Are the North Korean leadership rational actors?

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12 January
13:53
12 January
14:02

Yes, entirely. They calculate very carefully and they think hard before they make even quite minor moves. But they often miscalculate – largely, I suspect, because they don’t really understand the way that the rest of the world works. That’s not a symptom of irrationality, however, but a failure of analysis. Some people believe that the senior leaders do things on a whim, but that is emphatically not the case.

"It’s almost certain that some of the assumptions they work from are different to those of the rest of the planet, but we’re not entirely sure which ones."

It’s almost certain that some of the assumptions they work from are different to those of the rest of the planet, but we’re not entirely sure which ones – particularly the ones which relate to possible international responses to their actions. The North Koreans believe – quite genuinely – that they are responding to provocations from the outside world, not the other way around. It’s not quite that they think everyone is out to get them – though I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this kind of paranoia exists in the senior leadership. But they do believe that they face a hostile world, and have to defend themselves.

Do they believe that war is imminent? They probably don’t. But they do believe that if they make a mistake they might face invasion. The $64,000 question is whether, in the event of war, they think they’d win. If you could answer that question, then you would be able to predict North Korean reaction in a range of quite critical scenarios. The quick answer is that we don’t know. Their public pronouncements suggest that that is what they do believe, but then of course they would say that, wouldn’t they. What goes on in their heart of hearts, maybe one day we’ll find out.

"They are very careful to be unpredictable within certain very broad parameters."

The North Koreans have a saying that they work on the principle of a rice cake for a rice cake, a slap for a slap. That’s to say that they’ll retaliate if you’re nasty to them, but if you’re nice, they’ll reciprocate in that way as well. But how they do it varies significantly from occasion to occasion, and there’s a growing consensus that this is deliberate – that they are very careful to be unpredictable within certain very broad parameters.

This is simply to keep the rest of the world guessing – and it has given them a great advantage. The North Koreans have known for a long time that if they launch missiles, detonate a nuclear device, whatever, then America will respond with rhetoric, calling for more sanctions, trying to get the Chinese to turn the screws, and that will be about it. But it’s much harder for the Americans to predict what the North Koreans will do.

There’s absolutely a logic to it. They’re very careful, and they’re very thoughtful.

John Everard is the author of Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat In North Korea.

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