Is Kim Jong-un crazy, or is he not? Is his pursuit of nuclear weapons the fulfillment of a family vendetta, or rational pursuit for survival? Policy leaders, academics, and media are divided on the answer, but what is certain is that each answer holds different implications for how the international community, particularly key states like the U.S., China, and South Korea, should approach North Korean nuclear armament. I argue that the image of an irrational Kim Jong-un is the product of an implicit, but rational agreement between the U.S., South Korea, as well as North Korea itself.

In this discussion, the term irrational—and crazy—is defined in the same way as the mental state of an actor that makes decisions without prioritizing self-security. A brief review of past interpretations upon Kim’s rationality clearly indicates the yay-nay divide. For example, following North Korea’s last nuclear weapons test on September 9, 2016, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has come out with an unprecedented level of public antagonism against Kim Jong-un.

"Kim Jong-un does not listen to any voice, and this leads us to view Kim Jong-un's mental state as uncontrollable.”

These statements fall in line with a more diplomatic and revealing statement she made last month at the Ueulgi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise, an annual military exercise between South Korea and the U.S. that North Korea criticizes vehemently:

"Considering the North's irrational decision-making system under the one-man dictatorship, (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un, it is fair to say that the risks of the (military) threats becoming real are very high.”

President Park’s rhetoric follows a line of high-profile policy figures from both South Korea and the U.S., including President Obama, not to mention from North Korea itself, that characterized Kim Jong-un as irrational. Indeed, these views have lent strength behind North Korea’s quest to become a nuclear power. A Gallup poll in 2014 demonstrates how successful North Korea has been in convincing South Koreans that Kim will never give up nuclear weapons, with 85 percent of responses answering “never” as opposed to 8 percent “eventually.” Coupled with reports of Kim’s extensive human rights abuses, internal purges, and quirky habits, the public image of the 29-year old leader is that of a madman, and his kingdom a madhouse—albeit one with nuclear weapons. 

Interestingly, the above-quoted statements fly in the face of academic and policy analyses on the same issue. As reviewed by a recent article in the New York Times, prominent scholars on North Korean politics such as, Victor Cha, David Kang, and Dennis Roy have attested to the self-serving, calculative nature of North Korean diplomatic strategy. In short, North Korea is rational, and thus operates according to a predictable pattern of pursuing and safeguarding its own security.

Despite the seemingly contradictory divide, however, the disagreement is still contained within a rational-actor framework—the worldview that states act rationally. The implication is that it is a rational decision to look irrational, lending strength behind the claim that North Korea is indeed a rational actor. The most puzzling aspect of this answer is, of course, why North Korea would want to propagate that the Dear Leader as deranged. Certainly, the North Korean media does not hesitate in promising swift revenge to anyone who proposes the idea. However, a closer look at North Korea’s nuclear policy tells a different story, one where North Korea actually stands to gain from “Krazy Kim.” In turn, a similar examination of the U.S.-South Korea alliance shows how the portrayal of North Korea as irrational facilitates public support necessary to maintain the current levels of pressure against North Korea.

The advantages of a madman

The current war between North Korea and the U.S.-South Korea alliance is one of posturing. The assumption about nuclear weapons is that nobody actually wants to use them. Instead, it is the prospect of these weapons that most effectively deters aggression. Stemming from this is mutually assured destruction (MAD), which is the idea that nuclear powers do not launch nuclear attacks at each other due to the prospect of their own destruction by the opposing side.

However, American nuclear missiles are not the only forms of aggression that North Korea is trying to deter from the U.S.-South Korea alliance. This is particularly true due to North Korea’s lack of conventional and economic power vis-à-vis the alliance, which causes North Korea to rely on making nuclear threats. Conversely, nuclear deterrence is uncertain in its application to relatively weaker—and affordable—forms of interstate aggression. Within the range of economic sanctions and full conventional invasion, where should North Korea pursue nuclear retaliation? Realistically, it would likely be the prospect of a full invasion, or at least aggression that seriously threatens regime stability. Preferably, however, Kim is better off having everyone think he will launch against a much milder aggression. This is where the “krazy” comes in handy. 

