North Korean Endgame: Is The Regime Rational or Not?

2016 was the year of the most missile tests conducted ever by North Korea, a total of 24. Since the beginning of 2017, the regime in Pyongyang had ratcheted up the tests, currently at 17, with the promise to reach a new all-time high, and surpass the last year’s record. The last test, conducted symbolically on the 4th of July, marked a new milestone by introducing an intercontinental capability to the Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range that could reach Alaska and potentially Seattle. It is now believed that North Korea will soon be able to develop and mount miniaturized nuclear warheads to its ICBMs and become an even greater threat to its neighbors, and the United States. The urgency of the current developments, fast outpacing the expected timetable for acquiring such capabilities, has raised the stakes at Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, and Beijing, prompting for fast new policies targeting the military belligerence of the rogue state. What are the main policy options for Washington, their feasibility, and the cost-benefit analysis of their potential outcomes?

At the core of any meaningful policy vis-a-vis North Korean militarization sits one simple, yet seminal and highly contested question: is the regime in Pyongyang rational, or not? The question is by no means really simple, but is asked in a simple, binary way that requires a clear yes/no answer in order to move on to the scenarios; it is essential, because on its answer depends whether there is a way of engagement with North Korea, and if so, what kind; and, it is contested, because there is no clear agreement among the State Department, the Pentagon, the White House, and the major foreign players, on this question. Getting this question wrong could potentially lead to a far greater calamity than the world has seen since the Second World War, if not ever: engaging with an irrational actor, or attacking one that can be engaged rationally.

If the regime in Pyongyang is rational, then deterrence (nuclear deterrence in particular) in combination also with other, more positive forms of engagement could lead to a de-escalation of the current tensions both in short and long terms. If Pyongyang regime, however, is irrational, there is little one can do, but to act upon seizing a moment of strategic and tactical advantage, before the cost mounts even more. The problem comes from the fact that often rogue regimes might pretend to be irrational in order to keep up the aura of unpredictability as part of their strategic arsenal. Or, they may be mistakenly considered as irrational, when their history points otherwise.


Rationality is an invented concept that does not exist in its absolute terms but is often conditional and revealed in a socially constructed context. But despite its conditional nature, it is a useful shorthand that helps humans navigate the complex web of social interactions and mitigate the consequences of uncertainty. As much as it is helpful, the concept could also be highly misleading. In a world of complete and unconditional rationality, predictability will replace uncertainty and could potentially reduce risks of conflict. But it would also ultimately negate itself, as in a completely predictable world, there will be no place for a change. Even worse, in such rational and predictable world, it may pay handsomely to suddenly act irrationally.

Despite its problems, rationality is a helpful approach to decision-making, especially in situations of asymmetric information, or for policy cost-benefit analyses. It rests on a number of assumptions, mainly on the fundamental utilitarian calculus that individuals (in this case, policy makers) will try to increase utility and avoid loss. It does not necessarily require complete symmetrical knowledge of intentions or information, but when it comes to constructing strategic plans, it assumes certain constants, such as the determination to avoid suicide and self-destruction in the pursuit of one’s goals. Much of this could be contested in any given specific historical or political contexts, of course, but when it comes to international politics, it is hard not to agree with its basic premises. In other words, for a regime not to be rational would essentially mean that under certain circumstances will act in such a way as to lead to its own destruction, blinded by the pursuit of yet more irrational or unattainable goals.


Are Kim Jong-un and his regime irrational? If the answer is yes, as many warmongering policy-makers in the State Department and the Pentagon argue, nothing short of a swift military intervention, with the possible goal of decapitation and a regime change, could stop nuclear Pyongyang with its new ICBM capabilities, from running over the Republic of South Korea (ROK), while risking retaliation from the US. It would be a highly risky and challenging act in a poker-like game, calling the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella over Japan and ROK a bluff, or daring it to act. If the U.S. acts, the North Koreans would use their missiles to target not just ROK and Japanese cities, but also US bases in ROK, Japan, Guam, and Alaska, and maybe even attack Seattle. Even now North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) could potentially be launched from any location in the Pacific ocean, regardless of its maximum range, and hit various civilian and military targets on the continental U.S, while its short and medium range ballistic missiles, MRBMs and SRBMs, can hit Japan.

