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Sainati: In North Korean chicken game, assuming Kim Jong-un’s irrationality gives him undue power

Leo Sainati, Columnist

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We are in the midst of a dangerous nuclear standoff, rapidly approaching tension levels unseen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States has failed in its pursuit of nonproliferation and now must resort to nuclear deterrence. In an almost mirror image of the Cold War, two sides are engaged in a classic example of the chicken game: convincing each other they are willing to wage nuclear war, daring the other side to concede. While game theory goes into much more elaborate detail about its payoffs and techniques, the chicken game assumes all involved actors are rational, making this current situation quite unique. Many assume Kim Jong-un is irrational, but doing so changes the power struggle, tipping the balance toward North Korea and playing into the Kim regime’s hands.

Regarding psychological analyses of world leaders, former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell wrote in 2016, “How does he/she see the world and the issues? What is the person’s mindset, where does it come from, and can it be changed? It is difficult, if not impossible, to craft a successful foreign policy without good answers to these questions.”

It is easy to label Kim Jong-un a crazy madman. U.S. government officials — from senators to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — have constructed their foreign policy around Kim’s irrationality. Viewing North Korea through this lens breeds trepidation and an abandonment of traditional international security options, diminishing U.S. power. Acknowledging Kim’s rationality restores the power balance and allows the U.S. to pursue traditional methods of rapprochement.

Kim Jong-un is, in fact, a rational actor. Unlike President Donald Trump, who is regarded by many as irrational as well, Kim has little to no checks on his power, making him dangerous. But that power forces him to act rationally; Kim seems motivated by the rational goal of keeping it.

All the threats and nuclear posturing are merely shows of power, attempting to perpetuate the misleading narrative of U.S. antagonism portrayed to the North Korean people. If Kim can convince North Korea, particularly other members of the regime, of its superiority to the U.S., his seat stays safe. As Morell further points out, we must understand that Kim needs the U.S. as an enemy to justify “to his people the sacrifices that he asks them to make. And he needs to keep his country closed because he fears that an opening would result in his people seeing the enormous gaps that exist between North Korea and virtually everywhere else in the world.”

Kim is still a dangerous threat and it would serve in our best interest for him to be replaced. However, policy toward North Korea must operate on the assumption that he can only engage in minimal detente with the U.S. without jeopardizing his claim to authority.

Acting as if Kim has no clear motive or grasp of consequences not only raises the supposed likelihood of attack, but subsequently limits the U.S. to extreme methods. It is easy to view North Korea’s nuclear weapon strategy as purely offensive, challenging the U.S. outright. But examining the reasons for North Korea’s nuclear grab reveals that the weapons are likely primarily defensive, meant to deter threats from South Korea and the U.S. Kim would likely never invade South Korea, facing certain retaliation, but gains greater comfort knowing that he has some form of a counterbalance. Kim has also seen leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi surrender their nuclear weapons only to see their regimes collapse. He has rationally learned from others’ “mistakes” and refuses to engage in any negotiation.

Many historians regard the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s chicken game of mutually assured destruction as a triumph due to the two leaders’ rational acceptance of their mutual reluctance for nuclear conflict. While many see mutually assured destruction as non-existent between the U.S. and North Korea, assumptions of Kim’s irrationality give him power to play outside of the chicken game and elevate him and his nuclear arsenal.

Strategies to deal with North Korea have seemingly been exhausted, but acknowledging Kim’s rationality opens up new paths for successful negotiation and rapprochement. Assuming Kim is irrational is not only dangerous to the U.S., but adds tension to a rapidly escalating conflict.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at leosainati2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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