Adapting the words of Thomas Schelling, a scholar of “international credibility” and Nobel laureate, the threat of a weapon is the product of both the innate danger of the weapon as well as the intent of the wielder. What credibility means in this context is the degree to which others trust and/or believe in the latter. This is a central pillar in nuclear deterrence theory in that nuclear armaments negate offensive intent on the behalf of other nuclear powers, but only when nuclear retaliation is a credible response. When this negation is symmetric, nuclear weapons become a guarantee of safety, rather than a constant threat to security. However, as North Korea distances itself further from the rationality assumption that underlies deterrence, there is conversely less credibility that prospect of nuclear retaliation would actually constrain North Korean attacks. This makes Kim’s threat to conduct nuclear first strikes an actual possibility in itself, not just in response to a serious military threat or nuclear first-strike. It matters less whether or not Kim will actually do it, but if he seems “erratic” or “insane” as President Park and other political leaders have described him, it becomes increasingly difficult for other states to aggravate North Korea. Therefore, looking irrational is, in fact, a rational security decision—rational irrationality.

In fact, feigning irrationality has been a common tactic during the Cold War on both sides to reinforce credibility. The most famous example is Richard Nixon’s madman theory, where Nixon was framed as “unstable, erratic in his decision-making” to impress upon the Soviet Union that we was “capable of anything.” A different, but similarly motivated method was to create a separate backup plan to buttress the Kremlin. In the event of complete breakdown of government, an isolated bunker called the Dead Hand would be granted authority to launch nuclear weapons. This way, Soviet leaders could guarantee the West of the inevitability of nuclear retaliation.

Furthermore, close observation of North Korean responses demonstrates unwillingness to debunk the myth regarding Kim. The only publicly available media from North Korea (e.g., Wooriminjokkirree and the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee) only reinforce claims to fiery destruction of South Korea and U.S. Furthermore, despite much external discussion on Kim Jong-un, the 29-year old is extremely well-guarded from exposure to the international public. Kim Jong-un has never conversed directly with a foreign leader in public, and none of his speeches are available to international audiences. Rather, the only available source is still-shot pictures of him instructing various factories, immersed in conference, or ecstatic over the successful submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch. The focus is, always has been, to project the leader’s unwavering intent.

The advantages of being the madman’s neighbor

Why, then, are American and South Korean leaders contributing to the mythmaking? The answer is support. American and South Korean action against North Korea has often been a product of intense international and domestic debate. For the U.S., President Obama’s pivot to Asia has seen continuous deployment of military capabilities in South Korea and the general Asia-Pacific region. This has been regularly met with protest from China and Russia, who believe that U.S. military activities are also aimed at checking their own regional capabilities. The most recent and telling example is terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) deployment in South Korea, which China particularly responded with diplomatic belligerence previously reserved for matters in the South China Sea. In response to this, and to previous protests, U.S.-South Korea alliance has used the imminent danger of North Korean nuclear threat as justification.

At the domestic level, both South Korea and the US face challenges of maintaining public support in continuously engaging North Korea—particularly with the typically high spending that goes into military deployments. For example, North Korea’s recent SLBM and nuclear weapons test has immediately sparked calls for heavy spending on counter-armaments, like F-35 jets and nuclear submarines. THAAD alone is estimated to cost from 1.25 to 1.6 billion USD per battery Even outside the matters of tax usage, the South Korean Parliament already faces a political divide over whether it should continue military alliance with US against North Korea. Its provision of the battery site—Seongju—free of charge, is also weighted against the goal of appeasing the residents of Seongju. Again, the dominant logic is defense against North Korean nuclear missiles. This is also concurrent with President Park’s hawkish attitude toward North Korea, marked by closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, as well as issuing the aforementioned statements about Kim Jong-un’s mental state.

What does this all tell us? First, it prompts a new direction for the current debate on North Korea’s rationality. The argument that North Korea—i.e., Kim—is irrational is one borne out of diplomatic preference. This argument is also reconcilable with the academic treatment of the Kim regime as a rational actor. Second, there is a need to keep a delicate balance between playing along with Kim’s “rational irrationality” and having diplomatic decisions conditioned by the belief that Kim is actually irrational. Siding with the academic and policy literature, North Korea’s diplomatic calculations actually follow a shrewd pattern of self-defense. For now, North Korea’s irrationality operates within the boundaries of rationality.  

Hyo Sung Joo is an analyst at Global Risk Insights. He holds a masters degree from the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.