"Irrational" North Korea has done it again. Even with U.S. and South Korean forces gathered on the peninsula for their largest annual joint military exercises, Pyongyang launched four ballistic missiles early on March 6. Three landed in the sea west of Japan, within Tokyo's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. As expected, the "irrational" Pyongyang's actions elicited the usual cries of condemnation, triggered a brief dip in the South Korean stock market and led South Korea's acting president, Hwang Kyo Ahn, to reiterate the need for South Korea to rapidly deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system — something that will undoubtedly further perturb North Korea’s closest friend, China.
I use "irrational" in quotation marks for a reason. I have already discussed the use of "provocation" as a lazy term for describing North Korea's actions. But Pyongyang's latest moves, as well as the current U.S. review of North Korean policy, offer an opportunity to talk about the idea of the rationality of nations, governments and leaders. North Korea provides what could be a textbook case of the mixed perceptions of rationality and irrationality — a tool with utility beyond today’s feisty standoff between the hermit state and its geopolitical rivals.
More Than Just Emotion
At Stratfor, we are often asked why we default to attributing rationality to the behavior of governments. Many argue that the behavior of other governments (or our own at times) appears irrational. Think of the economically devastating land reform instituted by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2000, or former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the Brexit, or the U.S. plan in Iraq that assumed the country's disparate ethnic and sectarian divides would simply be overcome by the downfall of a dictator. We all know individuals who act in an irrational manner, whether because of emotional stress or stimuli, fatigue, mental conditions or any number of other reasons. Few of us can honestly say that we have never acted on impulse, out of emotion (be it anger or love), or out of a failure to think things through before engaging in some ill-advised endeavor that we hope will end in minor embarrassment and a funny story rather than in tragedy.
If individuals are susceptible to such irrational behavior, why not governments? Deploying secret agents to assassinate someone who was apparently such a low-level threat that he traveled without a security team seems irrational, or at least purely emotional. All the more so when the attack was done with a banned chemical weapon in an airport of one of the few countries with relatively good diplomatic relations with North Korea, and a key hub for the nation's sanctions-skirting economic activity. Launching four ballistic missiles a few days after positive meetings with China (which eased tensions after Beijing had recently hit the North Korean economy by cutting off coal imports), and thus further justifying Seoul's pursuit of the THAAD system to the detriment of China's interests, just seems irrational. Why hurt the one country that continues to give North Korea international support and appeared intent on strengthening its relationship with Pyongyang rather than isolating it even more?
Our assertion of rationality as the default analysis does not claim that all decisions are perfect, or that errors cannot be made. Irrational or responsive decisions are possible, and even "rational" decisions can lead to catastrophes. But we do assert that choices made by governments are generally based on more than emotion or randomness. Rationality differs based on one's point of view, place and time. If I assume irrationality on the subjects of my inquiry, if I find their behavior illogical or unwise, my first job is to reassess my understanding of their perspective of rationality. This is the obligation of the analyst: to challenge the impulse to impose one's own sense of rationality upon others. What is it that has shaped those subjects' worldview, their perception of risk and reward, of threat and opportunity?
Back to the Geopolitical Basics
Even a cursory glance at North Korea reveals a worldview molded by geography and history. North Korea is a tiny country with insufficient arable land that is squeezed between China and South Korea, the latter of which hosts tens of thousands of U.S. forces. Historically, the unified Korea was caught between China and Japan, the proverbial minnow between whales. Today North Korea remains squeezed between whales, though this time the United States and China, and its basic question is whether it wants to subsume its national authority and identity to one of its neighbors or remain independent in policy and ideology. If Pyongyang prefers the latter, it can neither draw too close to China nor allow its economy and culture to open up fully to the West. Historically, North Korea has followed a path of isolation, of nominal fealty to China while maintaining domestic control — an approach that has been called the "poison-shrimp" strategy of being more dangerous to invade than to ignore.
This leads to a perspective of rationality that is very different than that of most analysts in the United States.
