A method to North Korea’s madness?

North Korea once again has the world’s full attention.

Kate Crompton

Politics, Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

9 June 2017

In a time of renewed tension on the Korean Peninsula, one fact remains unchanged: North Korea has rationality in spades, writes Kate Crompton.

Almost like clockwork, North Korea once again has the world’s full attention. Much like in 2006, 2009, and 2013, North Korea has again quickened the world’s collective pulse at the prospect of another Pyongyang-initiated conflict.

Whenever this happens, it is important to remind ourselves of one unchanging fact about North Korea. Despite what the rest of the world wants you to think, the hermit kingdom is not irrational or crazy. Immoral? Undoubtedly. Calculating? Most certainly. But reckless or impulsive? Probably not.

Since the end of the Korean War, the North has been characterised as a “rogue state.” Donald Trump and his foreign policy posse have done little to challenge it.

In a Tweet from the 12 April, Trump deemed North Korea a “menace”. On a similarly gloomy note, Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this month “storm clouds are on the horizon… North Korea is the most dangerous and urgent threat to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific.” Australia’s own Julie Bishop labelled North Korea “provocative and belligerent”.

This characterisation of North Korea is unhelpful at best. When tensions flare up on the Peninsula, it is worth remembering that North Korea is a rational country with rational goals.

Questions of rationality are separate from questions of good or evil. Rationality is about pursuing a set of strategic goals. According to academic Youngwon Cho, “Pyongyang is fundamentally a rational actor pursuing a rational strategy to deal with rational security concerns”.

Ultimately, North Korea’s goal is survival. Everything North Korea does can be traced back to achieving this ultimate goal.

Where other countries would choose diplomacy and negotiations to achieve this aim, North Korea chooses threats of nuclear annihilation. But North Korea has very few other weapons at its disposal.

It has no diplomatic weight, it’s not part of the main international organisations, and the country has few international partners. Even the country’s historical ally China is distancing itself from North Korea’s latest outburst.

To pursue its rational goal of survival, you could argue that North Korea has no other choice.

We can decode North Korea’s behaviour by looking at what it is afraid of. North Korea faces some real threats to its survival from South Korea and the United States.

A highly developed economic powerhouse with a military to boot sits quite literally on North Korea’s doorstep. Since the end of the Korean War, relations on the Peninsula have been frosty at best. The risk of military action from the South is always a possibility.

Understandably, North Korea wants to shield itself from potential military action from the South. The country’s response has been to acquire a nuclear capability and to station troops on its Southern border. As Hazel Smith points out, stationing troops in where threats are present is a fairly normal, rational thing for a country to do.

North Korea is now facing a new threat. Despite his pre-election rhetoric, Donald Trump is proving to be global interventionist. Recent bombings in Syria and Afghanistan show that Trump is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. This is a scary prospect for North Korea.

As any rational country facing threats to its survival would, North Korea is pouring all its assets – nuclear and all – into keeping itself from collapse.

This is where the “rogue state” conceptualisation falls down. North Korea’s reckless façade hides a deeply insecure country with very few assets desperately trying to keep itself afloat.

None of this is an attempt to award North Korea victim status. It is, however, an attempt to reconceptualise the debate around North Korea to reflect reality.

Big players like the US must recognise North Korea’s rationality, whether or not their moral compass aligns with that of the Kim regime. To develop an effective policy towards North Korea, global players must understand that its goal is not apocalypse now, but the assurance of its own survival.

Whether stationing anti-missile defence systems in South Korean waters is the best response is a question for another day. But the world needs to ease its vice grip on its view of North Korea as a “rogue.” Policy should also reflect this.

North Korea is not a madman that needs to be tamed. It is neither reckless nor insane. Its characterisation as a rogue state is both incorrect and unhelpful. Like any other country, North Korea has a goal in mind and is fervently pursuing this goal. In a time of renewed angst, the rest of the world would do well to remember this.

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