Kim Jong Un is a Rational Actor
Kim Jong Un has the rap of an irrational madman hellbent on leading his rogue state into a disastrous war with the United States. The North Korean leader feeds that narrative by continually threatening the United States and her outlying territories with missile strikes. He ignores the plight of his own people and instead invites more sanctions with each new missile test and provocative stunt. But Kim Jong Un and the North Korean state are rational, coldly so. Donald Trump is not, and the clash of a rational and an irrational actor heighten the risks of armed conflict.
When it comes to international relations, rational does not mean sensible. Rational means capable of making logical calculations to boost a country’s goals and interests given its available resources. Foremost among those interests is survival.
North Korea Wants to Survive
Survival is high on Kim Jong Un’s mind (as it was for his predecessors). The best means of survival for a nation-state detested by almost all other countries is to ensure that any move to destroy the existing leadership has catastrophic consequences for the assailant country.
(Of course, the easiest means of survival is to integrate one’s nation in the society of states wherein openness and interconnectedness – globalism – greatly decrease the chance of war and national destruction. North Korea has no interest in doing that.)
North Korea fervently believes that nuclear weapons will forever dissuade the United States and her allies from overthrowing the existing regime. While the proximity of American troops in South Korea, as well as millions of South Korean allies all easily killed, has so far deterred the US from retaliating to North Korean aggression with military strikes, North Korea sees the others collapsed authoritarian regimes – Libya and Iraq, and the potential for the United States to still attack Iran despite its compliance with the nuclear deal – as warnings of what could still happen without a well-developed nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong Un views nuclear weapons as the means by which his totalitarian regime will continue, not as weapons of aggression. He knows that any real act of war – and invasion of South Korea or missile strike against the US – will instantly result in his overthrow and death. That’s why North Korea hasn’t invaded South Korea and has largely kept its threats rhetorical (since the Korean War, the state has acted aggressively, capturing and even killing US soldiers, but has not acted decisively enough to warrant a full military pushback).
Trump Doesn’t Understand Kim Jong Un’s Rationality
Donald Trump, and many members of Congress, don’t understand North Korean aims. They don’t see the game theory decisions Kim Jong Un makes; instead, they see a madman rushing towards a disastrous confrontation with the United States. And because they see us and North Korea as on an inevitable path to war, they’re willing to preemptively attack the evil regime.
That’s why Trump keeps floating a missile strike on the state or stating that continued North Korean threats would result in the United States unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” At the United Nation’s, Trump cautioned Kim Jong Un by saying the United States will “totally destroy” you, rhetoric not lobbied by previous administrations – administrations that understood North Korean goals.
Facing the threat of total annihilation, North Korea will only redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons because the sooner it does so, the sooner it might deter the unpredictable wrath of Donald Trump. North Korea doesn’t trust the United States to uphold a deal in which the regime gives up its nuclear weapons – Qaddafi did so and died in an American-backed revolution and though Iran did so as part of a nuclear deal to which it’s complying, Trump still assails the deal and indicates he wants to pull out of it. So Kim Jong Un will hasten nuclear development.
The Rational Actor Meets the Irrational Fool
Trump isn’t predictable. He campaigned on an isolationist platform and frequently attacked the “stupidity” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the former of which he supported, despite what he says). Yet in the span of 24 hours, he went from steadfastly refusing to condemn Bashar al-Assad for a chemical gas attack to launching an (illegal) airstrike on Syria. And over the course of a couple months, Trump entirely flip-flopped on Afghanistan and will now increase our troops in the state.
He’s not rational and he’s not predictable and that pushes North Korea into a further and better armed state while increasing tensions with the United States as we amp our rhetoric and keep threatening action. As General David Petraeus argues, “you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called ‘unthinkable'” because that encourages the adversary to take matters into its own hands.
Trump’s blather and foolish posturing towards North Korea demonstrates he doesn’t understand what Kim Jong Un hopes to achieve – survival. It also shows that Trump doesn’t know how to address a rogue yet rational state and Trump’s unpredictability and general intemperance only heighten the risks of a military conflict with North Korea.