Is Rocket Man Behaving Rationally?

There must be something about the situation with North Korea and its buildup of nukes that is warping the minds of otherwise clear-headed people.

Analysts and pundits are telling us that North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un are behaving perfectly rationally, and their only goal is to preserve their regime. Therefore, they conclude, it’s OK to let them build up their nuclear weapons and missile systems as much as they want, because they would never actually use them, since using them would not be rational, regime-preserving behavior.

The latest example is Blaine Harden’s op-ed in the New York Times, “Rocket Man Knows Better”, who assures us that a strike by North Korea is “unlikely” (how comforting) and that the Kim regime is being “coldly rational”. What nonsense!

We can ask two related questions. First: Is Kim Jong Un a rational person, in terms of his personality and decision-making? Second: is North Korea’s behavior rational, in terms of increasing the likelihood of regime survival?

If asked to assess the rationality of another person, how would you proceed? Here’s what I would do: after first acknowledging that all humans — even the few very rational ones — are at least occasionally subject to irrational impulses that distort their judgment, I would talk to that person, ask him how he makes decisions, let him explain the reasoning behind his recent decisions, and also talk to his close friends and advisors.

That assessment would be imperfect, since I won’t have seen his hidden, 4 a.m. demons. If I can’t talk to him, at least I’ll read his speeches, diaries, essays or other documents that show his justifications, if not the underlying thought process, for his decisions. That assessment would be even more dubious. And if I could neither talk to him, his close associates, or read his writings? Forget it, an assessment of rationality would be completely impossible and it’s not even worth an attempt.

Now, every single commenter on the rationality of Kim shares these characteristics:

- They have never met Kim Jong Un. Ever. Even once.

- They have zero idea how he forms opinions or reaches his decisions, whether it is impulsive or debated back-and-forth after many position papers.

So how could they –or anyone else — form an opinion as to his level of rationality, much less have so much confidence that he is rational? After all the wrong predictions over history, people still confidently judge the thought processes of a completely unknown individual.

These commentators are inventing narratives whereby a rational thought process could plausibly lead to behaviors similar to what we’ve seen out of North Korea. That is making up stories, not evidence of what has actually happened.

And they forget some other hard truths: even if Rocket Man is in fact rational (unknowable), his possession of nukes are terrible for the world. First, the unknown successors to power in North Korea who will in the future gain possession of these weapons may not be rational. Second, Kim may gamble that selling a couple of nukes to terrorists will earn him cash and maim his enemies without retribution. Third, he may later decide to threaten their use to bully any or of all of his rival countries for geopolitical advantage in many forms, even if this is not his current plan.

Let’s now look at whether North Korea has in fact behaved rationally, if his goal is preservation of his regime, separately from the psychological question of rational thought that may or may not lie behind the actions.

Here’s what I see:

- There has no serious military threat to the Kim regime in recent decades, especially since they have a huge amount of artillery trained on Seoul, and a large standing army ready to invade southwards.

- Even as they’ve built up an arsenal of a dozen or more atomic bombs, the U.S. and the larger global community has not made a serious threat of military action that could threaten the regime.

What would a rational actor choose to do in this situation? Easy answer: lie low. Kim Jong Un could have kept his 20 atom bombs, even increasing them a few per year, and been confident that his regime would continue as is.

Instead, Kim has taken the decision to escalate and destabilize the situation by accelerating the development of long-range missiles and thermonuclear bombs. He has accompanied each step on this path with provocative rhetoric, and threatening explicitly to use the new weapons against the U.S. These steps have made a military attack on North Korea much, much more likely.

Whatever the motivations, intentions and mindset behind these aggressions may be, they are not the actions of a “coldly rational” actor trying merely to stay alive.