North Korea’s leader is a lot of things — but irrational is not one of them

Anna Fifield writes: It’s easy to write off Kim Jong Un as a madman. What with the colorful nuclear threats, the gruesome executions of family members, the fact that he’s a self-appointed marshal who’s never served in the military.

Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did it just this past week, calling Kim “this crazy, fat kid that’s running North Korea.” That came on the heels of a pronouncement from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that “we are not dealing with a rational person” in Kim.

It’s a relatively common view. World leaders, military chiefs and Hollywood have all painted him as an unhinged maniac.

But this is not just wrong, North Korea watchers and dictatorship experts say. It also risks dangerous miscalculation.

“North Korea has consistently been treated like a joke, but now the joke has nuclear weapons,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. “If you deem Kim Jong Un to be irrational, then you’re implicitly underestimating him.”

Leaders throughout the centuries have realized it can be advantageous to have your enemies think you’re crazy. Machiavelli once wrote that it can be wise to pretend to be mad, while President Richard Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese to think he was unstable and prone to launch a nuclear attack on a whim.

Writing off Kim Jong Un as a lunatic could equally be playing into his hands. [Continue reading…]

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