Such an act will surely lead to a massive retaliation by the U.S. and would evoke the wrath of its formidable military capabilities. If it does not, the U.S. military alliances in the region, or for that matter with NATO, would mean close to nothing—a risk, not even Trump can possibly take. The scale and intensity of retaliation would, of course, depend on the immediate tactical calculations, as well as on the more long-term strategies. The main question to ask here would be whether the North Korean field commanders would be willing to defect and join the anti-regime offensive. But given the fact that many of the North Korean nuclear warheads are well-hidden somewhere in the mountains, or mounted on mobile launchers, the perspective that local commanders would take the risk to defect and work with the American and the South Korean armies is highly unlikely. Such act would only rival the irrationality of the regime itself to attack the U.S. in a first place. That is why, I suppose, the two possibilities are often considered together by the hawkish policy-makers, who argue in favor of the irrational aspect of Pyongyang’s decision-making as a cause for preemptive military intervention, and foresee defections as a viable option that should be factored in their strategic calculations.

Among the possible scenarios for dealing with an irrational North Korean, almost all invariably include some form or another of a military action. They usually range from full-scale massive war to a more limited surgical targeting that would ‘tighten the screws’ on the regime, to decapitation and limited tactical military intervention that would help a regime change. For any sound analyst, however, it must be clear that none of the above-mentioned scenarios would have much chance to end up in anything else but a devastating full-blown and potentially nuclear, or at least WMDs war.

If the regime is indeed irrational, and given the level of paranoia that exists among all its ranks, any military action could be interpreted as an attempt for decapitation or regime change, or a full-blown attack. Either way, in the fog of war, it most likely would lead to a massive retaliation by the North. Does that really matter?

Following the logic that the regime in Pyongyang is irrational anyway, even without a preemptive intervention, or a limited military intervention by the US-ROK forces, the region, if not a large part of the rest of the world, too, is doomed anyway. Given its nature, the regime will venture into invading South Korea sooner or later, will engage in bombing Japan, and perhaps sending nuclear ICBMs to the US, as part of its sheer belligerence, led by its divine and messianic mission to fulfill Kim dynasty’s destiny to unite Koreas under its banner, and after near 70 years of preparation, to deliver a decisive victory against its greatest enemy, the United States.

The line of argument above could acquire a number of analytical and policy nuances, but its main structure would invariably remain the same. The policy options are also relatively clear in this case. First, China obviously will prove unable to rein in its rogue protege, even when it desires so. Therefore, only a unilateral action (with the support of South Korea and potentially Japan) makes sense. This is precisely what Donald Trump, the U.S. President, is threatening to do, and do it soon. Among the biggest questions for the Trump administration, in such case, would be to find a way to deal with the aftermath of such conflict, its scale, its consequences for the region, and the massive human suffering it would cause. Let us briefly look at each of them.

Any military escalation with irrational North Korea would result in the materialization of Pyongyang’s threats to shower Seoul and Tokyo with a barrage of missiles, carrying the highly toxic sarin gas, among other things. If US and ROK intelligence is correct, hundreds of artillery cannons and cruise missiles will pepper Seoul within minutes of the beginning of a military confrontation, covering every three square meters of the 10+ million ROK capital, and obliterating millions of lives, while also causing an unsurpassed since the WWII structural and economic damage. The same is awaiting Tokyo, with its 36 million strong metropolis. Millions of Koreans from both countries would storm China, Japan, and Russia, in an attempt to escape from the impending nuclear holocaust, while millions more may engage in a fraternal civil war. This will quickly lead to the largest humanitarian crisis of the post-WWII world, making the current Syrian crisis look like a small deal.

China would not sit and wait. Arguably, it would not favor American military presence next to its borders, nor would look with understanding at the prospect of united (albeit devastated) Korea, under the banner of pro-American ROK. The question for the nuclear weapons of the regime will also prompt a race between US-ROK alliance on the one hand and China on the other (with possible factions from the North military joining either side or remaining independent) for capturing and securing them. It will be a war prompt for many tactical traps that would terribly resemble the onset of the WWI: miscalculations, wrong beliefs, the rigidity of diplomatic negotiations (or their lack thereof), offense favoring beliefs in the first-mover’s strategic advantage and the possibility of a blitzkrieg.

Russia will also not sit and wait. Moscow and Beijing already have military ties that amount to a semi-military alliance, with joint military exercises in the South and East China Seas, the Sea of Japan, etc. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not NATO, and will probably never be, but it is also a suitable rudimentary platform for military cooperation and security coordination that keeps developing. Moscow is a concerned party in the region and would act in its own interest in an attempt to prevent a greater American presence there, as well as the establishment of a pro-U.S. united Korean state.