Even if South Korea can partially understand the North's sense of rationality, it does not match the national interests of Seoul, which in many ways is in the same position as Pyongyang but has allowed itself, much like Japan, to cede its national independence to the United States for years. The attribution of rationality to North Korea's leadership is not a justification for its actions, nor does it argue that the North has only one path to pursue. Rather, it seeks to understand the behavior of the country's rulers — a vital step toward predicting both action and reaction.
The second component is to assess the structure of power within the nation's leadership. No leader, no matter how dictatorial, operates alone. There are bureaucracies, formal and informal systems of relationships, and power, money, finances and resources that shape how a government or ruling group works. For a leader to lead, there must be those willing to carry out orders, and shy of a very small organization, that requires several layers of power and control. So, policy goes beyond the actions of a single individual. The system itself, then, provides in some ways a check on irrationality. Any decision, any command, must pass through this often complex system of power. By their very nature, governments slow down action, providing the equivalent of counting to 10 before responding to an emotionally charged situation.
A Careful Balance
In North Korea's case, elections are certainly a bit of a sham, but Kim Jong Un doesn't stay in power simply because of his family name. He is the third generation of Kim leadership in North Korea, and the least prepared or qualified of any for the task of leading the country, since his father delayed training or anointing a successor for fear that power would begin to form around the son, rather than himself. But the Kims are not divine leaders, holding power because none dare to challenge their right to lead. Instead, they must constantly manipulate, balance and counterbalance the various interest groups and power centers in North Korea.
The primary task of a Kim leader is to ensure that no single faction or small group of factions becomes too powerful. This involves a combination of reward (access to foreign funds and opportunities), punishment (death, at the extreme) and distribution of power among different groups as well as inducements to spy on one another. A perception of unpredictability by Kim may be beneficial to a point, but complete unpredictability would undermine the balance quickly, since there would be no way to ensure long-term power or influence, and the system would quickly turn against the leader. In many ways this is similar to the story that Thae Yong Ho, the recently defected deputy ambassador to the North Korean Embassy in London, has been telling in media interviews in South Korea and beyond.
One of the most striking things about North Korea is that its apparent irrationality has nonetheless allowed it to continue down a fairly independent path under three different paramount leaders, even as the world around them changed (at times, dramatically). This alone should suggest that there is rationality hidden in North Korea's behavior. Pyongyang has shown continuity of action, continuity of policy and, most important, continuity of leadership but for a few executions. North Korea has pursued variations of this policy since the end of the Cold War, seeking cooperation with the South to create a stronger single Korean confederation, playing various regional players off of one another, and pursuing in earnest a nuclear deterrent to reduce the perceived threat of U.S. military and political action to destabilize the government and force its collapse.
Assuming irrationality in the actions of North Korea, or of any other government, is often based on the cognitive error of mirror imaging — believing that others hold the same cultural, political, economic or moral norms as you, your culture or your government. Even among Western countries, there are many different ways that nations perceive rationality and their national interests. How much more misleading is it to apply Western or U.S. norms to North Korea's perception and decision-making? Assuming irrationality, then, is simply a poor analytic practice. Again, seeking to understand another's basis for rationality does not imply that all decisions are the "right" ones, or the most effective. Governments rarely have the luxury of a complete set of options, of time, or of full information when making choices or planning strategy. And in many cases, objective desire plays a role. Rationality does not exclude bad decisions, or more commonly, limited options.
One of the most important values to presuming rationality in others, particularly "foes," is that irrationality, by its very nature, is unpredictable. But rationality provides context within which to predict behavior, or at least to understand general patterns of behavior. That said, rationality must then be matched with reality. Governments are large entities. Decisions are being made at many levels, within many time frames. Contradictory actions are entirely possible, even frequent. Mistakes are made. Insufficient information, time or resources constrain decision-making and action. Internecine struggles for power or influence can lead to all sorts of chaos. But assuming irrationality is just lazy analysis.
North Korea is not irrational. But understanding its unique rationality is no small task.