ICONS Crisis in North Korea

Here is a review of the ICONS Crisis in North Korea simulation:

Kim FatheadSubjects: IR in East Asia, IR theory, international security, diplomacy and negotiation

Learning outcomes for students

I used this simulation in my course on the comparative political history of Asia. The simulation represented an opportunity for students to:

  • Gain a better understanding of international relations in Asia.
  • Analyze multiple approaches to solving contemporary global problems.

Applicable readings

Crisis in North Korea is relevant to a number of texts on East Asian politics. Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States, by Alexis Dudden, a book I’ve used previously, would situate the simulation within a wider historical and diplomatic context. IR survey texts, such as the chapters on theory and conflict in Essentials of International Relations by Mingst and Arreguín-Toft,.also apply.

Logistical considerations

As I mentioned in a previous post about low-enrollment classes, I ran this simulation with only eleven students. The six teams — USA, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea — should have at least three members each, so the ideal class size for the simulation is probably eighteen to twenty-four students. The simulation can probably be successfully run in larger classes, especially if the instructor prepares specific roles within teams for each student to play; for example, defense minister, foreign minister, etc. However, each state functions as a unitary actor in the simulation, so the larger the teams get, the greater the potential for some students to become disengaged, passive observers.

ICONS recommends scheduling at least 150 minutes for the simulation, divided into two 75-minute sessions, which is the time frame I used.  My students said they felt rushed in the second session; I suspect that trying to compress the simulation into an even smaller block of time risks disaster. Extending the simulation across three 75-minute sessions probably works better; at minimum this allows plenty of time for debriefing.

ICONS costs money. Either the instructor can pay a lump sum to enroll his or her class or students can pay individually. I chose the latter option because I don’t receive institutional support for these in-class experiences and I did not want to bother with collecting money from students. The per-student price was an extremely reasonable $13.

Materials needed

ICONS is housed entirely online, so each team of students needs at least one device with an internet connection. A laptop or computer per student is possibly more effective. The instructor also needs access to the internet on a separate machine during the simulation.

Instructor preparation

The concise facilitator guide provided to instructors clearly explains how to manage the simulation. The ICONS website is intuitive and easy to navigate. I spent a small amount of time on setting up teams and other administrative tasks. In general, this simulation requires minimal instructor preparation.

Student preparation

Students need to create accounts and pay for the simulation to gain access the ICONS website. They also need to read background information and the role sheet for the country to which they’ve been assigned. All of these documents are only a few pages long, clearly written, and available on the website. Students found the website easy to navigate.

I created an auto-graded quiz on my course website, worth one percent of the final grade, to encourage students to familiarize themselves with the simulation before it began. I also used the ICONS Pre-Negotiation Planning Report, a one-page questionnaire, as an ungraded pre-simulation in-class exercise so students could individually identify goals to achieve and then develop a shared strategy with their teammates. This exercise appeared to be very useful; students wrote detailed answers to the questions on the form.

Game play:

The simulation begins with an explosion at a nuclear facility in North Korea. The instructor periodically unveils new developments to intensify the crisis. Teams respond to what is happening either through diplomatic overtures — requests to send humanitarian aid missions, the imposition of economic sanctions, and the like — or military attacks. Peaceful actions typically require the cooperation of other states. Most military attacks require the prior approval of the instructor. If a state executes an action, the simulation generates a message describing the outcome, such as “North Korea has accepted the offer of inspectors from Japan.” The instructor determines how the simulation ends: either the effects of the nuclear accident are successfully contained or radioactive contamination spreads across international borders.

Instructor tips

Managing the simulation — reading and responding to messages, approving or disapproving teams’ actions, injecting the pre-loaded events into the crisis — requires all of the instructor’s time and attention. I was glued to my computer screen, constantly flipping between the separate feeds for messages and actions.

Sample assignments

My standard post-simulation assignment is an essay that asks students to write about which IR theory they think best explains what they experienced in the simulation, but this wasn’t an IR course, so I created this instead:

You are employed as a policy analyst at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Your task is to write an analysis of the recent crisis in North Korea. The analysis should:

1. Assess the response of the U.S. government to the recent crisis in North Korea in terms of its likely long-term effects on U.S. relations with other states in the region. 

2. Recommend whether and how the U.S. should try to improve its relations with other states in the region given the outcome of the crisis. 

Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than three pages. Make sure to support your analysis with examples from the simulation and information from ICONS resources. Documents should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Country Information, China)”. You are also welcome to use information from readings in the syllabus if they are relevant. There is no need to do additional research.

Extensions and portability options

While actors’ capabilities are fixed throughout the simulation, it is possible to supply information to teams that will likely alter their perceptions of other actors, which adds more of a constructivist element to game play.

Good penmanship optional during debriefing
Good penmanship optional during debriefing


At the fifteen minute mark, Japan launched an airstrike against China, an action that did not require my approval. From that point forward, teams repeatedly tried to attack each other, often with nuclear weapons. I disallowed the attacks until the U.S. team ordered a nuclear strike against South Korea  — I wanted to demonstrate the effects of not proofreading. The simulation then degenerated into a nuclear holocaust for East Asia. In sum, the game play exhibited by students was unrealistic, and I don’t think they learned much from the experience about international relations in the region.

In the debriefing students noted that outcomes did not enhance or degrade the capabilities of actors, which created the impression of a static environment where actions could be taken without consequences. They thought that the simulation would better reflect the real world if actors obtained tangible benefits each time they achieved intermediate goals. They also expressed a desire for a more extensive menu of options in responding to the actions of other teams.

I noticed the logical disconnect of using a web-based simulation in a physical classroom. ICONS enables people in different geographic locations to participate in the same simulation, but in my opinion the need for and benefits of a computer-mediated environment decrease significantly when face-to-face interaction is an option. 

One thought on “ICONS Crisis in North Korea

  1. There’s probably a paper to be written about why students always use nuclear weapons if they have the option. Would be curious whether it’s a generational thing, or if there is a permissive aspect created by the game itself, i.e. “we wouldn’t give you this option if we didn’t think it was acceptable.”

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