Explaining North Korea’s irrationality

Author: Ulv Hanssen, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

The recent North Korean bluster following the latest UN sanctions against Pyongyang ranged from the bizarre to the scary.

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Perhaps more significantly it again spurred questions about the capability of rational policymaking in the isolated country. After the dust settled, the only significant outcome was the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Not only did this convey a strong symbolic message by deconstructing the last remnant of ‘Sunshine Policy’ era, it shut off North Korea’s best legal source of foreign currency. In the month following the Kaesong shutdown inter-Korean trade was down by 88 per cent, plummeting to pre-Sunshine Policy levels. This unquestionably hurts Pyongyang much more than Seoul, and North Korea watchers were at pains to explain this seemingly irrational decision.

Another ‘irrational’ decision came after the so-called ‘leap day agreement’ on 29 February 2012 between the US and North Korea. In return for a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, North Korea was set to receive 240,000 metric tons of food aid. For a country in which nearly a third of children under five show signs of stunting due to malnutrition, such a trade-off would seem like a no-brainer. But less than two months later North Korea conducted a highly publicised rocket launch which blew up in spectacular fashion — much like the leap day deal which was subsequently scrapped. This was an outcome North Korean leaders probably did anticipate, but the launch was still carried through. Irrationality has in foreign policy studies been defined as ‘a decision’s incompatibility with policy goals, prevailing consensus, or preferred outcomes’. If North Korea is seen as an undiversified unit with a uniform intention, as tends to be the case, one is often left with few other alternatives than to explain North Korean decision-making as irrational.

The notion of North Korea as an irrational actor is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the Korean War (1950–53), when the North attacked the South and gambled on US non-intervention, North Korean history has been fraught with examples of apparently irrational actions. These contradictions have sometimes been explained as a North Korean adoption of Richard Nixon’s ‘madman theory’ — in other words, North Korea deliberately portrays itself as irrational to asymmetrically intimidate stronger players. This may sometimes be true, but this view shares a common flaw with most interpretations of North Korean behaviour: it treats North Korea as a monolithic unit and disregards internal power struggles.

After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 his son, Kim Jong-il, reshuffled the pecking order of the country’s most powerful institutions: the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Cabinet. The songun (military first) policy enhanced the Army’s political power at the expense of the Party. As a result, power politics in North Korea became more prone to institutional jousting and the potential for contradictory policies increased. One analyst has characterised North Korea as an ‘institutional pluralist’ state since Kim Il-sung’s death. However, contradictory foreign-policy goals and actions stemming from conflicting institutional interests seem to have existed even before 1994. For example, one of the most promising periods of North–South conciliatory diplomacy coincided with the 1983 Rangoon bombing in which the North Korean military killed four South Korean cabinet ministers and 13 senior officials on Burmese soil.

The KPA was founded before the official announcement of the DPRK in 1948 and now serves as North Korea’s most powerful institution. After nearly a decade of purges following the Korean War, Kim Il-sung managed to instil a remarkable degree of loyalty to himself among the KPA’s ranks, but the military has nonetheless been prone to freewheeling outward-directed aggression that often runs counter to ongoing diplomatic initiatives by other North Korean institutions.

In 1972 the director of the South’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Lee Hu-rak, travelled to Pyongyang and met Kim Il-sung for the first top-level North–South summit. To his surprise, Kim Il-sung apologised for an incident four years earlier when a North Korean commando team attempted to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Kim told Lee that the so-called ‘Blue House raid’ had been carried out by ‘leftist chauvinists within our structure’, indicating that the military had acted on its own.

This pattern would repeat itself 30 years later under similar circumstances. In 2002 Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro travelled to Pyongyang and met Kim Jong-il for the two countries’ first top-level summit. Kim Jong-il affirmed long-time Japanese suspicions that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens during the 70s and 80s. Kim apologised for the actions, blaming them on ‘rogue elements’, again pointing to institutional freewheeling.

It is unlikely that such major operations were carried out without the Kims’ knowledge and approval, but since the KPA is the only power structure in North Korea that can potentially challenge the Kim dynasty, all three leaders have had little choice but to curry favour and occasionally loosen the reins on the KPA, even when counter to ongoing diplomatic initiatives. Times of political uncertainty, such as periods of power transition, have seen the KPA strengthened at the expense of other institutions. North Korea’s recent aggressive rhetoric is probably best understood as a result of the untested Kim Jong-un’s need to gratify institutional forces, most likely the KPA, in times of potential unrest.

For decades under Kim Il-sung, and to a lesser degree under Kim Jong-il, North Korea approximated a totalitarian state which was ideologically driven and ultimately governed by a single overseer. The situation under Kim Jong-un is less certain, but the notion of North Korea as an Orwellian and monolithic unit where all activity is directed and supervised by an omnipotent Big Brother unduly permeates many analyses of North Korean behaviour. The problem with this framework is that it disregards institutional competition over interests dooming it to explain contradictory actions in terms of irrationality.

As long as analyses fail to take institutional pluralism into account North Korea will continue to be falsely characterised as ‘irrational’ and ‘beyond comprehension’.

Ulv Hanssen is a research assistant at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (East Asia Program).

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