James Robbins is Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
Some say North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Un, is acting like a madman. If so, it may be the smartest thing he can do.
North Korea's provocative acts – missile and nuclear tests, cutting various ties with the south, and renouncing the 1953 armistice, among other things – are not the actions of someone who wants peace. Seen through the lens of diplomatic signaling, they are highly provocative and destabilizing. But whether they are calculated or simply crazy remains an open question.
In some ways, this behavior is typical. North Korea has always used brinksmanship to force the international community to focus attention on the regime and wheedle the billions in aid money necessary to keep the dismal experiment going. But Kim is moving faster and further than his father did. And the lack of any obvious carrots to accompany the many sticks he is brandishing raises the matter of whether he really is seeking conflict.
The apparent lack of rational foundation for North Korea's actions has caused analysts to seek other explanations. One is that the real culprits are Kim's aunt and uncle, Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Sung-taek, who reputedly wield power behind the scenes. But this simply shifts the question to what interest they might have in fomenting conflict.
Others see hope in the elevation of alleged economic reformer Pak Pong Ju to the office of Premier, which is read as a signal that moderation may in time prevail. But a regime that executes high ranking officers by blowing them up with mortar rounds may define the word "moderate" somewhat differently than do hopeful western analysts.
The critical question is: What does North Korea want? So far, there is no clear answer. Some believe that the regime is looking for concessions prior to prospective diplomatic talks. Others think Pyongyang is seeking to expand its nuclear capability to have bargaining chips to later give away. Still others feel the regime is about to embark on a nuclear buildup to be able to act in the future from a position of strength.
However, all these scenarios can be true simultaneously. Pyongyang may simply be waiting to see how far it can go before the international community rallies to stop it.
The U.S. response has been patient, but not particularly threatening. Repeated White House lecturing that Pyongyang will find itself increasingly isolated if it continues down this confrontational path is not a compelling argument to the most insular state in the world. Movements of U.S. military assets connected to joint maneuvers in South Korea can be viewed as much as a cause of the current instability as a response to it. And threats of force will not necessarily compel an irrational actor.
Indeed, they could fan the flames of conflict. President Obama's failure to follow up on the international response he promised in his State of the Union address after North Korea's nuclear test in January may have encouraged Kim to view him as a weak and irresolute leader.
If nothing else, the growing crisis with North Korea shows the limits of deterrence strategies. Deterrence is predicated on the notion that the adversary has a degree of shared values and interests and will make rational decisions based on protecting them. The opponent's actions must be understandable, and they must also be able to comprehend American signals. Significantly, the opposing power has to be a regime that can be credibly threatened with terrible consequences. In the case of North Korea, none of this is certain.
Kim's actions may be highly rational. His "crazy person" persona could be a way to rivet global attention on himself and his country prior to making a set of outrageous demands for international assistance. Or the regime may be trying to distract attention from co-rogue state Iran while the mullahs in Tehran significantly expand their nuclear program, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday.
But there is great danger in Kim's game. It could lead to dire outcomes. Large scale crises are rarely planned, and open conflict can erupt even when it is not in any side's interest to fight. The higher tensions rise, the greater the impact of misperceptions, mistakes, and simple bad luck. Kim may be attempting to push the limits of global patience, but he could well push too far.
Or perhaps he really does want conflict. When someone threatens to wage a "merciless, sacred, retaliatory war," it is a good idea to take him seriously.