Sen. John McCain summed up a widespread American view when last March he described Kim Jong-un as “this crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea.” The breathless style of media reporting about Kim, and his father before him, has played up his eccentricities, often relying on dubious sourcing. When a story originating on a satirical Chinese social media account about Kim Jong-un feeding his uncle to a pack of dogs went viral in 2014, outlets around the world were quick to re-report it as fact. After all, it seemed like the kind of thing he could have done. Hollywood comedies like Team America and The Interview have reinforced the notion of the Kims as mincing weirdos, driven by their own insecurities to threaten the world with nuclear annihilation.
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Viewing North Korea’s rulers as cartoonish madmen might have been comforting before. It’s somewhat less so now that North Korea has developed the capability of launching nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. The good news is that despite the weird haircut and the Dennis Rodman spectacle—and the very real and horrific ongoing human rights abuses in North Korea—Kim probably isn’t crazy. Like his grandfather and father before him, Kim has generally behaved in an predictable and rational way for the ruler of a small, poor country trying to preserve his own grip on power in the face of much more mighty rivals.
After watching Saddam Hussein (who famously didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction) and Muammar Qaddafi (who gave up his) succumb to Western military interventions, North Korea apparently decided the smart move was to develop a nuclear deterrent of its own—an entirely understandable, if regrettable, response. Kim wants to have nuclear weapons, to deter an attack, but since nothing would ensure the destruction of his regime faster than actually using them, he’s unlikely to do so.
The startling realization for Americans is that, between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader is probably the more predictable of the two. When a small, weak nation threatens to drown its enemies in a “sea of fire,” it’s a signal to rivals that the consequences of attacking Pyongyang could be dire for them. When the leader of the world’s most powerful country uses the same type of rhetoric, it’s harder to interpret.
So, what are North Korea’s leaders to make of Donald Trump? If Kim Jong-un is a rational actor, he might reach one of two conclusions. One is that Trump might actually mean the things he says and might very well back up his threats with action. In that case, the prudent course would be to give the U.S. president a wide berth and avoid doing anything further to provoke him. This is Nixon’s famous “madman theory,” as explained recently by Slate’s Fred Kaplan. Given that the North Korean regime has probably been practicing its own version of the madman theory for decades, it’s likely to see through that strategy.
The second conclusion he might reach is that Trump’s threats are empty. Judging by other recent crises, his statements at any given time don’t necessarily represent U.S. policy.
Republicans spent much of Barack Obama’s second term pillorying him (with some justification) for drawing a “red line” for Bashar al-Assad—threatening to use force if the Syrian leader used chemical weapons—that he never actually intended to enforce. Trump, on the other hand, draws red lines like a kid set loose with a crayon on an Applebee’s place mat, threatening rivals from Mexico to China to congressional Democrats with dire consequences that rarely materialize. Trump promised in January that a North Korean nuke capable of striking the U.S. “won’t happen.” Such a weapon now either currently exists or will very soon.
In April, Trump told North Korea he was sending a powerful “armada” to the Korean peninsula while it was actually heading in the opposite direction. His vow Tuesday to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is probably more bluster, and if Kim is really a “smart cookie,” he’ll realize that.
When nuclear weapons are involved, even sane leadership on both sides won’t necessarily prevent war. As a recent Slate cover story on the Able Archer incident explained, misread intentions could very well have led to nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1983—and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was nobody’s idea of a flamboyant madman.
That said, the best scenario we can hope for in this standoff requires at least one rational actor. The worst scenario is that Kim actually isn’t rational, that he will interpret Trump’s provocations to mean an attack is imminent and that he should therefore strike first, either against one of his neighbors or, as was suggested Tuesday night, against a U.S. military site in the Pacific. In addition to unleashing a catastrophic war, such an attack would almost certainly lead to the destruction of the Kim regime. He’d have to be crazy to do it. Let’s hope he’s not.