By: Kevin Princic
On the morning of July 4, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that it claimed can “reach anywhere in the world.” Experts say that if this test missile had a more conventional trajectory, it would have been capable of striking the U.S. state of Alaska. In January, U.S. President Donald Trump reacted to the threat of a North Korean ICBM test by confidently stating “it won’t happen” on Twitter. It did, however, happen; and it is no coincidence that it took place on America’s Independence Day.
Over the past weeks, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has conducted interviews with Western media outlets and held a summit at the White House with President Trump. “Kim Jong-un is not a rational person,” President Moon told CBS in his first one-on-one interview since being elected this May. In an interview with The Washington Post, he reinforced this thought, stating that he finds his North Korean counterpart to be “an unreasonable leader and a very dangerous person.” Based on remarks from the White House, the summit between Moon and Trump yielded very few deliverables in regards to North Korea and rhetoric from both leaders has largely been counterproductive. Even though Kim may be portrayed as unreasonable and dangerous, he is a rational actor. By exploring the concept of rationality, it becomes clear that the North Korean President cannot in fact be characterized as ‘irrational.’
The best place to start is with a definition of what constitutes a rational actor. A “rational actor” can be defined as someone who calculates costs and benefits by taking into consideration their own survival, prosperity, and strength. Journalist Fareed Zakaria makes an excellent distinction to accompany this definition, stating that “a rational actor is not a reasonable actor. It is not somebody who has the same goals or values as we have.”
Kim Jong-un is an example of that: a rational, but unreasonable actor. How could an irrational actor subjugate the will of 25 million North Koreans while keeping some of the world’s most powerful nations at bay? Comparing the political systems of the two Koreas, there are stark differences between the democratic South and the authoritarian North. Although these differing values explain President Moon’s rhetoric against Kim Jong-un, they do not justify it or make it correct.
The “rational actor” is the starting point for much of international relations theory, as well as the practice and study of foreign policy. In his interviews, President Moon also stated that he supports intensifying pressure and sanctions on North Korea. If he deems Kim to be irrational, is it right for him to advocate for these measures? The logic behind the use of sanctions is to alter the cost-benefit analysis of another actor and, thereby, change their behavior. Sanctions in this case aim to make North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs too costly to continue.
However, if Kim Jong-un is not a rational actor, how can we expect sanctions to work? A rational actor may decide to cease programs and negotiate should the cost of continuation grow too great due to the sanctions. We should not expect Kim to think or behave in that way—rendering any imposed sanctions useless. In this case, sanctions would only serve as a means of further aggravating him and lead to further provocation.
In international politics and media, there is much haste to label unexpected or unwarranted actions as irrational. However, instead of questioning or claiming an actor to be irrational, we should be more concerned with the question of why they acted in a certain way. The world needs to stop throwing up its hands in despair every time a country or leader acts in a way that is unexpected or unfavorable. North Korea may have tested an ICBM, how much longer until the country can achieve nuclear miniaturization and equip a nuclear bomb to a missile capable of striking anywhere in the world? This rhetoric of irrationality must cease so we can make progress in understanding Kim’s cost-benefit analysis and his decision-making process.
The clock is ticking now, and there is a renewed sense of urgency following this ICBM test. The cost of heated rhetoric so far has been the development and test of an ICBM. World leaders need to make an effort to forgo rhetoric, and focus instead on understanding the Kim regime and finding new ways to bring it to the negotiating table.
Kevin Princic is a recent graduate of Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations from which he received a Master of Arts degree. At Seton Hall University, he specialized in Foreign Policy Analysis and Global Negotiation and Conflict Management with a research focus on East Asia. Kevin previously served as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, the bi-annual academic publication of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Japanese and International Relations at the University of Mount Union. Twitter: @K_Princic