North Korea’s Brinkmanship Isn’t Irrational

North Korea’s Brinkmanship Isn’t Irrational
Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

What you need to know

Rather than focusing on the idiosyncrasies of the North Korean regime or ignoring patterns of behavior, greater attention should be placed on efforts to enhance North Korea’s own sense of stability.

According to South Korean officials, North Korea attempted another ballistic missile test on May 31, following three failed attempts in April. Considering the increased sanctions imposed by the U.N. following the country’s fourth nuclear test in January, one could ask why the “Hermit Kingdom” would seemingly provoke its neighbors yet again. It may be convenient, if not tempting, the argue that Pyongyang is acting irrationality and to dismiss the regime as “mad sad and bad,” as this relieves the observer from having to explain patterns in behavior and precludes the thornier discussions of why policies toward the country have failed. However, most analysts would reject such simple explanations.

According to realist international relations theory, survival is the primary goal of states. Once enjoying economic parity with its neighbors to the south, North Korea’s economic woes, especially since the 1990s, are well documented. Similarly, despite a larger conventional army, technological advances in South Korea have left North Korea at a considerable disadvantage, even if a small stockpile of nuclear warheads could provide a cost-effective deterrent to a country that cannot afford to upgrade its conventional forces.

However, without a means to deliver such warheads, deterrence is unlikely to last. In this light, Pyongyang’s continued ballistic tests that suggest the potential to strike beyond its immediate neighbors, can be viewed as a means of reaffirming a commitment to expanding North Korea’s deterrent capabilities, even if such tests fail. North Korea’s interest in nuclear weapons is also nothing new, dating back well before Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. Considering the presence of U.S. forces in the Korean Peninsula and the lack of a peace treaty at the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang’s interests in ballistic missiles and a nuclear deterrent thus appear quite rational.

Sanctions have done little to deter the country’s nuclear and missile programs, which have consistently surpassed outsider expectations of a country with hardly the resources to maintain basic infrastructure, much less technological innovation. Sanctions are rarely effective in altering state behavior, and North Korea has exploited easily identifiable loopholes or other means of circumvention, although efforts are now being strengthened amid indications that China may be more willing to exert pressure on its neighbor. Furthermore, as repeated events have shown, North Korean officials appear to have learned that defying sanctions and employing brinkmanship rhetoric often leads to new talks.

Many American analysts held similar assumptions of Mao Zedong’s irrationality prior to the 1970s, only to be surprised when he, too, followed realist protocols. Rather than focusing on the idiosyncrasies of the North Korean regime or ignoring patterns of behavior, greater attention should be placed on efforts to enhance North Korea’s own sense of stability without raising concerns among their neighbors. While a daunting task, especially if North Korean officials see interactions as a zero-sum game, this potentially provides a means out of the diplomatic stalemate. It remains highly unlikely that the regime would cease its nuclear program or ballistic missile ambitions under any conditions.

However, increasing the costs to North Korea of such tests so that North Korean officials show greater self-restraint provides a glimmer of hope. For example, encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI) and the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in North Korea provide the possibility of lessening tensions while allowing countries such as South Korea and the United States cover from domestic opposition to such engagement. Admittedly, engagement is not a cure-all, but failure to find creative means to alter North Korean behavior will simply lead to additional acts of defiance and risks viewing North Korean actions outside of the context of their own security.


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