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North Korea: Not Crazy, Just Weird

December 15, 2010

The Korea Chair here at CSIS, Victor Cha, has an op-ed in the Washington Post this week, seeking to dispel five myths about North Korea– including the belief, often heard on cable news, that the regime in Pyongyang is irrational. He writes:

With tensions between North and South Korea running higher and higher, and America’s options only getting lousier, it is worth taking a moment to look closely at what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula — and what isn’t.

1. The North Koreans are crazy.

They may be weird, but they are not crazy. Yes, the unpredictable, nuke-toting Kim Jong Il puppet in the 2004 movie “Team America” has come to define the real Kim Jong Il in many people’s minds. But in truth, the country’s diplomats are savvy and well-educated about the United States, and have an epicurean taste for California’s red wines. In my negotiations with them as an official in President George W. Bush’s administration, I always found them to be rational.

Of course, it is possible to be both rational and belligerent. In North Korea’s case, belligerence is part of a calculated effort to win concessions of food, fuel and political recognition – an effort that has repeatedly paid off. A study I recently directed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies examined negotiations dating back to March 1984 and found that every North Korean provocation has been followed, sooner or later, by talks, many of which led to goodies for Pyongyang.

North Korea is behaving perfectly rationally, then – much in the manner of a losing gambler who increasingly takes on more risk. If you have “winnings” to protect (as do most countries), then you value the peaceful status quo. You don’t fire off missiles every time you want attention, because you have too much to lose if the situation gets out of control. But if you have little to lose (like North Korea), you are more willing to double down (by taking risky actions such as lobbing missiles) to achieve some winnings. North Korean brinksmanship may be dangerous and escalatory, but from their perspective, it makes sense.

You can learn the truth behind the other four myths in the full op-ed, which can be found here. You can visit the Korea Chair’s website for other analysis here, or follow them on Twitter at @CSISKoreaChair.

Photo of Kim Jong Il on a visit to Changchun, China this past summer, used under fair use guidelines.

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