Is North Korea really ‘crazy’?

9 January 2018

Kellogg student Giuseppe Spatafora (MPhil International Relations) writes about growing tensions between the United States of America and North Korea.

Missiles are paraded across Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on 15 April 2017. © Associated Press

Missiles are paraded across Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on 15 April 2017. © Associated Press

Over the last months, news reporting on the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear programme dominated news headlines. US President Donald Trump accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un of playing “rocket man” in front of the United Nations, labelled him crazy and insane, and called to halt Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by all means, including military force.

Not everyone might like Trump’s colourful rhetoric, but his remarks strike a chord with many of us. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, threatens to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire” and to destroy the United States. The many rockets launched towards Japan seem a preamble to a declaration of war. This sounds like absurd talk from a megalomaniac country, and nobody would like a seemingly irrational leader like Kim to possess nuclear weapons. Trump’s call to prevent this at all costs does, at first sight, make sense.

But how much of this is really true? Is there a chance that North Korea is in reality a rational actor, i.e. that it pursues nuclear capability as the best tool to guarantee its security? If that’s the case, does Pyongyang really pose a threat to peace in Northeast Asia? And how should the other actors (China, South Korea, Japan, the US) respond?

Let’s start from nuclear weapons: why would a country pursue them? Surprisingly to many, nuclear arms are not meant to be offensive.  The bombs launched on Japan in 1945 demonstrated the destructive power of these armaments. The power unleashed by an atomic conflict today would guarantee ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD): total annihilation not just of the enemy, but also of the attacker and of human society itself. The strategic purpose of nuclear weapons is, instead, deterrent, i.e. to dissuade the opponent from attacking.  The success of atomic bombs lies in their not being used: state A does not attack state B because it fears B will use its nuclear stockpile; thus war does not erupt. A scene from Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove contains a concise and accurate explanation of deterrence.

How does the logic of deterrence relate to North Korea? Part of the link lies in the very name: the county of Korea was divided into two states at the end of WWII, North and South, who fought a brutal conflict symbolising the tensions of the Cold War. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989-91, North Korea lost its main protector (Moscow) and faced an economic powerhouse (South Korea) supported by Washington. The unification of Germany, which in practice was the incorporation of East Germany into West Germany, was an alarm bell to Pyongyang: the DPRK should develop a nuclear deterrent in order to survive and not be annexed by South Korea.

A first nuclear crisis was solved in the 1990s, but tensions rose again in 2002, when US President George Bush included North Korea into the ‘Axis of Evil’ with Iraq and Iran, as regime which “pursues weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens.” One year later, the US invaded Iraq, and North Korea restarted its nuclear programme.

After all, this decision makes perfect sense: if the North Korean regime feels that its survival is at risk, it will develop the tool that best can deter an attack. Does this mean that North Korea will use its nuclear weapons? Not at all, despite the violent threats. It would be suicidal for a small and poor state to attack, as that would automatically trigger a response. A war would likely cause the fall of the regime.

If the DPRK does not want war, why does it provocatively shoot missiles over and near Japan? Let’s go back to Dr. Strangelove: the German scientist explains that once a country develops a formidable weapon, it must immediately let the world know; otherwise, the weapon’s deterrent power is null. In recent years, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes have made remarkable progress, despite international sanctions. Hence the multiplication of atomic tests and rocket launches. Again, this is perfectly logical.

If North Korea is such a rational actor, does it really threaten peace and security? It surely does, for many reasons. Although North Korea does not aim to unleash war, but if it feels threatened or believed an attack is imminent – for instance, if the US transfers military equipment to South Korea – Pyongyang will use its nuclear arsenal to inflict as much damage  as possible, wiping out millions of lives, before being overwhelmed. Seoul, a 20-million-people metropolitan area, is just one hour away from the border by car.

A second major risk is nuclear proliferation in East Asia. Japan and South Korea never developed nuclear arsenals because the US nuclear umbrella protected them. However, the growth of the DPRK nuclear capability may encourage the two countries to start their own atomic programmes. They certainly have the potential to do so, and some marginal political groups already advocate nuclear expansion to respond to Pyongyang. But nuclear proliferation would in turn alarm China, which for years has advocated a de-escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula. Last year, the deployment of a US missile defence system in South Korea caused vehement protests in China, because the system was allegedly directed not against Pyongyang but towards Beijing. Expect stronger Chinese reactions if Seoul or Tokyo contemplate the nuclear option.

Is there any better option available to deal with North Korea? The fact that the DPRK is a rational actor is good news, because it will respond in a predictable manner to incentives. As long as tensions do not escalate, there should be no risk of conflict. Exchanges of insults at UN level and threats to use force won’t help. Continuation of international sanction also seems a poor option, as previous sets of sanctions have not curbed Pyongyang’s programme.

The most rational option would be resumption of negotiations with North Korea, which Donald Trump seemed willing to do during his electoral campaign. Previous talks failed mostly because they started from the prerequisite that Pyongyang should promise to denuclearise completely, and North Korea never agreed to give up its only bargaining chip.  a second point is that negotiations should include all stakeholders, from the US and South Korea to China, the DPRK’s main trade partner and the new great power of the Asia Pacific region. History shows that dialogue between rational actors, even between sworn enemies, is possible. And North Korea, after all, is not really crazy.


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