The rationality of North Korea

Kim Jong Un’s Workers’ Party of Korea is celebrating today the 75th anniversary of the founding of what is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which we know as North Korea. September 9th is the Day of the Foundation of the Republic, one of the country’s most important national holidays. Doubtless there will be many celebrations in and beyond the capital of Pyongyang. Previous jubilee celebrations included military parades on Kim Il Sung Square and artistic performances throughout the country.

But for many outsiders, a question will naturally arise: What, exactly, is there to celebrate? The country seems bent on self-destruction, pursuing irrational internal and external policies. The nation’s currency reform in 2009 attempted to curb growing private markets by introducing a new North Korean won and limiting the exchange amount. The result was to wipe out citizens’ savings, breeding massive resentment. There’s also tight informational control — in this globalized age, citizens caught in possession of South Korean cultural products (such as the wildly popular K-drama TV shows) face severe punishment. 

In terms of its foreign and defense policies, there is North Korea’s seemingly irrational pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them as far away as the United States — policies that run counter to well-established global norms and that have resulted in significant international sanctions being imposed on the country.

Given the dire economic straits the country finds itself in, this would seem to be the height of irrationality. Wouldn’t it be far more rational to devote many of the resources that currently flow to the military, and the nuclear and missile programs in particular, to feeding the North Korean people and otherwise elevating their standard of living? Put slightly differently, wouldn’t it ultimately be far more rational to take the road China took in the 1990s and simply join the international community, accepting its political, economic and security norms? After all, it worked for communist China, transforming it from an economic wreck into one of the most affluent nations on the planet. And look how prosperous South Korea has grown since adopting such an approach in the 1980s.

And all that is true, as far as it goes.

But there is a kind of rationality at play in the collective mind of North Korea’s leadership — and we in the West would do well to understand it.

To be rational, of course, is to know what one’s goal is, and to know and implement the steps that are conducive to attaining the goal. North Korea is rational in this sense. Its state ideology, Juche, is usually translated as “self-reliance,” and North Korea acts in a manner that it thinks will secure that self-reliance.

Self-reliance is important to the North Korean regime because of the way it understands Korean history: Korea would not have been subject to the historical tributary arrangement with China, Japanese colonialism, or U.S. imperialism if it were self-reliant enough to stand up to more powerful foreign powers. The 20th century brought humiliation and suffering to the peninsula, and Juche was born out of the people’s desire to fight class and national subjugation. It’s important to North Koreans that they’re strong enough — both militarily and culturally — to withstand foreign pressure. 

In a way, they’re after freedom, too. But it’s collective freedom that matters to them. The United States was founded on individuals’ right to live without external limitations. North Korea was founded on a nation’s, or a people’s, right to live without external limitations. 

The rationale for much of what the North Korean regime does, then, is to break the cycle of political and social oppression at the collective level. Its nuclear developments, sensitivity to U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and even the development of its own “Korean-style socialism” aim to maintain national sovereignty and avoid repeating history. The pursuit of collective freedom also explains why individual freedom is deprioritized. 

Refusing to see the logic behind North Korean actions blinds America and others to how it might be contributing to North Korea’s (seemingly) aggressive responses. For example, joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises do little to alleviate the regime’s worry that it continues to face imperialistic threats. As long as North Korea sees South Korea to be “under U.S. control,” South Korea’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons risks triggering an arms race, or worse.

Policymakers should be sensitive to North Korea’s goals and understand how American decisions can be understood in light of their worldview. 

There’s been more military action on the peninsula than usual over the past few months. North Korea’s response to U.S.-South Korea joint exercises might seem dramatic, but we should still consider it rational.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him @aalatham. Hannah H. Kim is an assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona and an associate editor for the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Follow her @thisishannahkim.

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