Saturday, June 29, 2013

Explaining North Korea’s irrationality

I am one (among many) who does not believe that the Kim Family Regime is acting irrationally (see article at this link:  Dr. Bruce Bechtol's new book, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il also argues with convincing analysis that through the February 2013 nuclear test, Kim Jong-un is actually executing the script or playbook that Kim Jong-il put in place before he died.  I agree with the author that from our perspective the north appears to be acting irrationally but that it is wrong to explain the north's actions in terms of irrationality. 

Explaining North Korea’s irrationality
June 29th, 2013
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.

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.
(Continued at the link below)

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