It’s been common for quite some time to call Kim Jong-Il irrational, and North Korea’s well-known ability to keep the world “guessing“—careening from talks to no talks, compliance to noncompliance, calls for aid to sinking ships and lobbing shells across the border—has done little to discourage this kind of talk. However, it’s dead wrong to infer “irrationality” (whatever that means) from unpredictability. In fact, one can argue that, in North Korea’s position, being unpredictable is quite shrewd and, yes, quite rational. Far from delusional or incoherent, I’d go so far as to call North Korea’s actions over Kim Jong-Il’s reign “rationally unpredictable.” What do I mean by that? More after the jump…
When most people use the term “rational,” I think they tend to mean “something I can understand” or “something consistent with my own preferences, not the person acting.” So, typically, when you hear someone accuse a leader—or even their friends–of being “irrational,” they probably (and, to be fair, unintentionally) mean that they’re having trouble putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. But that’s not what we mean, in any meaningful sense, by the term “rational.” At its root, to be rational means to (1) have goals and (2) to pursue those goals to the best of one’s ability. Those goals can be anything, from financial security to territorial expansion to winning a basketball game to a primo spot in the afterlife. Rationality places no restrictions on the content of people’s goals, only how they pursue them.
Given some goals, then, there are plenty of situations in which your best strategy is to keep everyone else guessing. Football teams switch up their plays, and armies conducts feints away from the main axis of attack, all in the service of keeping the opposition guessing. If the opposition can predict your actions perfectly, they can respond to them—a defense can be drawn up to cover your routes, or forces can be massed in the proper spot to blunt the attack—and being unpredictable is the best way to ensure that you’ve got a chance to achieve your goals, whether it be scoring more points than the other team or capturing territory held by the opposing army. No one would call these everyday strategies of unpredictability irrational, and, given that, there’s no reason to infer that North Korea is behaving irrational, either.
Consider this: Kim Jong-Il’s goals are to retain control over the government of North Korea and, in all likelihood, to ensure the peaceful transfer of power to his son. The means available to him, though, are limited. He’d lose a war, so running too high a risk in that direction is undesirable, but he also knows that South Korea, the US, and China don’t want one either. So what can he do? Well, first, he cares more about the survival of his regime than every other interested party, so he’s willing to run bigger risks that things will get out of control and tick over into war than his opponents, so he can engage in brinkmanship—that is, ramping up tensions and escalation, being unpredictable as to his motives and future strategies, such that everyone else will back down and give him slightly more of what he wants. Why? Because small concessions—food, fuel, etc.—to North Korea are preferable to the South, the US, and China to actually dealing with a war. So being unpredictable, taking risky actions, and creating the image of being even a little unhinged are all part of what is a pretty old school strategy of diplomacy. Keep them guessing, make them nervous, and they’ll give you a little more of what you want.
So it’s pretty simple. North Korea under Kim Jong-Il has been, and likely will continue to be, rationally unpredictable. This gives us no reason to think that he’s irrational in the least, and that should be comforting. Dealing with a goal-directed individual is always easier—and safer—than dealing with a truly crazy one.