Shortly before 6 a.m. in Japan on August 29, North Korea launched a ballistic missile over the country. The nation’s disaster alarm system, J-Alert, was activated and people were warned that a missile had entered Japanese airspace. Northern residents were advised to seek refuge; local and the bullet train services were immediately halted. Fourteen minutes after launch, the missile landed in the Pacific Ocean, 1,180 km off Hokkaido’s Cape Erimo.
Depressingly, the North Korean launch, while irresponsible by any standard, was rational and even predictable in the light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s seemingly off-the-cuff “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” comments in recent weeks. In understanding the balance of power between the United States and North Korea, we need to recognize that this is not a stable Nash equilibrium akin to the Cold War’s nuclear stand-off, whereby adversaries essentially decide to do nothing because, in the absence of cooperation, neither side can gain. In this case, North Korea is unilaterally improving its position, day-by-day, as its mastery of ICBM and nuclear weapons technologies improves. In response, Washington seems able merely to impose sanctions, either unilaterally or in limited concert with others. But states committed to a nuclear capability are not so easily dissuaded. As the late Ali Bhutto of Pakistan famously once said, “We’ll eat grass but build the bomb.”
North Korea’s calculus appears to be that the utility of obtaining an ICBM capability is greater than what it forgoes by way of punishment from additional sanctions. And, if we take as given the prioritization of regime survival in North Korean thinking, Libya provides Kim Jong-un with the precedent that surrendering a WMD capability may not make one more secure.
Trump portrays himself as the consummate dealmaker, never revealing his hand. But reality does not bear this out. Not only has he been unable to strike a deal with North Korea, but it is actually Kim who has emerged as the master of ambiguity. The United States, with limited intelligence and no embassy presence in North Korea, still does not know whether it is dealing with a rational opponent, or not. For Kim, maintaining this air of irrationality, whether real or pantomime, merely serves to limit viable U.S. policy options because strategists and advisors, be they military, political, or diplomatic, have to work on the assumption that Kim just might be “crazy.”
Such strategies are hardly new. The American economist and former military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, codified the power and mathematics of ambiguity as far back as 1961. U.S. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger made use of such thinking in 1969, during the Vietnam War. In Operation Giant Lance, Nixon used airpower to suggest that he might be sufficiently irrational to start a nuclear war against the Soviets. Nixon, in his discussions with his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, himself described this as his “Madman Theory.”
If Kim is indeed rational, a response to Trump’s remarks was mandated to maintain the ambiguity strategies that Ellsberg, Nixon, and Kissinger understood. Also, in the context of the latest missile launch, the choice of targeting Japan and not Guam was clearly a better risk-reward for Kim. Landing missiles off the coast of Guam would undoubtedly have been perceived as an attack on U.S. territory, the consequences of which would have been highly unpredictable. Japan, on the other hand, U.S. bilateral defense treaty notwithstanding, was a lower risk in terms of the response that the missile launch would likely elicit. Furthermore, threatening actions toward Japan potentially benefits North Korea if the U.S. political narrative reverts back to Trump’s 2016 complaints as a presidential candidate that the U.S. should limit its support to those allies deemed not to be contributing enough to their own defense. North Korea would surely be delighted if its actions in any way negatively affect the U.S. -Japan security relationship.
His bluff having been called, Trump appears to be out of options that might be effective in persuading Kim to peacefully abandon his nuclear ambitions. There is no great appetite either in Japan or the U.S. for a military response; and China has gone as far as it is prepared or able to go in restraining North Korea. Multiple rounds of sanctions are already in place. Further blustering rhetoric and posturing from the U.S. president are only to be expected, but North Korea knows that maintaining its ambiguous stance gives it time to reach its goals while limiting any viable U.S. policy response.
Yukari Easton is a researcher and an ACE-Nikaido Fellow at the East Asian Studies Center at University of Southern California whose research focus is upon international relations, diplomacy, and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Previously, she worked for ten years in international banking in Europe and Asia.