Accepting that the regime in Pyongyang is irrational, hence suicidal and self-destructive and thus will pursue the fulfillment of its divinely chosen destiny to unite the two Koreas under its banner and to defeat the United States, is a precarious and deterministic way of assessing the current situation in the peninsula. It creates a narrow tunnel visioning of the available policy options, which are frequently brought down to just exploiting strategic advantages while the window of opportunity is still present. It also leads on a dangerous path, similar to the one that the European great powers took to the WWI. It rests on unstable logical elaborations, and hides a great deal of uncertainty, along with the potentially devastating consequences for the region, for the millions of innocent civilians, and for the global economy and peace.

Going along with the irrationality of Pyongyang’s regime argument leaves policymakers little room for alternative deterrence options, short of military actions. It creates a theological worldview that favors military intervention as inevitable, and the only tactical room for a choice that exists is about the timing of the action, and its specific mode of implementation for purposes of maximization the expected outcome.


Rationality suggests that given the knowledge of the potential costs and benefits of each policy option, policy-makers would pick the one that minimizes risk, minimizes cost, and maximizes utility. Risk and cost are not the same, they have completely different dimensions, and that is why they come separately here. One could minimize cost but run a great risk. In another situation, one may minimize risk but at a great cost. The risk/cost ratio is an important and informative indicator for policy-making. The utility is also co-dependent to risk and cost. One can pursue lower cost at greater risk as a way to maximize utility. Or vice versa. Either way, knowing the cost, the risks, and the utility of each option is highly informative for predicting actions. In addition, rationality suggests that suicide and self-destruction carry very low if no utility, but overlapping maximized cost and risk together, which means it must be avoided at all costs.

Accepting that Pyongyang is a rational actor, even when the regime shows signs of apparent irrationality, is a crucial starting point for the crafting of a successful deterrence policy that would prevent North Korea from causing a major regional if not a global conflict. Such an approach would rest on traditional military deterrence, coupled with gradual but active engagement with the regime.

The Kim dynasty and their supporters are engulfed by a long-standing and never abating fear and paranoia that Washington is out to get them and topple them. Which may not be completely removed from reality, given the fact that the Korean conflict remains unresolved, after near 70 years of armistice, and without a peace agreement. A horrible totalitarian system at its core, and one that has brought only the greatest suffering to its population, the Pyongyang’s regime is determined to remain in control, at all costs. Besieged on all fronts, and with a small lifeline from China, the regime is slowly suffocated by the wide range of UN and unilateral sanctions, the pressure of globalization that cannot prevent the flow of information about the outside world that undermines the brainwashing propaganda of the regime, and its subsequent rapid loss of legitimacy inside the country. The regime may be totalitarian and cruel to the point of genocidal, but it serves no purpose to assume that it is not suicidal and self-destructive. If anything, it is actually a survivalist.

Such point of departure for the analysis and policy-making would open a wide range of possibilities compared to the narrower policy options under the ‘irrational regime’ argument.

As a starter, it allows for a wider interpretation of the intentions behind Pyongyang’s current provocative actions and intensified military development program. First, it reveals the ransom mentality that drives the current North Korean politics, according to which the Pyongyang regime acts just like a bandit desperate for money, who has kidnapped a relative of a rich family and is trying to turn its military might into cash. North Korea has done that many times in the past and wants to do it again. It may be a risky undertaking, but it is not suicidal. It is actually quite a rational consequence from wrong engagements in the past, rewarding bad and not good behavior. It is also a sign that the regime is becoming increasingly desperate for funds, and is betting all its chips on winning this hand. This is not irrational behavior, but a survivalist one under dire conditions.

Two questions should be asked here: a) how far North Korea is prepared to go in order to extract the concessions it pursues; and b) how much would be enough to satisfy it. In other words, is there an attainable equilibrium between the concessions of the West and the demands of North Korea?

Those, who oppose this approach would argue that the more one gives up to Pyongyang, the more it will strengthen its power, the more and more forcefully it will be able to threaten the West and demand more concessions. It would also reward bad behavior. However, a brief review of the history of engagement with the North Korean state would show that—at least in the past—gradual engagement has worked, albeit admittedly not entirely satisfactory. Perhaps, as a process, the engagement could be implemented this time around more skillfully, with lessons learned from past engagements. The logic of this argument—just because it worked in the past does not mean that this approach will work this time again—is by nature inductive and suggests that it may not work as planned. However, the alternatives are even direr. At least trying it seems more like a sensible option compared to the military options above.

