In 2016, North Korea conducted the most missile tests ever, a total of 24. Since the beginning of 2017, the regime in Pyongyang had only ratcheted up the number of tests, currently at 17, with the promise of reaching a new all-time high, and surpassing last year’s record. The last test, conducted symbolically on July 4, marked a new milestone by introducing Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with a range that could reach Alaska and potentially Seattle. It is now believed that North Korea will soon be able to develop and mount miniaturized nuclear warheads on its ICBMs and become an even greater threat to its neighbors, and the United States.
The urgency of the current developments, fast outpacing the expected timetable, has raised the stakes in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, and Beijing, raising the demand for new policies targeting the military belligerence of the rogue state. As Washington considers its main policy options, it will have to consider both feasibility and the cost-benefit analysis of their potential outcomes.
At the core of any meaningful policy vis-a-vis North Korean militarization sits one simple, yet seminal and highly contested question: is the regime in Pyongyang rational or not? The question is by no means simple, but it is asked in a simple, binary way that requires a clear yes/no answer in order to move on to the scenarios. It is essential, because its answer determines whether there is a way of engaging with North Korea, and if so, what kind; it is contested, because there is no clear agreement among the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon, the White House, and the major foreign players on this question. Getting this question wrong could potentially lead to a far greater calamity than the world has seen since World War II, if not ever: engaging with an irrational actor, or attacking one that can be engaged rationally.
If the regime in Pyongyang is rational, then deterrence (nuclear deterrence in particular) in combination also with other, more positive forms of engagement could lead to a de-escalation of the current tensions both in short and long terms. If Pyongyang regime, however, is irrational, there is little one can do but act, seizing a moment of strategic and tactical advantage before the cost mounts even more. The difficulty comes from the fact that rogue regimes often might pretend to be irrational in order to keep up the aura of unpredictability as part of their strategic arsenal. Or they may be mistakenly considered as irrational, when their history points otherwise.
Rationality is an invented concept that does not exist in its absolute terms. But despite its conditional nature, it is a useful shorthand that helps humans navigate the complex web of social interactions and mitigate the consequences of uncertainty. As much as it is helpful, the concept could also be highly misleading. In a world of complete and unconditional rationality, predictability will replace uncertainty and could potentially reduce risks of conflict. But it would also ultimately negate itself, as in a completely predictable world, there will be no place for change. Even worse, in such rational and predictable world, it may pay handsomely to suddenly act irrationally.
Despite its problems, rationality is a helpful approach to decision-making, especially in situations of asymmetric information, or for policy cost-benefit analyses. It rests on a number of assumptions, mainly on the fundamental utilitarian calculus that individuals (in this case, policymakers) will try to increase utility and avoid loss. It does not necessarily require complete symmetrical knowledge of intentions or information, but when it comes to constructing strategic plans, it assumes certain constants, such as the determination to avoid suicide and self-destruction in the pursuit of one’s goals. Much of this could be contested in any given specific historical or political context, of course, but when it comes to international politics, it is hard not to agree with its basic premises. In other words, for a regime not to be rational would essentially mean that under certain circumstances it will act in such a way as to lead to its own destruction, blinded by the pursuit of yet more irrational or unattainable goals.
Scenario 1: The North Korean Regime is Not Rational
Are Kim Jong-un and his regime irrational? If the answer is yes, as many warmongering policymakers in the State Department and the Pentagon argue, nothing short of a swift military intervention, with the possible goal of decapitation and regime change, could stop a nuclear Pyongyang with its new ICBM capabilities from running over South Korea, even while risking retaliation from the United States. It would be a highly risky and challenging act, calling the United States’ nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea a bluff. If the United States acts, the North Koreans would use their missiles to target not just South Korean and Japanese cities, but also U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan, Guam, and Alaska, and maybe even a major U.S. city like Seattle.
Such an act will surely lead to a massive retaliation by the United States and would evoke the wrath of its formidable military capabilities. If it does not, the U.S. military alliances in the region, or for that matter with NATO, would mean close to nothing — a risk not even President Donald Trump can possibly take. The scale and intensity of retaliation would, of course, depend on the immediate tactical calculations, as well as on the more long-term strategies.
Among the possible scenarios for dealing with an irrational North Korea, almost all invariably include some form of military action. They usually range from full-scale massive war to a more limited surgical targeting that would “tighten the screws” on the regime, to decapitation and limited tactical military intervention that would help foster regime change. For any sound analyst, however, it must be clear that none of the above-mentioned scenarios would have much chance to end up in anything else but a devastating full-blown, and potentially nuclear, war.
If the regime is indeed irrational, and given the level of paranoia that exists among all its ranks, any military action could be interpreted as an attempt at decapitation or regime change or a full-blown attack. Either way, in the fog of war, it most likely would lead to massive retaliation by the North.
