Is Kim Jong-Un a Rational Actor?

by Reihan Salam

Observers around the Web have decried Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric on North Korea — particularly his threat at the United Nations to destroy the country and use of the term “Rocket Man” to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — as bringing the United States closer to nuclear war. Bashing the president has fast become our new national pastime, and I’ve certainly been critical of him myself. But the charge that he is hastening the nuclear apocalypse doesn’t really stick.

It is possible that Kim, listening to the U.N. speech from some bunker in Pyongyang, flew into a rage and ordered his generals and scientists to press forward with the nuclear program even faster than they already are, preparing the missiles for launch as soon as they are ready.

However, if he did so, it would imply that, as he observes the American president, Kim is making somewhat sophisticated calculations about Trump’s future behavior. “Trump,” Kim might think, “is serious about toppling my regime in a way that President Barack Obama never was, so I should build up my nuclear capability now to deter him. Or maybe Trump is simply unstable and undeterrable, so my best bet is to arm myself to the hilt. Or perhaps the American president is being honest when he says that the United States ‘will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea’ if ‘it is forced to defend itself or its allies.’ In that case, it might make sense for me to walk as close to the brink as possible without going over so that I can extract maximal concessions from South Korea and China.”

If Kim is sensitive to external signals such as Trump’s speech, though, then it would imply that he is at least somewhat rational. In that case, he would understand that launching his nukes would lead to the annihilation of his family, his regime, and his country. It would also imply that he would like to avoid such a demise. Simply put, if Kim is rational, Trump’s remarks carry less weight.

It is possible that Kim is not rational — that he is hell-bent on developing and deploying nuclear weapons and will test and deploy each new technology as soon as it is ready. In that case, too, whatever Trump says to a convocation of world leaders in some hall in New York doesn’t matter all that much.

My suspicion, or should I say my hope, is that Kim is indeed rational, as the Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan has argued in Foreign Affairs. If he’s not, well, Trump’s intemperate rhetoric shouldn’t be our chief concern.

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