Next, it allows for addressing some of the fears of the regime. Since 1953 armistice, the United States has remained the main source of paranoia for Kim’s regime. In 1958 the U.S. abrogated Article 13(d) of the armistice, which mandated that neither side would introduce new weapons into the peninsula, and deployed nuclear weapons—M65 atomic cannons—in South Korea. Even though George H.W. Bush withdrew the nuclear weapons from there in October of 1991, the new Trump administration is reportedly considering a new plan for redeployment of nuclear weapons back in South Korea, in a move that would mark the first such nuclear deployment by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War. In addition, the U.S. is currently seeking ways to renew the process of deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), which was halted in the beginning of June after the election of the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.

In more general terms, it is not just the regime in Pyongyang, but also a large portion of North Koreans who live in a constant fear of invasion and occupation by the U.S. Admittedly, this is as much a result of a real threat, as it is of decades of brain-washing and state propaganda. Regardless the cause, however, the reality is such that only engagement could mitigate such fears. Providing guarantees for the survival of a monstrous, totalitarian regime—one that inflicts enormous human suffering to its own population—seems removed from the high moral standards of human rights. But, the risk of a nuclear holocaust that could lead to the killing of millions, the displacement of millions more, to the destabilization of an entire Asia-Pacific region, if not beyond, and the causing the largest global economic crisis since WWII is a perspective even more dreadful. Politics do not happen in a vacuum and neither should be the policy-making decisions, even when guided by idealistic high morals.

Finally, the role of China must be considered once again, under this option. Currently, Beijing is the only lifeline to the regime in Pyongyang. The bilateral trade relationship between China and North Korea accounts for over 90% of Pyongyang’s total trade volume. China provides to North Korea energy and food supplies, and purchases seafood, minerals and other raw materials, and manufactured garments. But, at the moment, China is not only the last single real economic backer of North Korea that matters. It is also the actual moral and economic owner of the North Korean problem. What happens in North Korea impacts China in various ways, especially at a time when Xi’s administration is undertaking the most profound domestic reforms since Deng Xiaoping, while also trying to rebrand China as a responsible global player, and as an emerging leader for the liberal order, worthy the recognition of the rest in the region and in the world.

China, thus, has tremendous stakes in mitigating the current tensions and lowering the risks North Korea poses to the world. The leadership in Beijing does not hide its dislike for Kim’s regime and seems genuinely worried by its nuclear adventures. But, it also fears any type of collapse of the regime, including an economic collapse. It has signaled over the past six moths that it may be willing to work together with the U.S., Russia, and others on a common solution, and to back oil sanctions on the regime if Pyongyang continues with its nuclear tests. In fact, as it is widely believed that the North will inevitably conduct another test by the end of the year, in anticipation of it, the Chinese state-owned oil producer, China National Petroleum Corporation, suspended in June its sales to North Korea. Its official claim was that it is worrying that the regime will not be able to pay for it. But considering the sizable energy and food aid China generously provides to Kim’s regime in order to keep it afloat, such concerns are doubtful to the least. It is rather a hard signal in a much more nontransparent bilateral relationship, of which outsiders have little direct observational knowledge.

In a case that the U.S. and ROK destabilize Kim’s regime, or attack it, China’s calculus may change drastically. It may be in its strategic interest to let the U.S. pick up the check, both militarily and morally, while it transforms its role in the peninsula. As a starter, as mentioned earlier, it will be extremely unlikely that China will allow the unification of the two Koreas under ROK. Which means that it will either try to annex much of its territories—temporarily at least—and put them under its protectorate in order to create buffer zone for itself, or it will challenge directly the U.S.-ROK forces for the control of North Korea. Given the fact that ROK will be locked near China for the eternity, while the U.S. priorities may change, it is questionable how much South Korean leadership would pick a war with China.

It is much more likely that the U.S. will be left owning the issue with the tremendous devastation that would befall South Korea, Japan, and the entire region, and with the perspective that some version of the North Korean regime will remain in place.

As much as certain circles in Washington may not like it, the only meaningful policy in the current situation, and one that does not involve the risk of a full-blown military confrontation with unpredictable consequences, tremendous human cost and physical devastation, is the policy of strategic engagement the Pyongyang’s regime, working in a closer cooperation with China, Russia and Japan on the issue. This may also require putting for a while the THAAD program aside, and offering ransoms to Kim’s regime, as any other endgame may prove not just very costly, but also very risky and not yielding any positive outcomes.

The current Trump administration’s instincts are to respond to the play of poker by North Korea, call its bluff, play the same way against China, and collect the pot at the end. This is a bad strategy against Chinese, however, because unlike their North Korean protege, they prefer the strategic game “Go” which leads to strategic outmaneuvering of the opponent by tactical sacrifices and distractions, not of collecting all-or-nothing pot of bets.

The original analysis was first published by The Diplomat here. 


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