Would North Korea really fire a nuclear weapon at the US?
As belligerent rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un escalates to new heights, it's a question that many Americans are asking themselves with increasing levels of fear and anxiety.
Attacking the US with a nuke would seem completely reckless, since it would almost certainly ensure North Korea's eradication in retaliatory strikes. Which means the question of whether North Korea would really fire a nuke at the US comes down to an even more basic question: Is Kim Jong Un rational?
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For casual observers of North Korea, Kim certainly seems like a lunatic. After all, he's suspected of having assassinated his half-brother with VX nerve agent, he starves and tortures his people, and he regularly threatens to attack the United States with nuclear missiles. Those threats often sound unhinged, like when he threatened this spring to employ a "super-mighty preemptive strike" to reduce the US and South Korea "to ashes."
Many US policymakers also seem to think Kim is a madman. "We are not dealing with a rational person," US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned in March. "This is not a rational person, who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly."
Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, bashed Kim as "a crazy fat kid" in March. And Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne summed up the quandary after returning from a trip to Asia in April: "I don't believe the leadership in North Korea is rational. How do you deal with someone that is irrational?"
This line of commentary has very real consequences for how the US deals with North Korea: If Washington believes that Kim is truly irrational, then it will be more inclined to use force to stop him. If the foreign policy establishment is convinced that Kim is not mentally stable, then the idea of him firing nuclear-tipped missiles at the US with no concern that he might be wiped off the map himself in a retaliatory strike becomes a plausible scenario.
That could in turn make the Trump administration more likely to consider launching an extraordinarily risky preventive or preemptive strike against Kim's nuclear facilities in order to prevent that from happening. McCain has said he thinks such a strike must be an option, and the Trump administration has repeatedly made it clear that it's on the table.
But when I spoke to scholars and historians of North Korea, they uniformly rejected the idea that Kim is a lunatic. His ruthlessness and fierce rhetoric should not be confused with irrationality, they explained. Instead, he should be understood as extremely calculating and disciplined when it comes to maintaining his grip on power — just as his predecessors (his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather and the country's founder, Kim Il Sung) were.
To most North Korea experts, Kim Jong Un is far from erratic. In fact, they say that if anyone is unpredictable in this scenario, it's President Trump.