But following the logic that the regime in Pyongyang is irrational anyway, even without a preemptive intervention or a limited military intervention by U.S. and South Korean forces, the region, if not a large part of the rest of the world, is doomed anyway. This scenario assumes that the regime will inevitably invade South Korea, bomb Japan, and perhaps send nuclear ICBMs to the United States, led by its divine and messianic mission to fulfill the Kim dynasty’s destiny to unite Korea under its banner and, after near 70 years of preparation, deliver a decisive victory against its greatest enemy, the United States.
The line of argument above could acquire a number of analytical and policy nuances, but its main structure would invariably remain the same. The policy options are also relatively clear in this case. First, China obviously will prove unable to rein in its rogue protege, even when it desires to do so. Therefore, only a unilateral action (with the support of South Korea and potentially Japan) makes sense. This is precisely what Trump is threatening to do, and soon. Among the biggest questions for the Trump administration, in such a case, would be to find a way to deal with the aftermath of such conflict, its scale, its consequences for the region, and the massive human suffering it would cause. Let us briefly look at each of them.
Any military escalation with an irrational North Korea would result in the materialization of Pyongyang’s threats to shower Seoul and Tokyo with a barrage of missiles, likely carrying highly toxic sarin gas among other things. If U.S. and South Korean intelligence is correct, hundreds of artillery cannons and cruise missiles will pepper Seoul within minutes of the beginning of a military confrontation, covering the capital, with its population of over 10 million, and obliterating millions of lives, while also causing structural and economic damage not seen since World War II. The same fate would await Tokyo, home to 36 million. Millions of Koreans from both countries would storm China, Japan, and Russia, in an attempt to escape from the impending nuclear holocaust, while millions more may engage in a fraternal civil war. This will quickly lead to the largest humanitarian crisis of the post-WWII world, making the current Syrian crisis look like a small deal.
China would not sit and wait. It would not favor an American military presence next to its borders, nor the prospect of united (albeit devastated) Korea under the banner of a pro-American Republic of Korea. A conflict would also prompt a race between the U.S.-ROK alliance on the one hand and China on the other (with possible factions from the North military joining either side or remaining independent) to capture and secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It will be a war replete with many tactical traps: miscalculations, wrong beliefs, the rigidity of diplomatic negotiations (or the lack thereof), offense favoring beliefs in the first-mover’s strategic advantage, and the possibility of a blitzkrieg.
Russia will also not sit and wait. Moscow and Beijing already have military ties that amount to a semi-military alliance. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not NATO, and will probably never be, but it is also a suitable rudimentary platform for military cooperation and security coordination that keeps developing. Moscow is a concerned party in the region and would act in its own interest in an attempt to prevent a greater American presence there, as well as the establishment of a pro-U.S. united Korean state.
Accepting that the regime in Pyongyang is irrational, hence suicidal and self-destructive in pursuit of a divinely chosen destiny to unite the two Koreas under its banner and to defeat the United States, is a precarious and deterministic way of assessing the current situation in the peninsula. It narrows the available policy options, which are frequently trimmed down to exploiting strategic advantages while the window of opportunity is still present. The irrationality theory rests on unstable logic and hides a great deal of uncertainty, along with the potentially devastating consequences for the region, for millions of innocent civilians, and for the global economy and peace.
Scenario 2: North Korea Is a Rational Actor
Rationality suggests that given the knowledge of the potential costs and benefits of each policy option, policymakers would pick the one that minimizes risk, minimizes cost, and maximizes utility. Rationality suggests that self-destruction carries very low if any utility but maximize both cost and risk, which means this course must be avoided at all costs.
Accepting that Pyongyang is a rational actor, even when the regime shows signs of apparent irrationality, is a crucial starting point for the crafting of a successful deterrence policy that would prevent North Korea from causing a major regional if not a global conflict. Such an approach would rest on traditional military deterrence, coupled with gradual but active engagement with the regime.
The Kim dynasty and their supporters are engulfed by a long-standing fear that Washington is out to topple them. This may not be completely removed from reality, given the fact that the Korean conflict remains unresolved, after nearly 70 years of armistice without a peace agreement. A horrible totalitarian system at its core, and one that has brought only the greatest suffering to its population, the Pyongyang regime is determined to remain in control, at all costs. Besieged on all fronts, and with a small lifeline from China, the regime is slowly suffocating under the wide range of UN and unilateral sanctions, the pressure of globalization and accompanying flow of information about the outside world that undermines the brainwashing propaganda of the regime, and its subsequent rapid loss of legitimacy inside the country.
The Kim regime may be totalitarian and cruel to the point of genocidal, but it serves no purpose to assume that it is suicidal and self-destructive. If anything, it is actually a survivalist. Such a point of departure for analysis and policymaking would open a wide range of possibilities compared to the narrower policy options under the “irrational regime” argument.
