The Korean War: A Reflection upon the Importance of Limits in Warfare with Thomas C. Schellings Bargaining Framework

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2009

10 Pages, Grade: 1




The Role of Limits in Warfare
Schelling's Bargaining Framework
The Korean War's Limits
Limited Wars: A Generator of Risk



Thesis Statement:

This research paper deals with the question of limits in warfare particularly during the cold war period and the continuing era of nuclear weapons. The importance on their agreement shall be emphasized by applying Schelling's concept of focal points within the field of tacit bargaining to the Korean War. Also, the paper will discuss the possibility of limited wars as a generator of risk.


"The most important event oft the second half of the 20th century is one that didn't happen." With these words Schelling, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005 together with Robert Aumann for their great contributions to game theory, refers to the period all the way from World War II up to today which is clearly marked by the absence of a nuclear war. (Harford, p. 1) This seems outstanding especially when we consider the Cold War period. Logically, the inevitable question arises why the Cold War had never turned hot.

At this point Schelling would argue that "[…] most conflict situations are essentially bargaining situations" (Ayson, p. 50) widening our understanding of bargaining as such by referring additionally to his understanding of this concept as not a zero-sum game but a s a variable-sum game since there is no fixed number of gains and the parties involved usually prefer outcomes that are advantageous to all of them. (Schelling 1, p. 5) Hence, bargaining seems to be at the core when it comes to resolving conflict situations.

Furthermore, within the concept of bargaining limits and their threshold level play a decisive role as their existence or non-existence respectively the adherence to or the unobservant of them can determine all future steps taken and, thus, the end-result. (Schelling 2, p. 75-77) Therefore, in my understanding limits or also called focal points played probably the most decisive role during the Cold War era. In order to communicate their importance the Korean War shall serve as the main example in this assignment since the outcome of this war can be directly linked to the success of establishing mutually recognized thresholds.

However, when reflecting upon the idea of limited wars it also needs to be pointed out that they can also be seen as a generator of risk which can either be due to the parties' manipulation of threshold levels that had been established or due to the manipulation of risk also referred to as "brinkmanship". (Schelling 2, p. 99; p. 105)

Altogether, this paper shall provide a good overview of Schelling's concept of focal points applied to a warfare situation by emphasizing their critical and also controversial role.

The Role of Limits in Warfare

Schelling's Bargaining Framework

Before jumping directly into the bargaining situation by which the Korean War was imprinted it is necessary to obtain an understanding of Schelling's types of bargaining in order to be able to fully understand the approach that was taken during the Korean War.

Schelling differentiates between two types of bargaining: tacit bargaining where communication is incomplete and explicit bargaining. With tacit bargaining one has to make a distinction between tacit co-ordination coined by common interests and tacit bargaining featuring divergent interests. (Schelling 1, p. 53-67) What needs to be noted is that all types have a common feature which is the "range of alternative outcomes". This is explained by Schelling the following way: "The final outcome must be a point from which neither expects the other to retreat; yet the main ingredient of this expectation is what one things the other expects, the first to expect, and so on…These infinitely reflexive expectations must somehow converge on a single point, at which each expects the other not to expect to be expected to retreat." (Ayson, p. 51)

In order to explain tacit co-ordination Schelling uses among others the example of a man losing his wife in a department store without any former agreement on where to meet should they get separated. Now game theory comes into play so that the most logical idea in the end is to meet at a place that is obvious to both of them. But certainly coordination will be difficult since one will start wondering – not " "What would I do if I were she?" but "What would I do if I were she wondering what she would do if she were I wondering what I would do if I were she ... ?" So one cannot be sure that they will meet at the same place in the end unless the found a key that is recognized by both of them. (Schelling 1, p. 54)

This key is where Schelling derives his idea of focal points or also limits when considering a conflict situation which are usually tacit bargaining situations where the parties' interests differ. Points of convergent could be anything: A river as a demarcation line between two parties, the only or highest building on a map, the proposal of a mutually accepted moderator in an international conflict, and so forth. (Beckmann, p. 210)

The Korean War's Limits

When linking Schelling's bargaining concepts as well as his idea of focal points respectively limits to the Korean War it becomes clear that this situation of warfare can serve as a classical example of a limited war where the tacit bargaining approach was followed bargaining over the outcome of the war as well as over its conducts o that mutual limits were carefully agreed upon. (Schelling 2, p. 135)

Some of the most crucial limits at the time of the Korean War were decided upon thanks to Korea's physical configuration. First of all, the Yalu River which served as the common political boundary between North Korea and China was chosen to serve as a demarcation line. (Schelling 1, p. 75-76) "This river is a point beyond which one of the armies cannot afford to retreat. […] This river thus offers the two armies the possibility of arriving at a 'mutually identifiable resting place' where their expectations and actions can converge." (Ayson, p. 52) Also parallels of latitude are usually considered as suitable limits in warfare. Schelling states in this regard that "they are merely lines on a map, but they are on everybody's map and, in an arbitrary line is needed, lines of latitude are available." (Schelling 2, p 133) This thought was certainly followed in the Korean War as the 38th parallel seemed to have been a distinctive line for a stalemate since it had served as a resting place in the past already dividing the country politically into two spheres. Moreover, Korea's shoreline could have been seen as a clear limit as well! (Schelling2, p. 132-133)

Another crucial limit, which is of universal value, found its application naturally also in the Korean War: The Geneva Conventions defined by the International Committee of the Red Cross in order to define proper conduct during warfare. It is said in the book "Arms and Influence" that the United States, although they were not bound to the Geneva Conventions since they had not signed the Protocols, did follow the Geneva conventions on a voluntary basis nevertheless. (Schelling 2, p. 139-14) This might be true for some articles of the Protocols but it also has to be pointed out that clear violations were made in particular of those articles referring to the civilian population. Still, we can consider the Geneva Conventions as a limit in the Korean War. The next paragraphs will clarify why the high degree of violence on the battlefield can still be seen as in compliance with a certain limit set.


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The Korean War: A Reflection upon the Importance of Limits in Warfare with Thomas C. Schellings Bargaining Framework
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korean, reflection, importance, limits, warfare, thomas, schellings, bargaining, framework
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Anna Scheithauer (Author), 2009, The Korean War: A Reflection upon the Importance of Limits in Warfare with Thomas C. Schellings Bargaining Framework, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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