For the first time in quite a while, recent escalations of tension on the Korean peninsula have prompted serious fears of war erupting between North Korea and the United States-South Korea bloc. With Kim Jong-Un’s volatile North accelerating its missile tests and development of a state nuclear program, and the US operating under a new and sometimes unpredictable regime following the election of populist outsider Donald Trump, the situation looks at first glance to be primed for conflict. When foreign policy comes to an impasse between two heads of state both who are often characterized as irrational, war does not seem so far out of reach. But are Trump and Kim both as unstable as they’ve been characterized? And if not, what does that mean for the Korean peninsula?
The split between North and South Korea has a long history, and one that is at the center of the present-day crisis. Korea was split by the US and USSR after World War II, with each half developing it’s own government and sense of nationality; the Korean War, which technically never ended, made this divide all the more stark. But though North Korea has had an adversarial relationship with South Korea (and thus also its American allies) since then, recent weeks have seen an exacerbation of that conflict when the North tested a number of ballistic missiles. Not only did these tests violate United Nations resolutions, they also seemed to push America’s recently-inaugurated Trump over the edge in his tolerance for Kim’s actions. Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, declared the US policy of “strategic patience” towards Kim’s regime over, and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, even went so far as to place the use of a preemptive strike on the table. Since then North Korea has stated that it is “ready to hit back with nuclear attacks.” Relations between the two already-oppositional nations have been made even worse over the last few days with the detainment of a US citizen in, and the movement of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards, North Korea.
The response to this escalating conflict has been global in scale and cautious in tone. China’s foreign minister urged Trump and his team to stay “cool-headed,” while the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary called for Kim to comply with UN resolutions and end the missile tests. Although China has more recently begun working with the US to avert conflict, the historical residue of longstanding alliances is still clear here: Beijing condemning Trump rather than Kim and London doing the opposite. Yet what stands out is the overlap between the two calls for hesitancy, alliances aside. Both Trump and Kim are painted as unstable leaders, the personal rashness of whom could spur a meltdown in diplomacy even if military action was not in the best interest of either party. For some, this characterization goes so far as to become pseudo-clinical pathologizing. Nikki Haley, United States Ambassador to the UN, recently referred to Kim as “not a rational person,” while Trump’s domestic enemies diagnosed him as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder during his 2016 presidential campaign and more generally as an irrational person, following his entry into the Oval Office.
Kim Jong-Un, heir to the dictatorial regime left behind by his father, has been considered irrational for much of his reign since it began in 2011. A 2013 article in The New Yorker, for instance, referred to him as a “wild card” on the international stage, arguing vis-a-vis his nation’s nuclear potential that he “is simply too new and untested for us to know if he has the self-awareness to avoid inadvertently killing himself.” His recent ICBM tests have not helped this image. Trump’s National Security Advisor, for instance, said the launches fit “a pattern of provocative and destabilizing and threatening behaviour.” The Chinese foreign ministry has not been so blunt, but statements they’ve made regarding the ongoing peninsular situation have emphasized diplomatic dialogue and political stability, suggesting uncertainty about what their neighbor’s future holds. Yet contrary to the archetypal conception of Kim, at least what is prominent in Western rhetoric and media, many scholars who’ve studied the man think he is far from irrational. Though Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul acknowledges that Kim “sometimes overdoes it,” he is unequivocal in stating that Kim is “perfectly rational.”
Trump, meanwhile, presents a slightly different case. In his foreign policy dealings, especially when backed up or spoken for by cabinet members and other proxies, President Trump seems no less rational than any one of the various hawkish US heads of state before him. Though things like Tillerson’s threat of a preemptive strike or Pence’s cessation of “strategic patience” were certainly more outwardly aggressive than some expected, they have yet to be made good on and thus remain threats, a well-worn page in the international-relations playbook. What more, Tillerson emphasized that “the US was exploring a range of new diplomatic and economic measures,” and Trump has called attention to his continuing partnership with China in dealing with “the North Korean problem.” When enmeshed in the fabric of America’s executive, military, and intelligence bureaucracy—what some pundits have hyperbolically called the US “deep state”—Trump seems less like an irrational renegade and more like a traditional pro-military hard-line neocon. Slate journalist Fred Kaplan argues that Trump “seem[s] to be, if not quite insane, at least erratic, unpredictable, prone to outbursts of violence detached from coherent policy…and drastic reversals of opinion,” but the distinction between madness and ineptitude is an important one. Both may deem him incapable of leading the free world, but at least the latter is less likely to trigger war.
