Is North Korea a Rational Actor?

The question “Is North Korea a rational actor?” is ubiquitous throughout both academic work and media speculation on East Asian security. BBC journalist John Sweeney clumsily claimed that North Korea is “mad, and sad, and bad, and silly all at the same time”; the Economist offers the options “Bad or Mad?” in their “Nuclear North Korea” article (failing to offer an answer to their question); and even the ROK government appears to think Pyongyang mad, recently calling the release of an aggressive North Korean press statement “an irrational act.”

Coloring the DPRK crazy does little to address security concerns or provide useful analysis of the multiple security crises on the Korean peninsula, instead serving only to support a narrative that promotes political policy that has already determined the DPRK to be irrational. The alternative argument is that North Korea is knowable; its behavior is predictable, conditioned by 20th century wars, threats of war, and nationalism.

In International Relations, the prevailing assumption is that rational actors are security-seeking. Security is seen as protection against or freedom from existential threats. From this understanding arises the “security dilemma,” in which the anarchical system and lack of perfect information encourage heavily arming, making rival states feel less secure resulting in them heavily arming, and so forth. In this model, war and military threats are the main concern.

The rhetoric surrounding dominant security dialogues focuses on the state rather than citizens, both as the relevant level of analysis and the object to be secured: perhaps no state has a stronger commitment to this idea than North Korea. International cooperation, economic stability, and human security are deemed peripheral to the survival of the state.

The Rationale Behind Nuclearization

North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to ensure security in a hostile international environment as the Cold War shifted threats from conventional military aggression to nuclear aggression. The security dilemma was at an unstable high as world superpowers sought nuclear arms as a means of deterrence through mutually assured destruction.

The USSR built nuclear research facilities in Yongbyon in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the North Korean specialists trained at these facilities were able to launch a civilian nuclear fuel cycle without external assistance. The DPRK’s first nuclear reactor, a 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor, became operational in 1986. The state then built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing facility which allowed for the extraction of plutonium which could be weaponized. By 1992 North Korea was capable of facilitating a full plutonium fuel cycle: the 5 MWe reactor was producing electricity and heat for the local town, and approximately 6 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for one bomb) per year.

Throughout the early 1990s, tensions rose between Pyongyang and Washington. Negotiations stalemated, and in 1994 the DPRK extracted at least 20 kg of plutonium from its reactor; the imminent nuclear crisis was only just staved off by former President Jimmy Carter, who brokered a freeze.

The Agreed Framework was the primary diplomatic effort to engage with North Korea and denuclearize the peninsula; it was also fraught with distrust, miscommunication, and failure to meet commitments. Following provocative rhetoric when the Bush administration accused the DPRK of illegally pursuing a highly enriched uranium program, a largely unfounded allegation, North Korea withdrew from the NPT, expelled IAEA inspectors, and restarted its nuclear program. The ensuing Six Party Talks in 2007 served as a second change at diplomacy and the DPRK agreed to close the Yongbyong facilities, but with the UNSC condemnation of North Korea’s failed satellite launch in 2009 North Korea pulled out and announced it would resume seeking deterrent.

Yongbyon’s 5 MWe cooling tower being destroyed in June 2008
Yongbyon’s 5 MWe cooling tower being destroyed in June 2008

In April 2013, Pyongyang announced that it would restart the mothballed 5 MWe reactor, and construction connecting the reactor to a newly built cooling pump-house (plus a new experimental LWR) was seen from satellite imagery. The 5 MWe reactor has been in operation since September of this year.

International Isolation

Abiding by international norms is a secondary concern for states struggling for survival in a hostile and anarchical environment; likewise, ensuring the safety of citizens is marginal. Thus the DPRK acts in attempt to secure its statehood despite international condemnation, going so far as to use the censure to further its security objectives in a (predictable) cycle: bellicose rhetoric, outburst, international condemnation, half-hearted reconciliation, repeat.

Since the 1980s, the DPRK has allegedly sold ballistic missiles to “countries of concern”, including: Yemen, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Myanmar. Most have since ceased buying from North Korea, either under international pressure or because they developed greater military self-sufficiency. There is evidence that North Korea attempted to export a plutonium-producing reactor to Syria, which was destroyed in an Israeli air raid in September 2007. It’s also been speculated that Pyongyang exported uranium hexafluoride (the precursor to HEU) to Libya. Cooperation with Tehran is also possible, and Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program compliments North Korea’s. Iran is considered to be the DPRK’s only regular arms customer.

The DPRK has made several military aggressions in recent years: the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, killing 2 military personnel and 2 civilians; the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, killing 46 sailors; and multiple missile and nuclear weapons tests despite international condemnation. In testing and demonstrating its missile and nuclear capabilities, the international community (specifically the ROK and US) have viewed the DPRK has hostile and aggressive.

Yet, North Korea is the only nation to date which announced its intention to carry out a nuclear weapons test in advance, giving the international community six days prior warning. These nuclear tests include: the first such test in 2006, resulting in nuclear fizzle; 2009; and 2013. A uranium enrichment program was revealed in 2010, opening up a second route to nuclearization.

