in. Wobig’s students debated the pros and cons of various U.S. chess moves as the administration sought to prevent an attack on U.S. soil: remove a healthy chunk of troops from South Korea, in a bid to make North Korea feel less threatened; enter diplomatic talks with the main players in the region (South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, etc.); or possibly hack into the reclusive country’s internet system and gain intelligence that way (a tactic known as “sharp power”). One (admittedly unlikely) proposal was to “pull a Bin Laden” on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

“That’s part of the point of this: to show people that sometimes where you stand depends on where you sit.”

One of the most often recommended actions was to have fewer boots on the ground in South Korea. Although several members of the Council approved of this move, some played Devil’s advocate.

“If you move troops out of South Korea, and North Korea responds aggressively or sees it as an opening, we are under obligation by treaty to come to the aid of South Korea,” said senior Evan Parker, playing the role of the U.S.’s permanent representative to the United Nations. “That puts us in a very difficult position, especially if we have just spent time, money and resources moving those troops away.”

“I think we would avoid that problem if we created a multilateral approach,” Mason responded. “While we may not have as many troops there, ideally we would have forces from South Korea, Japan and other nations as well to supplement that loss.”

The students tried to consider all angles.

“If we’re going to reduce troops in any way, we need to figure out where we’re going to relocate them, so our allies know we’re still there for them,” said senior Kierra Odums, acting as the assistant secretary of state for South Korea and Japan.

Unified approach

The exercise had several desired outcomes: get students to put their in-class knowledge to use in a real-world setting; help them shape, refine and defend their arguments on the fly; and get them used to speaking up in a meeting. A few of the students are involved in Wingate’s Model United Nations team, so for them providing their opinion in such a setting was no big deal. For others, having their colleagues’ undivided attention was somewhat overwhelming.

Dr. Jake Wobig's Foreign Policy class, crisis simulation

“This is something I see happen in meetings all the time,” Wobig told the class after the session. “You think you have your ducks all in a row, and then when the spotlight hits you, all of a sudden you freeze up. I don’t know how you get over that without just doing a lot of it, and that’s part of what this is about.”

Wobig’s U.S. Foreign Policy students get another shot at it on Nov. 27, when the faux Security Council convenes again, this time to figure out what to do after Venezuela’s economy crashes. Each student will have a different role to play than they did last week.

The exercises potentially give the students a different perspective, depending on the role they play. Wobig wants them to understand that, in the real world, people’s opinions are often shaped as much by their position as by their morals, ethics and ideas. “That’s part of the point of this: to show people that sometimes where you stand depends on where you sit,” he said.

“Coming into this, I really liked the idea of sharp power and kind of infiltrating North Korea that way,” said Hannah Givens, a senior who played the secretary of state. “But I realized the State Dept. is more focused on diplomacy and interacting with our allies and interacting with China and North Korea in a diplomatic way.”

Students chuckle during crisis simulation

In the end, Mason opted for a three-part solution to the North Korea problem: move troops farther south in South Korea, away from the North Korean border, but support increased military capacity for South Korea and Japan; hold talks with allies in the region, but negotiate first with Russia and China; and establish some sort of intelligence program to infiltrate North Korea and learn more about the reclusive country.

“My goal going in was to have a unified policy approach, which hasn’t been something that we’ve had toward North Korea in any of our administrations, and I think now we have a plan,” said Mason, an English major from Fuquay-Varina who is minoring in French, political science and creative writing. “That’s my biggest thing: I wanted a plan. I didn’t want a Band-Aid. I think we accomplished that.”

Mason said she’s unsure of her first move after graduation in May, though she says she is “definitely not going to teach.” After leading a Security Council meeting, would she consider moving into the diplomatic field?

“Maybe I’ll be president one day,” she said. “Probably not, but who knows? I mean, the option wouldn’t be off the table. It’s a lofty goal. I have practiced it.”

Learn more about Wingate’s Political Science program.

November 20, 2018

  • Political Science