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The Peninsula

Is Kim Jong-un Rational?

Published March 13, 2017
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: North Korea

By Mark Tokola

When dealing with a country with a leadership that is as singularly top-down as North Korea, it is worthwhile to try to understand what makes their leader tick.  If we understood Kim Jong-un’s goals, preferences, and biases, we would be in a better position to understand whether negotiations on denuclearization are possible, and what the negotiating strategies might be.  And we might be able better to assess whether it would pose too great a risk for the U.S. and South Korea to tolerate an outcome that left Kim Jong-un in control of any nuclear weapons.

We have over time tolerated the acquisition of nuclear weaponry by the Soviet Union, China, and India in part because we assumed that they would accept the rationality of deterrence and would understand the catastrophic effects of a nuclear exchange.   Cold War logic was a cold logic, but one that prevented World War III.  If Kim Jong-un is, as some would have it, “irrational,” what does that mean?

The bizarre cult of personality that has held sway in North Korea for decades was well-entrenched before Kim Jong-un assumed power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, on 17 December 2011.  If there had been no cult of personality centered on the myth of the powerful, benevolent, and self-sacrificing founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung — characteristics transmitted down through his son, Kim Jong-il — it would have been impossible for the then-young, and then-inexperienced Kim Jong-un to have risen to the throne.

The stories have been widely circulated of mystical events surrounding the birth of the three Kims (birds gathering, signs in the sky, trees blossoming, et al); their world-record golf scores; their invention of cures for cancer and super-fertilizers; and more.  The claims are held up for ridicule because they are ridiculous, but they all point in the direction of a family that is destined for hereditary leadership because of its super-human abilities.  This amounts to a virtual ideology, and one that Kim Jong-un inherited – not one he created.  B.R. Myers, in his book “The Cleanest Race,” summarizes the North Korean state ideology as, “The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”  Kim Jong-un has little choice other than to perpetuate the state ideology.  What would he be without it?

It is possible that in the event of a coup in North Korea, the next leadership could claim to be the true inheritors of the banner of “Kim Il-sungism, Kim Jong-Ilism.”  This would provide a veneer of continuity and stability perhaps coupled, depending on circumstances, with a claim that a deposed Kim Jong-un had betrayed the course set by his grandfather and father.  Any excuse for such a claim could be fabricated.  The fall of Kim Jong-un would not necessarily mean the end of the North Korean regime.  It would, however, certainly mean the end of Kim Jong-un.  Whatever his policies are today, they are intended to prevent that from happening.

Whether Kim Jong-un himself is rational depends of course on how you define rational.  That may sound like picayunish wordplay but the point is serious.  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnerman demonstrated, at length and with evidence, in a 1974 article, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” that no one makes wholly rational decisions.  People rely on personal experience, imperfect analogies, and instincts.  There is evidence that people usually make decisions first, and then mentally assemble the evidence to justify their decisions.  Without these mental shortcuts, termed heuristics, we would not be able to make decisions.  People who have suffered damage to the parts of their brains where emotions reside are able to make lists of pros and cons, but find it very difficult to make choices because human decision-making is not wholly, or even primarily, a question of rationality.

Because rationality turns out to be an elusive subject, a simple working definition might be that rationality simply means being able to act in ways that accomplishes goals.  A person is “irrational” if they act in ways that fail to produce the outcomes they desire.  Kim Jong-un has survived five years in power, eliminated potential sources of opposition, carried forward with a nuclear weapons and missile program, has seemingly improved the economy by loosening state controls, and has rebuilt a party structure that his father had allowed to deteriorate.  He is reportedly capricious and short-tempered, and is clearly brutal, but it is probably no more accurate to call him “irrational” than it would be to agree that he is the world-beating genius North Korean propaganda puts forth.

Deciding whether Kim Jong-un is dangerous requires a different calculation than deciding if he is rational.  Would he, based on his experience and world view, calculate that in the event of a conflict, he would be more likely to survive if he unleashed nuclear war than if he surrendered?  Might he calculate that he is more likely to survive in power if he agrees to denuclearization?  Unless we assume that Kim Jong-un is able to make choices that he believes will improve his odds of survival, neither deterrence, sanctions, nor diplomacy are likely to bring about the results we desire.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flick Creative Commons.


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