Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?
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.
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.
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.
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.
North Korea’s seemingly unhinged behavior [is based on its creation] 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.
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.
[New York Times]