Is North Korean antagonism rational?

Nearly every serious thinker agrees that the North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. Rational in the sense that, like any other regime, the primary goal of the North Korean leadership is survival. Yet, unlike other regimes, the North Koreans have an immediate and capable threat at their doorstep. For the past 64 years, North Korea has had to discourage an invasion of an American military stationed directly at its southern border. Nuclear weapons are widely acknowledged as the most efficient and perhaps the only way of doing this.

The logic is pretty straightforward. When nuclear weapons are introduced to the bargaining process, victory becomes so costly that both sides are deterred from waging conflict, let alone pursuing regime change. This is because both sides are vulnerable to a nuclear strike, regardless of what happens on the battlefield. If a state has second strike capability then it doesn’t matter how disadvantaged they are in traditional military metrics as nuclear weapons neutralize any gains earned on the battlefield. As highly desirable it would be to dispose of the Kim regime and reunite the peninsula, the potential death of 200,000 South Korean civilians has, at least for now, been enough to deter American military action.

The issue, however, isn’t if North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. We all recognize that it is given their environment. The issue is whether those in Pyongyang abide by the rules of mutually agreed destruction. North Korean foreign policy very often appears to be a reflection of the personality of its leader. Both in rhetoric and action, North Korea can appear to be unpredictable and irrational. In the words of Nikki Haley, North Korean seems to be “begging for war.” On a fairly routine basis, the North Koreans threaten the United States and its regional allies. Japan was threatened with nuclear clouds.  The United States would be turned into “a sea of fire.” Even Guam was threatened with a “salvo or misses.” Even more provactivley, North Korea has on several occasions initiated conflict, sending missiles over Japan, sinking the South Korean Cheonan, and firing artillery shells at Baengnyeong Island in 2010.

If war with the United States would be suicidal for North Korea, why do they constantly antagonize? After all, nuclear weapons were attained to ensure the survival of the regime, not lead to its end. I would argue that the belligerent and at times erratic behavior of North Korea is in fact rational. In order for nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent, a state has to convince others that they would indeed use them, despite it being suicidal. This is one of the great ironies of nuclear weapons as their unprecedented destructive power result in a loss of credibility. Prior to nuclear weapons, war was once a normal instrument of coercive diplomacy and the threat to use it could pressure others to bend politically. But in the era of mutual vulnerability, the second strike capability of your opponent makes the bargaining leverage of nuclear weapons futile. How serious of a threat are nuclear weapons if they ensure the death of the regime that would in fact launch them? A regime would have to be crazy to be the first to use them as they would be signing their death certificate. That is, unless, it was part of a strategy to convince an opponent to take their nuclear capability seriously.

Putting the North Korean belligerence in perspective is important because nuclear weapons do not make war impossible, no matter how catastrophic it would be. The United States has invested a lot of its reputation in resolving the Korean issue and there are audience costs. It is not entirely implausible to imagine a scenario that the United States tie its hands publically by drawing a line in the sand only to see North Korea cross it and escalate an already tense situation. Trump has already stated that his administration will never let North Korea advance their nuclear program to the point that they can harness an intercontinental missile with a nuclear weapon. Military action could be used to retard such progress creating a spiral until a nuclear strike is employed.

North Korea isn’t crazy. Despite North Korea “begging for war,” it’s the last thing they want. The United States should recognize that North Korea is stuck in the situation of having to defend itself by convincing the United States that it is willing to commit suicide. How exactly does a state coerce an opponent by threatening to kill itself? I assume the only way to do that is to appear unhinged and impetuous. The alternative interpretation of North Korean behavior is that their grand strategy has been to endure 20 plus years of sanctions and international isolation in pursuit of an end goal of self-destruction.

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