Kim Jung Un’s sanity has been questioned for years. He is characterised and satirised as an unhinged megalomaniac. He is attributed with an apocalyptic desire to annihilate large parts of the world’s population by instigating a nuclear war.
However, a counter-argument can be made that Kim Jung Un is, in fact, a rational actor.
North Korea’s nuclear development pursuits have cost the country a large percentage of its GDP, crippled its economic growth potential, isolated itself from the modern world and ultimately starved, stunted and subjected its citizens in this “social utoipa” for generations.
Yes, such actions are cruel and tyrannical, but they do not qualify as irrational from a game theory standpoint.
North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Programme – A Rational Strategy?
Rational actors respond to incentives. Incentives created by the international community in recent years – intentional or accidental – can go a long way to explain why the Kim regime has continued developing its nuclear programme.
It is clear that North Korea was a keen observer of events that unfolded halfway across the world over the past decades.
Libya – Incentivised to End its Nuclear Weapons Programme
In the case of Libya, one could argue that there was a connecting thread between Libyan dictator Colonel Muamar Gaddafi giving up his nuclear weapons development programme in 2003 and his eventual downfall in 2011.
In this regard, Gaddafi’s subsequent volte-face – and the West’s response to this – could have inadvertently cemented Kim’s resolve.
Since his assent to power in 1969, Gaddafi feverishly pursued a nuclear arsenal for his country. Within months of seizing government in a military coup, Gaddafi embarked on a three decade endeavour to purchase nuclear weapons, approaching China, France India and the Soviet Union in the 1970s to assist with the programme. He manged to develop rudimentary nuclear weapons by early 2000s, but at great economic and diplomatic costs, enduring years of harsh international criticism, censure and sanctions.
During the George W. Bush presidency in the US, Gaddafi succumbed to international pressure in 2003 and dismantled the nuclear programme. After a protracted period of secret negotiations with US officials, the nuclear cababilities of the Libyan state were dismantled. In return, Gaddafi asked that oil embargoes be lifted, UN economic sanctions removed and that Libya would be welcomed into the international community. Big carrots for the beleaguered despot who resented the isolation on the world stage.
Furthermore, the 2002 US invasion of Iraq under the Bush Jr. administration was a chilling harbinger of what may happen to Gaddafi if he were to follow in Saddam Hussein’s footsteps and develop Weapons of Mass Destruction, threatening stability in the region. Soon after, Libya signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in early 2004 . This complete change of course for Libya was broadcast around the world as a major success for the international community in terms of nuclear non-proliferation and the power of diplomacy. But what would this mean for Gaddafi’s fate and the future of his petrostate fiefdom?
Domestic Uprisings, International Intervention
Following the Arab Spring in 2010, and Gaddafi’s violent attacks on his own civilians to crush domestic dissent, his government was ultimately destroyed by a NATO-led invasion (on the grounds of humanitarian necessity) and a NATO-backed uprising. Countless articles have been written about whether this US-led coalition should have expanded its mission beyond protecting civilians to ultimately precipitate regime change; any invasion couched in humanitarian and moralistic language now invites suspicion. But more pressingly, the vacuum left by the Gaddafi regime’s downfall resulted in Libya becoming a failed state. The country has been utterly crippled by years of internecine war, with no viable politically- legitimate institutions to guide the country away from the grasp of poweful militia and sectarian violence.
It is this very vacuum – as well as Gaddafi’s own bloody demise – that could be observed by Kim as a strong incentive to never relinquish its nuclear weapons. Speaking in counterfactuals (and thus entering into the shakier realm of conjecture), if Gaddafi had a nuclear arsenal, it could be argued that the 2011 coalition would never have even contemplated attacking Libyan government, let alone attacking it until it collapsed.
Essentially, Gaddafi offers a cautionary tale to Kim: the Hermit Kingdom’s could end up like this failed state if it were to surrender its nuclear weapons and thus expose Kim’s regime to international interference, invasion and potentially extinction.
North Korea could never guarantee that the international community would respect its sovereignty. Rather these Western counties may once again renege on international principles of non-interference and capitalise on the country’s relative vulnerability to execute regime change and topple the Kim dynastym, safe in the knowledge that there is no fear of nuclear attacks. In fact, in the words of a North Korean government official discussing the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.”
For Kim, ths nuclear weapons programme is the most effective way to ensure his own survival and his continued control over the Hermit Kingdom.
Sanctions Ineffective as Incentives for the Kim Regime.
Kim appears immune to international pressure and is not tempted by the carrots which the West used to woe Gaddafi in early 2000s. Rather, the more recent lessons regarding Gaddafi’s unmerciful demise teach Kim to not deviate from his resolve to make North Korea a formidable nuclear power. Whereas Gaddafi saw economic sanctions as an unbearable burden, Kim has shown no sign of breaking its resolve in the face of such international punishment.
Unintended consequences and distorted incentives
Incentives matter. Despite the best intentions of Western liberal democracies to destroy the nuclear capabilities of rogue states, and despite their best intentions to replace violent dictators with democratic rules, these actions almost invariably have unintended consequences. Fear of international intervention can warp the calculus of leaders who see themselves as potential targets.
It may require Western countries to change the incentive structure to coax North Korea to discussion table. The Kim regime may never feel stable and respected on the international stage. It will always remain suspicious that Western powers can at any time choose to invade North Korea and repeat their 2011 mission in Libya.
The landmark 2016 disarmament agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany), in which US sanctions on the Iranian economy would be lifted in exchange for a halt to Iran’s nuclear weaons programme, will probably never materialise in North Korea. For Kim, the country’s nuclear threat offers the most effective buffer against attack and therefore his own survival … one that Gaddafi may have regretted relinquishing as the NATO-backed militia called for his head.