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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.
When we talk about a country or a leader being "rational" in the context of international relations, we're not using it in the casual sense of "sensible."
The term "rational" here means that a country's government is capable of making logical calculations about its goals and interests and determining how to achieve them based on the resources — economic, military, diplomatic, etc. — at its disposal.
Countries have lots of different interests, but the most crucial one is self-preservation. A rational leader can take risky actions, but they wouldn't purposely do something that would foreseeably lead to the total annihilation of their country.
And that's really what we're asking when we ask whether Kim Jong Un (or his father and grandfather before him) is rational: Is he bound by that fundamental survival instinct? Because if not, that essentially means he can't be deterred.
Deterrence works by convincing your opponent that you can hurt them — and perhaps even destroy them — if they hurt you. But if your opponent doesn't care about being destroyed, there's nothing stopping them from hurting you.
So the fear is that North Korea's leader, blinded by ideological zeal or illusions of his own power, won't be kept in check by the principle of deterrence and would attempt a nuclear strike without regard for the retaliatory strikes that would effectively eradicate it.
But here's the thing: North Korea has been deterred by the US for decades.
In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea hasn't launched a war to retake South Korea. And that's largely because the US has tens of thousands of troops and serious firepower parked in South Korea and Japan to ensure that any attempt by North Korea to actually start a war would be catastrophically costly for it.
Even when South Korea has shown extreme vulnerability — such as when it underwent military coups in 1961 and 1980 and some of its military units were moved away from the border with North Korea — North Korea has not launched a war. Clearly, deterrence has worked.
The North has, however, taken other hostile actions against the US and its allies over the decades, including shooting down American spy planes and killing people in the demilitarized zone that marks the boundary between North and South Korea. And it's continued to develop a nuclear arsenal and the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them, all while openly threatening the United States with nuclear war.
So how is that rational? Why pick a fight with a vastly more powerful country whose nuclear arsenal makes yours look like child's play?
According to James Person, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, while this might seem at first glance to be completely irrational, it's not: It's actually an effective way of getting America's attention — and often, a way of gaining an upper hand over it.
In an interview in May, Person said that Pyongyang "carefully studies" US responses to all its actions and has learned that it can often get the US to yield when it carries out some of its edgier provocations.
Here's a good example: In 1968, North Korea seized the US naval intelligence ship USS Pueblo with 83 crew members aboard. It was one of the most audacious actions the North had ever taken against the US, and the crisis had the potential to erupt into a full-on war.
But that's not what ultimately happened. Not only did the Pueblo's seizure not spark a huge military clash, but the North was actually able to turn the move into a political win.
The US sat down and negotiated with North Korea for nearly a year over the imprisoned sailors. At the end of the negotiations, North Korea returned the 83 sailors (who were tortured during their time in captivity) — but it also got the US to admit to having hostile intentions toward North Korea. And it kept the ship. In other words, not only did North Korea come out of the encounter unscathed, it got a trophy out of it.
Another incident just a year later highlights a similar dynamic. When in 1969 North Korean fighter jets shot down an American spy plane, killing the 31 people aboard the aircraft, the Nixon administration considered a variety of military options — including a nuclear strike — but ultimately chose to refrain from using force altogether.
So North Korea got away with the attack without facing repercussions. The reason? "The US was being prudent because of potential risks of retaliation against South Korea," Person said during the May interview.
The US's decision to not retaliate after both of these high-profile provocations underscores something crucial to understanding why war hasn't broken out on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the first war in 1953: Both North Korea and its opponents are deeply afraid of setting off a broader war that would wreak havoc across the region. The smallness of the peninsula has a way of clarifying the high stakes of any war: Millions of people are vulnerable to being massacred by either side.
North Korea's leaders — including Kim Jong Un — aren't blind to this. In fact, they're exceptionally sensitive to it. They're very mindful of the fact that their ability to inflict huge damage on South Korea with great speed is a big deterrent to any major US strike against the North. And because of that, they know they have a bit of leeway in taking provocative action against South Korea and the US.
Nobody actually wants to go to war, so North Korea gets away with a lot of bad behavior.
North Korea's acts of belligerence aren't insane outbursts, but deliberate gestures grounded in careful observations about how the outside world responds to it. And when it carries them out, it looks strong and powerful to its own population, intimidates South Korea, and broadcasts to the global community a highly aggressive posture that makes military intervention against it seem all the more daunting.
So how do North Korea's nuclear ambitions fit into all this? With nuclear weapons, North Korea believes it will have license to act even more provocatively in the region without fear of repercussions. If the US already lets North Korea get away with adversarial behavior now because it fears provoking an all-out war, just imagine how much more it will put up with to avoid an all-out nuclear war.
When North Korea looks at other authoritarian dictators that failed to secure nuclear weapons, it sees a legacy of failure.
"They saw Iraq, which had an unrealized nuclear program, get taken out," Person explained. "They saw [Libyan dictator] Muammar Qaddafi voluntarily give up his nuclear program in exchange for integration and improved relations with the world — only for the NATO-backed rebels to take him out in the street in 2011."
Pyongyang's thoughts about the power of nuclear weapons are shaped by those regime collapses. The North sees nuclear weapons as the one bulwark that can prevent similar things from happening to them. "Kim thinks that the 'treasured sword of justice' protects them and guarantees the survival of their system," Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in US strategy in Asia and the Pacific, told me during an interview in May.
Person says the fact that the Trump administration has threatened to tear up the Iran nuclear deal — in which Iran agreed to restrict many of its sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions — only makes North Korea more resolute about clinging to its weapons. "It sends the signal to them, you may get an agreement today — but then the next president may not agree with it," Person said.
Outside of nuclear program, Kim Jong Un has shocked many with some of his more brutal actions in recent years. He had his uncle executed in 2013; he appears to have assassinated his exiled half-brother in a Malaysian airport this year. From a distance, this proclivity for violence against family members can come across as unhinged to Western observers.
But analysts say that while Kim's behavior is brutal, it's not irrational. His executions have been attempts at consolidating power and eliminating threats decisively — a necessary kind of practice when you're running a totalitarian state.
"If Kim was totally out of touch, there's no way he could've lasted this long," David Kang, a scholar at the University of Southern California who specializes in security in East Asia, said during an interview in May. "You have to be good at figuring out what you want, how to reward friends, get rid of enemies."
None of this is to say that Kim's actions are not morally abhorrent. But there's a logic to them that can be discerned quite clearly by experts.
"North Korea is remarkably predictable," Pollack said. "Tactically they can surprise us ... but strategically, they rarely surprise me."
These days, it's the Trump administration that is less predictable than Kim's regime, with conflicting signals emerging from the White House.
Earlier in August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a point to tell the North Koreans after their latest ballistic missile test that "We are not your enemy, we are not your threat."
"We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel," Tillerson said in a press briefing at the State Department on August 1.
But more recent rhetoric from the president has been deeply provocative. Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham recounted a conversation with the president about using a military option against North Korea in rather vivid terms. "If thousands die, they're going to die over there. They're not going to die over here — and he's told me that to my face," Graham told theToday show's Matt Lauer. The White House did not dispute Graham's account.
And then on Tuesday, Trump broke new ground by making a statement that sounded like an actual North Korean press release.
North Korea had "best not make any threats against the United States," Trump told reporters. "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Trump broke with the US tradition of responding to North Korea's threats in a measured tone, instead choosing to mirror their language and taking the US-North Korean game of chicken to a whole new level.
It's hard to know how exactly how this game of one-upmanship will play out. In the meantime, we do know North Korea's going to keep gunning for the things they see as crucial to the survival of their regime in as calculated a manner as possible.