Validity aside, these claims of irrationality against Kim and Trump are not unknown to the two leaders themselves; in fact, the notion of an insane man with his finger on the proverbial button is as much a deliberately crafted image as it is an externally-imposed degradation. For instance, Yale Professor Paul Bracken notes that “nuclear shakiness is part of North Korea’s strategy – a type of deterrent unseen during the nuclear diplomacy of the Cold War.” Similarly, Trump promised on the campaign trail, to make his foreign policy “unpredictable.” In this way, both capitalize on the fear of nuclear war that they anticipate the other will have; the idea that they probably won’t initiate military conflict, but that they’re crazy enough that they just might, cannot be written off as purely the result of these leader’s idiosyncratic personalities. Perhaps such traits are inherent, but if so, they have subsequently been successfully co-opted as tools of intimidation. This strategy has an ideological forefather in the foreign policy of President Richard Nixon, the Cold War-era hawk who employed what he called “The Madman Theory.” In trying to broker peace in Vietnam, Nixon explicitly worked to cultivate an image of himself as on the brink of insanity, so obsessed with eradicating communism that he would go to self-destructive ends to achieve victory, even of the pyrrhic sort. Even if neither Trump nor Kim is actually irrational, there is a clear incentive for them to deliberately promote that image anyways; especially, it would seem, when dealing with an enemy who they may see as legitimately irrational.
The situation on the Korean peninsula at present, then, is thus two major powers, both capable of or threatening capability of nuclear annihilation, who do not and cannot know the other’s next action but must decide how to proceed anyways. When the question of rational versus irrational decision making is added to this mix, the field of game theory emerges as a potential means of inferring what each side is thinking. A sub-branch of logical mathematics with ties to politics, economics, and ethics, game theory presents a mechanism for thinking about how different agents will work to achieve the best possible outcome for themselves despite not knowing what other competing agents will do. As The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics explains, “The outcome for each participant depends on the choices (strategies) of all.” Although it is easy to turn game theory into a catch-all buzzword for describing any decision-making process, as some pundits have increasingly taken to doing as of late, it is still a compelling theoretical framework for thinking about a competitor’s actions and intentions from their point of view. Though it was often used during the 2016 election to argue about Trump’s strategic habit of insulting other candidates, it plays a more subversive role in this context by providing a different narrative than “illogicalness” to explain the actions of Trump and Kim.
Fundamental to game theory is the idea that “a game player must recognize his interaction with other intelligent and purposive people,” explains The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. “When thinking about how others will respond, he must put himself in their shoes and think as they would; he should not impose his own reasoning on them.” With regard to the increasing tensions between North Korea and the US, this means that each nation’s actions should be understood as internally consistent. This is not to say that they are inherently rational (in fact, part of game theory serves to explain that people will make decisions that are in a larger sense irrational because, under specific circumstances and given limited information, they seem like the best choice). Rather, the important take-away here is that Kim and Trump will both act towards one another in the way that makes the most sense from their own situated, subjective point of view, and in that sense they are not wholly irrational actors. This comports with the political reality of both party’s positions. Professor John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul argues that Kim’s threatening actions are logical given his lack of reliable allies and the very real threat posed by “a hostile superpower that has, in recent memory, invaded sovereign states around the world and overthrown their governments.” Professor Brian Myers of Dongseo University in Busan adds: “North Korea needs the capability to strike the US with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted.” Trump, meanwhile, has clear incentive to take a more militant approach towards North Korea, regardless of who he is as an individual. Surrounded by a massive intelligence infrastructure that knows far more than he ever could, politically tied to right-wing war hawks who are in turn tied to the lobbyists of the military-industrial complex, and incentivized by a media that valorizes him for taking any military action at all (as with his Syrian airstrike), it is not hard to see why Trump might rationally choose a more aggressive stance on this issue. The discord between his isolationist campaign rhetoric and his post-inaugural militancy is not the vacillation of an indecisive dolt, at least not entirely; it is a reasonable, albeit dishonest, response to a change in context.
All-out war with North Korea is an outcome against which all possible prohibitive steps must be taken. The human cost in South Korea would be immense, and as The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos describes, “the long-term commitment could make the Iraq War look like the invasion of Panama.” There are other plausible non-military options, including more comprehensive sanctions, but these too seem inadequate given the enormity of the problem. Whatever steps forward are taken, however, cannot be taken blindly—they must be made with the understanding that neither agent, Trump nor Kim, is Nixon’s irrational, uncompromising madman. Their personalities and individuality cannot be written off as irrelevant, but they are also not the entirety of their motivation in making the policy decisions they do. Game theory tells us that “when calculating an equilibrium or anticipating the response to your move, you always have to take the other players as they are, not as you are.” If bloodshed on the Korean peninsula is to be avoided, then both blocs must understand what motivates the other rather than write them off as pathologically irrational.