There is no evidence that North Korea has successfully weaponized a nuclear device. The No-dong missiles and H-5 (Il-28) bombers could in the future be used to deliver nuclear warheads or bombs, but at present there is nothing to suggest the ability to deliver a warhead or bomb on either of these systems.


The securitization paradigm has a normative commitment to liberal capitalism, and as an “other” to liberal capitalist states the DPRK is deemed a threat which must be destroyed. North Korea is stylized as a “bad” actor, an unredeemable state with evil intent, whose actions are aggressive and hostile to “good” states. The regime is, in these cases, characterized as rational: it is manipulative, calculating, strategic; and it extorts aid and saber-rattles for international attention.

Alternatively, Kim Jong-un and his predecessors are often portrayed as “mad:” irrational, unpredictable, unknowable, and dangerous. Claims are made that North Korea eschews international norms to its detriment, resulting in rogue state status, sanctions, and the cessation of economic and food aid. The state is seen as secret, impenetrable; often times scholars who make this claim also make bold knowledge claims, despite North Korea’s alleged unknowability, the irony apparently lost on them. The Economist cited the 2010 Cheonan ship sinking as evidence of “a paranoid totalitarian state beginning to spin completely off the game-board of comprehensible action,” dismissing the possibility of calculated action to re-establish credibility within the disputed waters of the Koreas. The article also suggested that governments wishing to engage, apparently in a prisoner’s dilemma, with North Korea should be incredulous of the regime’s ability to be rational, writing:

It’s a lot harder to figure out a strategy for iterative negotiations when you suspect your negotiating partner may be insane. Or, worse yet, that there may not actually be any rational agent, human or otherwise, on the other end of the line at all.

Even compliance with international norms or agreements can be read as noncompliance: it’s labeled manipulative, sinister, and sneaky, with the intent of conning “us” into trusting “them” and later catching “us” off our guard.

The securitization argument also suggests that negotiations with North Korea are fruitless, because the DPRK’s interests are fundamentally misaligned with those of the international community. Securitization also suggests that North Korea’s inherent belligerence means it will always be an intransigent actor in negotiations.

The problems with the Securitization paradigm include: a lack of evidence to support claims; the inability to assimilate change; claims which are so stark they require little qualification; attempts to ignore data which does not fit into the framework; and attempts to distort and securitize data which cannot be ignored. (The latter four problems arise within all paradigms, which speaks to the difficulties with paradigms in general.)

Security narratives serve not only to explain, but to reinforce values. Security narratives have heroes and villains. There is danger to be averted, lives to be saved, and bad guys to be thwarted. A narrative is an effective tool in “othering.” The narrative implied in the rhetorical question “is North Korea a rational actor?” is that the DPRK’s rationality must be questioned, because the state’s behavior is irrational. It is a rhetorical question in which the answer is already provided: North Korea is irrational. This narrative has political objectives, with the aim of reinforcing the perceived need for a US presence on the peninsula, a fear of the North Korean Other, and continued diplomatic hostility toward the DPRK regime and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The narrative surrounding the North Korean nuclear question is laden with implications that North Korea is the “bad guy” (assigning personhood to the state) who must be stopped by the US, which has in recent decades taken on the role of “world police.”

Proliferation Limitation

The rhetoric surrounding the North Korea, especially in a security context, asks self-defeating questions riddled with unchallenged assumptions. The security concerns raised by questioning the DPRK’s rationality are limited to proliferation, ignoring the more immediate human security issues; some nuclear weapons scholars argue that the “gravest” security threat posed by North Korea is its nuclear weapons program despite abysmal living conditions for millions and a potential refugee crisis. Perhaps worst of all, the “rational actor” question does nothing to illuminate the security situation, instead seeking to convince us that continued “othering” is the optimal solution. Rather than offering insight into the multiple security crises on the Korean peninsula, the dominant rhetoric feeds into a narrative that is used to support the current political policy of bloated US military presence in the region and international complacency with the suffering of millions of DPRK citizens.

Academics, government agents, and the media continue to ask the “rational actor” question in an attempt to delineate the boundaries of our relative security. It is also used to reinforce the value system of American capitalism over North Korean communism, and to solidify the legitimacy of the continued US presence on the peninsula and the potential use of force against the DPRK state.

It is cowardly and all too common for scholars to criticize without offering alternatives. “Is North Korea a rational actor?” is an unhelpful question; allow me to suggest instead: “Why has North Korea isolated itself in pursuit of nuclear weapons?” to understand the DPRK as knowable rather than othered; “What is necessary for brokering a disarmament deal on the peninsula?” to stagnate proliferation from North Korea; or “What can be done to give assistance to the millions of people in North Korea with an inadequate nutrition?” and “How can we prepare for the potential DPRK refugee crisis?” to begin to alleviate the suffering of millions in the North. These questions might provide more productive answers than the “rational actor” line of inquiry, while rightfully keeping the focus on praxis.

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