North Korea: Dangerous, but Not Crazy
Follow-up to From 1914 to 2014: The Shadow of Rational Pessimism from Mark Harrison's blog
Is the North Korean regime crazy or calculating? Here is a timeline of North Korea's actions since March 10, when I wrote last.
- March 11: North Korea revokes the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953.
- March 12: Kim Jong Un places the North Korean armed forces on maximum alert.
- March 20: Attacks on South Korean news and banking websites, possibly from North Korea.
- March 27: North Korea cuts a military hotline to the Kaesŏng special region (a joint economic project with South Korea).
- March 29: Kim Jong Un places the North Korean armed forces on standby to strike U.S. territories.
- March 30: North Korea warns of a state of war with South Korea.
- April 2: North Korea will restart weapons-related nuclear facilities.
- April 3: North Korea closes entry to the Kaesŏng special region.
In various ways, these are all costly actions. Some are financially costly to Pyongyang, such as restarting nuclear facilities and disrupting Kaesŏng-based production and trade. Other are reputationally costly, because they stake out positions that are hard to retreat from without loss of face. All of them have a common element of danger -- the risk of triggering a ruinous catastrophe.
Why is North Korea doing these things if they are so costly? In a common interpretation, the North Korean regime is crazy. They don't understand the world or know what is good for themselves. I think this is unlikely.
On the basis that the North Korean leaders are not insane, there are several possible ways to think about their actions and understand them, but in the end they all point to the same outcome.
Opportunity cost. While the measures listed above are costly, North Korea believes that it would not find a better alternative use of the resources consumed or put at risk as a result of their actions. There are few profitable opportunities for production in the world's worst economic system. Investing in confrontation may well be, for North Korea, the better alternative.
Diminishing returns.In the past, North Korea has extracted billions of dollars of aid from South Korea and the West by holding its own people hostage and showing a willingness to play with fire. The problem with this strategy is that Western countries and their Asian partners have learned how it works. As a result, the North Korean strategy has run into diminishing returns. Pyongyang can continue to extract an advantage only by going to greater and greater lengths. This means taking greater and greater risks with peace.
Rational pessimism (That's what I wrote about here). North Korea's leaders see two scenarios. In one, there is a peaceful future in which their regime will inevitably disintegrate and howling mobs will drag them into the street and tear them to pieces. In another, there is a high probability of war in which millions might perish but there is some faint chance of regime survival. You wouldn't jump at either, and you might not rush to make a choice. Still, ask yourself: If you were Kim Jong Un, and push came to shove, which would you prefer?