Is Kim Jong-un’s Irrational Behavior Subtly Achieving North Korea’s Goals?

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“In periods when the world does not revolve around North Korea’s nuclear threat, Kim Jong-un launches another missile and once again takes center stage, refocusing all attention on his nation…”

After a recent closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss North Korea’s latest missile launches, the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told reporters, “We are not dealing with a rational person.  We are re-evaluating how to handle North Korea going forward.”

She described Kim Jong-un, the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (better known as North Korea), as a “person who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.”

Yes, it is true.  Kim Jong-un is a despot, and he comes from a long line of despots.  Kim Jong-un took power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.  He’s the third member of the Kim family to rule since the peninsula was divided after World War II, when the Soviet Union installed his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

Being a blood relative of dynasty founder Kim Il-sung is still the definition of legitimate power in North Korea.  Therefore, his right to rule his despotic regime has nothing to do with any skills he may possess, but instead originates in his birthright and bloodline.  The Kim family is supreme.  They established and maintain control through a strict personality cult.

The perpetuation of the regime is paramount.  Knowledge is a threat.  All dissent is brutally suppressed.  It is the inevitable paranoia of despotism.  It is a matter of survival.  Any and all potential rivals must be eliminated.  This includes family, and he’s been busily whittling down any new potential source of internal opposition.  There have been various reports of members of the Kim family being executed.

Most dramatic was the brutal execution of his uncle, General Jang Song-thaek, in 2013 following charges of corruption.  He was blown to pieces by an anti-aircraft cannon and driven over by tanks before his scattered remains were burnt with a flamethrower.  The recent killing of his half-brother in Malaysia by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face is just another indication of insecurity, instability, and outright craziness.  Like all despots, he’s eliminating anyone who might threaten him, real or imagined.

Is Kim Jong-un as irrational as Ambassador Haley proposes?  The short answer is yes.  Kim Jong-un’s behavior ticks all the boxes in a list of despotic actions, no doubt about it.  Yet, despite all the outrageous conduct, I tend to think that this portly 30-something Swiss-educated despot is playing a power balancing game with Washington and the United Nations.

Think about it this way –  not only is irrational behavior manipulative, even Machiavellian – especially in foreign affairs – but it is also a politically useful strategy.  One might even say that Kim has elevated irrationality to the point that he gets precisely what he wants.  His carefully crafted instability and insanity are designed to make world leaders pay attention.  If the rest of world thinks Kim is unhinged, they will be very careful not to provoke North Korean instability and insanity.

So far, it has worked in his favor.

North Korea, with 25 million impoverished people, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The North Koreans say they have built nuclear weapons in order to guarantee the survival of their regime against foreign intrusions.  The fallacy of this theory is that no country has made any overtures to invade North Korea.  Were it not for the nuclear and weaponized missile development and its export of ballistic missile technology, why would the rest of the international community pay attention and consider negotiating with a country that has nothing positive to offer the rest of the world?

Isn’t that just the point?

What has brought North Korea to the world stage and to the negotiation table for years with important countries like the United States, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea is the uncertainty of whether or not North Korea would actually risk using those weapons.  The question is this: would North Korea risk destroying itself in the process?

The negotiating point that North Korea uses is that they won’t start a nuclear war and blow up the world.  By constantly threatening the world with nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un forces the world to buy him off with cash, aid, and the relaxation of sanctions.

In periods when the world does not revolve around North Korea’s nuclear threat, Kim Jong-un launches another missile and once again takes center stage, refocusing all attention on his nation.

Are these irrational actions, real threats, or is it all theater?  This position has no teeth unless Kim can also prove to the world that he has nuclear capability.  He is doing this with repeated nuclear tests.  What do these tests show?  Not so much technical advances in nuclear capabilities, but they demonstrate that he has them, and that his nuclear arsenal functions.

Nuclear weapons that are undeliverable are not very threatening.  The key component in the entire weaponized nuclear threat is deliverability.  To this, Kim Jong-un has repeatedly and publicly conducted ballistic missile tests.  The most recent test, which was a multiple launching of 4 mid-range ballistic missiles, proved his point – he has the capability to deliver the nuclear weapons the entire world knows he has.  This last test was so startling that it caused the United States to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system (THAAD) to South Korea immediately following the test.  Kim Jong-un forced the world to take notice.

The Pentagon believes North Korea has developed at least six KN-08s – long-range missiles which could be capable of reaching much of the United States.  In January 2017, there were signs of an imminent test shortly after Kim Jong-un claimed that the country was in the “last stages” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The only reason for North Korea and Kim Jong-un to develop and advertise his nuclear arsenal is to force the world to negotiate on his terms.  His irrational actions, when looked at in this light, may not be as irrational as they seem.  His threat has forced the international community to come to his table.

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany.

Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.