Saturday, September 17, 2016


This article from the New York Times five days ago.  Interesting analysis. Long but well worth reading.  

Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?

North Korea has given the world ample reason to ask: threats of war, occasional attacks against South Korea, eccentric leaders and wild-eyed propaganda. As its nuclear and missile programs have grown, this past week with a fifth nuclear test, that concern has grown more urgent.

But political scientists have repeatedly investigated this question and, time and again, emerged with the same answer: North Korea’s behavior, far from crazy, is all too rational.

Its belligerence, they conclude, appears calculated to maintain a weak, isolated government that would otherwise succumb to the forces of history. Its provocations introduce tremendous danger, but stave off what Pyongyang sees as the even greater threats of invasion or collapse.

Denny Roy, a political scientist, wrote in a still-cited 1994 journal article that the country’s reputation as a crazy state and for reckless violence had worked to North Korea’s advantage, keeping more powerful enemies at bay. But this image, he concluded, was largely a product of misunderstanding and propaganda.

In some ways, this is more dangerous than irrationality. While the country does not want war, its calculus leads it to cultivate a permanent risk of one — and prepare to stave off defeat, should war happen, potentially with nuclear weapons. That is a subtler danger, but a grave one.

When political scientists call a state rational, they are not saying its leaders always make the best or most moral choices, or that those leaders are paragons of mental fitness. Rather, they are saying the state behaves according to its perceived self-interests, first of which is self-preservation.
When a state is rational, it will not always succeed in acting in its best interests, or in balancing short-term against long-term gains, but it will try. This lets the world shape a state’s incentives, steering it in the desired direction.

States are irrational when they do not follow self-interest. In the “strong” form of irrationality, leaders are so deranged that they are incapable of judging their own interests. In the “soft” version, domestic factors — like ideological zeal or internal power struggles — distort incentives, making states behave in ways that are counterproductive but at least predictable.

North Korea’s actions abroad and at home, while abhorrent, appear well within its rational self-interest, according to a 2003 study by David C. Kang, a political scientist now at the University of Southern California. At home and abroad, he found, North Korean leaders shrewdly determined their interests and acted on them. (In an email, he said his conclusions still applied.)

“All the evidence points to their ability to make sophisticated decisions and to manage palace, domestic and international politics with extreme precision,” Mr. Kang wrote. “It is not possible to argue these were irrational leaders, unable to make means-ends calculations.”

Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor who served as the Asian affairs director on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, has repeatedly argued that North Korea’s leadership is rational.
Savage cruelty and cold calculation are not mutually exclusive, after all .... and often go hand in hand.
States are rarely irrational for the simple reason that irrational states can’t survive for long. The international system is too competitive and the drive for self-preservation too powerful. While the North Korean state really is unlike any other on earth, the behaviors that make it appear irrational are perhaps its most rational.

North Korea’s seemingly unhinged behavior begins with the country’s attempt to solve two problems that it took on with the end of the Cold War and that it should have been unable to solve.
One was military. The Korean Peninsula, still in a formal state of war, had gone from a Soviet-American deadlock to an overwhelming tilt in the South’s favor. The North was exposed, protected only by a China that was more focused on improving ties with the West.

The other problem was political. Both Koreas claimed to represent all Koreans, and for decades had enjoyed similar development levels. By the 1990s, the South was exponentially freer and more prosperous. The Pyongyang government had little reason to exist.

The leadership solved both problems with something called the Songun or 'military-first' policy. It put the country on a permanent war footing, justifying the state’s poverty as necessary to maintain its massive military, justifying its oppression as rooting out internal traitors and propping up its legitimacy with the rally-around-the-flag nationalism that often comes during wartime.
Of course, there was no war. Foreign powers believed the government would, like other Soviet puppets, fall on its own, and barring that wanted peace.

So North Korea created the appearance of permanently imminent war, issuing flamboyant threats to attack, staging provocations and sometimes deadly attacks. Its nuclear and missile tests, though erratic and often failed, stirred up one crisis after another.  This militarization kept the North Korean leadership internally stable. It also kept the country’s enemies at bay.

North Korea may be weaker, but it is willing to tolerate far more risk. By keeping the peninsula on the edge of conflict, Pyongyang put the onus on South Korea and the United States to pull things back.  From afar, North Korea’s actions look crazy. Its domestic propaganda describes a reality that does not exist, and it appears bent on almost provoking a war it would certainly lose.  But from within North Korea, these actions make perfect sense. And over time, the government’s reputation for irrationality has become an asset as well.

Scholars ascribe this behavior to the 'madman theory' .... a strategy, coined by no less a proponent than Richard M. Nixon, in which leaders cultivate an image of belligerence and unpredictability to force adversaries to tread more carefully.

Dr. Roy, in an interview, said North Korea “intentionally employs a posture of seemingly hyper-risk acceptance and willingness to go to war as a means of trying to intimidate its adversaries.”  But this strategy works only because, even if the belligerence is for show, the danger it creates is very real.

Is a rational North Korea more dangerous?
In this way, it is North Korea’s rationality that makes it so dangerous. Because it believes it can survive only by keeping the Korean Peninsula near war, it creates a risk of sparking just that, perhaps through some accident or miscalculation.

North Korea is aware of this risk but seems to believe it has no choice. For this reason, and perhaps because of the United States-led invasion of Iraq and the NATO intervention in Libya against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, it appears to earnestly fear the possibility of an American invasion. And this is rational: Weak states that face more powerful enemies must either make peace .... which North Korea cannot do without sacrificing its political legitimacy .... or find a way to make any conflict survivable.