To start, it allows for a wider interpretation of the intentions behind Pyongyang’s current provocative actions and intensified military development program. The rational theory reveals the ransom mentality that drives the current North Korean politics, according to which the Pyongyang regime acts just like a bandit desperate for money, who has kidnapped a member of a rich family and is trying to turn its military might into cash. North Korea has done this many times in the past and wants to do it again. It may be a risky undertaking, but it is not suicidal. It is actually quite a rational decision based on wrong engagements in the past, which rewarded bad and not good behavior. Such behavior is also a sign that the regime is becoming increasingly desperate for funds, and is betting all its chips on winning this hand. This is not irrational behavior, but a survivalist one under dire conditions.
Two questions should be asked here: a) how far North Korea is prepared to go in order to extract the concessions it pursues; and b) how much would be enough to satisfy it. In other words, is there an attainable equilibrium between the concessions of the West and the demands of North Korea?
Those who oppose this approach would argue that the more one gives up to Pyongyang, the more it will strengthen its power, threaten the West, and demand yet more concessions. It would also reward bad behavior. However, a brief review of the history of engagement with the North Korean state would show that — at least in the past — gradual engagement has worked, albeit not entirely satisfactory. However, the alternatives are even more dire. At least trying engagement seems more like a sensible option compared to the military options outlined above.
Next, accepting the rational actor thesis allows for addressing some of the fears of the regime. Since the 1953 armistice, the United States has remained the main source of paranoia for the Kim regime. In 1958 the United States abrogated Article 13(d) of the armistice, which mandated that neither side would introduce new weapons into the peninsula, and deployed nuclear weapons — M65 atomic cannons — in South Korea. Even though George H.W. Bush withdrew the nuclear weapons in October of 1991, the new Trump administration is reportedly considering a new plan for redeployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea, a move that would mark the first such nuclear deployment by the United States since the end of the Cold War. In addition, the U.S. is currently seeking ways to renew the process of deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), which was halted in the beginning of June after the election of the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.
In more general terms, it is not just the regime in Pyongyang but also a large portion of North Koreans who live in constant fear of invasion and occupation by the United States. Admittedly, this is as much the result of decades of brain-washing and state propaganda as a response to a real threat. Regardless of the cause, however, the reality is such that only engagement could mitigate such fears. Providing guarantees for the survival of a monstrous, totalitarian regime seems removed from the high moral standards of human rights. But the risk of a nuclear holocaust that could lead to the deaths of millions, the displacement of millions more, and the destabilization of the entire Asia-Pacific region, if not beyond, is a prospect even more dreadful.
Finally, the role of China must be considered once again. Currently, Beijing is the only lifeline to the regime in Pyongyang. The bilateral trade relationship between China and North Korea accounts for over 90 percent of Pyongyang’s total trade volume. China provides North Korea with energy and food supplies, and purchases seafood, minerals and other raw materials, and manufactured garments. But China is more than the last real economic backer of North Korea. It is also the actual moral and economic owner of the North Korean problem. What happens in North Korea impacts China in various ways, especially at a time when the Xi Jinping administration is undertaking the most profound domestic reforms since Deng Xiaoping while also trying to rebrand China as a responsible global player.
China, thus, has tremendous stakes in mitigating the current tensions and lowering the risks North Korea poses to the world. The leadership in Beijing does not hide its dislike for the Kim regime and seems genuinely worried by its nuclear adventures. But it also fears any type of regime collapse, including an economic collapse. China has signaled over the past six months that it may be willing to work together with the United States, Russia, and others on a common solution, and to back oil sanctions on the regime if Pyongyang continues with its nuclear tests. In fact, as it is widely believed that the North will inevitably conduct another test by the end of the year, in anticipation of it, the Chinese state-owned oil producer, China National Petroleum Corporation, suspended its sales to North Korea in June. The official rationale was concerned that the regime will not be able to pay for the oil. But considering the sizable energy and food aid China generously provides to the Kim regime in order to keep it afloat, such concerns are doubtful to the least. It is rather a hard signal in a generally nontransparent bilateral relationship, of which outsiders have little direct observational knowledge.
Should the United States and South Korea destabilize Kim’s regime, or attack it, China’s calculus may change drastically. As a starter, as mentioned earlier, it is extremely unlikely that China will allow the unification of the two Koreas under the ROK. That means China will either try to annex as much of North Korean territory as possible — temporarily at least — in order to create buffer zone for itself, or it will directly challenge U.S.-ROK forces for the control of North Korea. Given the fact that South Korea will be locked near China for eternity, while the U.S. priorities may change, it is questionable how much South Korean leadership would pick a war with China.
As much as certain circles in Washington may not like it, the only meaningful policy in the current situation, and the only one that does not involve the risk of a full-blown military confrontation with unpredictable consequences, is the policy of strategic engagement with Pyongyang, working in closer cooperation with China, Russia, and Japan on the issue. This may also require temporarily putting the THAAD program aside and offering “ransom” to the Kim regime. Any other endgame may prove not only very costly, but also very risky and without any positive outcomes — the hallmarks of an irrational choice.
Liubomir K. Topaloff, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University. For 2017-2018, he will be will be Visiting Faculty at Boston College.