North Korea’s nuclear program is designed to halt an American invasion by first striking nearby United States military bases and South Korean ports, then by threatening a missile launch against the United States mainland. While North Korea does not yet have this ability, analysts believe it will within the next decade.

This is the culmination of North Korea’s rationality, in something known as desperation theory.
Under this theory, when states face two terrible choices, they will pick the least bad option.
In North Korea’s case, that means creating the conditions for a war it would most likely lose. And it could mean preparing a last-ditch effort to survive that war by launching multiple nuclear strikes, chancing a nuclear retaliation for the slim chance to survive.

North Korea’s leaders tolerate this danger because, in their calculus, they have no other choice. The rest of us share in that risk — vanishingly small, but nonzero — whether we want to or not.


Anonymous said...

Pretty much as I thought with the status quo and the retention of power being uppermost in their minds. What the article does not inform us is the power structure......where does the power lie? Who has the final word? Is it a panel of old Generals with fatboy as the puppet? I am of the opinion that the press releases coming out of that benighted country are pure propaganda for the consumption of their own people.

Until someone can supply a power diagram we are all a bit in the dark. If we were fighting the Korean war of 1950 they would be a handful but at the moment their military capability in attack is very low.

Lord Egbut

Noel said...

Power diagram.
Read North Korea Confidential. Forget the authors.
But agree with them the regime does recognize the a nuclear exchange would be suicidal.

The Veteran said...

Egbut ... re power. I think when you have the Kim family elevated to that of a deity you have the answer. The DPRKs 1972 constitution incorporates the ideas of Kim Il-sung as the only guiding principle of the state and his activities as the only cultural heritage of the people.

Kim Il-sung developed the political ideology of the Juche Idea, generally understood as self-reliance, and further developed it between the 1950s and the 1970s. Juche became the main guide of all forms of thought, education, culture and life throughout the nation[11] until Kim Jong-il introduced the Songun (military-first) policy, which augments the Juche philosophy and has a great impact on national economic policies.

At the 4th Party Conference held in April 2012, Kim Jong-un further defined Juche as the comprehensive thought of Kim Il-sung, developed and deepened by Kim Jong-il, therefore terming it as "Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism" and that it was "the only guiding idea of the Party and nation".

Add into the mix the fact that Korean society, traditionally Confucian, places a strong emphasis on paternal hierarchy and loyalty and you start to understand the immense power that Kim has at his fingertips.

Noel ... I have no doubt that Kim, pushed into a corner (perhaps of his own making) would, as a last resort, use nuclear weapons in much the same way as Hitler would have (against the Russians) if he had them.

Noel said...

Missing from your analysis is the influence of the OGD.

The Veteran said...

'OGD' ... acronym for the Organizational and Guidance Department of the Workers Party of DPRK. Don't understand your point.

Kim Jong-un is the Chairman of the Workers Party and Kim Jong-il (deceased) the Eternal General Secretary. The OGD is one of the arms of the Politburo which is the second highest body when the Central Committee is not in session (it seldom is).

The Politburo is subservient to the Presidium which comprises just four people: Kim Jong il (funny that); Kim Yong-nam (titulature President of the Presidium); Choe Ryong-hae (former Vice Chairman of he National Defence Commission) and Hwang Pyong-so (Vice Marshal in the KPA).

The reality is that Kim the younger younger has the power. His word is God and his word is law. The others make up the numbers.

Noel said...

"Kim Jong Un has inherited a system in which he is utterly necessary, owning to the family personality cult. But he has also inherited a system in which genuine loyalty has been replaced by fear .....And more importantly (for him at least) has inherited a system in which one rather shadowy organization may possess more power than he does, despite being leader of the country, and head of the ruling Workers Party."

The Veteran said...

Noel ... please cite the authority in support of your contention that the real power behind the throne is the OGD. I've studied North Korea 'politics' (in the widest sense of the word) and this is the first time I've come across that argument.

Noel said...

I did. September 18th 7.34 am.

Anonymous said...

The Veteran said...

You mean you expect me to fork out USD12 to download a book?

Noel said...

I didn't. They call them libraries.

Gerald said...

"I've studied North Korea 'politics' (in the widest sense of the word)"
"You mean you expect me to fork out USD12 to download a book."

Lets narrow that down from wide to "free".

Anonymous said...

Veteran you should have read the back issues your cut and paste came from.

The Veteran said...

Gerald ... pedant.

Noel et al. The authors of that book are of course entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. The OGD isn't that far up the pecking order in a State where the pecking order is everything but, let's suppose it was some sort of counter to Kim, do you imagine that Kim would sit back and allow it to usurp power?

Noel said...

"let's suppose it was some sort of counter to Kim, do you imagine that Kim would sit back and allow it to usurp power."

Or turn it around. If Kim when to far and threatened their existence by firing the missiles would they sit back?

Gerald said...

If Kim when to far and threatened their existence by firing the missiles would they sit back?

Given the ODG controls the Personal Secretariat which is the "gate keeper" to the Kim family they would be forewarned of that intention.

Anonymous said...

"Tis all speculation as we do not know exactly where the power lies. We are told what we are allowed to be told and we are being toyed with. We once went to war because the MSM and influential politicians convinced themselves that a despot had weapons of mass destruction.

Easy to do though. During the Gulf war a US fast jet pilot managed to convince himself and his wingman that the fluorescent recognition panels on roof of a British Warrior APC were missile launchers.....six young soldiers died. Like most of the comments here you will see what you want to see.

Lord Egbut Nobacon

The Veteran said...

Fasinating comments but, as Egbut keeps reminding us, tiz all speculation.

Whether Kim is predictable or unpredictable in his unpredictability remains the moot point.