North Korea: Rational or Irrational actor?

Kenneth Waltz, the founder of the “structural realism” school of thought in international relations, said that the spread of nuclear weapons may actually help bring about more peace since nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent for war. His paper titled, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better” in the London International Institute for Strategic Studies(1981) offers an in-depth analysis of this line of thinking. I was always a fan of Waltz when it came to international relations theories and I think that his thoughts on the matter, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, are very important when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Waltz would say that a rational actor would never actually use their nuclear weapons because of mutually assured destruction, and every rational actor’s number 1 priority is the survival of the state.

This thought strikes me as extremely relevant because, despite the US not fully understanding the actions of North Korea, I think they are still a rational actor. It’s easy to claim that North Korea isn’t rational due to their erratic and reprehensible behavior, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t rational. North Korea has had an active nuclear weapons capability since approximately December 2006 when they claimed they conducted their first nuclear weapon test. In over a decade of alleged US aggressions and near acts of war, North Korea has never once, as far as we can tell, come close to actually using a nuclear weapon. Most experts agree that North Korea’s development of a nuclear capability is to draw concessions from neighboring countries and force the US and other major players to provide aid and support to their crumbling economy and lift the sanctions that continue to prevent their economy from easily improving.

Supposing that North Korea is a rational actor, and we assume that the US is also a rational actor, then what is the point of sabre rattling? Consider this statement that Nikki Haley made to the UN Security Council regarding North Korea:

“One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.”

The US has never attacked a nuclear armed state and I seriously doubt that we will ever launch a physical attack on North Korea. The price is simply too high to pay. Nuclear weapons are like Pandora’s Box; once they are developed in a country it is almost impossible to get that country to get rid of them, especially when they’re as motivated as North Korea is to keep them. If we had been able to negotiate a deal before they developed the capability then maybe we could keep them from ever attaining them, but now that they have them I’m not sure what the goal is.

Is the goal a reduction in their missile capabilities? Surely the goal can’t be a total nuclear disarmament. Is the goal some sort of pact or agreement or de-escalation of seemingly hostile actions? I simply don’t know nor can I ascertain the strategic intent listening to Rex Tillerson, Nikki Haley or President Trump. As long as there doesn’t really seem to be a goal in mind then I’m not sure how the US could ever emerge as the victor in this political conflict. The US at least now seems to recognize that China has no vested interest in stopping North Korea from advancing its nuclear capability. The US has made a few statements that they may be looking at punishing China for North Korea’s actions but that would be a very unwise move due to reasons too numerous to go into here.

It is my thinking that ultimately the US and North Korea will have to have either bi-lateral talks or a four- or six-party talk in order to make any progress with North Korea. The deal, if ever made, will surely be more beneficial for North Korea than any other country, but that’s because they seem to have the upper hand when it comes to moves made on the international level. I don’t think the threat from North Korea is actually anything to be terribly worried about. I view them as a rational actor, and as such they won’t use their nuclear weapons for fear of being utterly destroyed immediately upon launch.

Where the US will go in their pursuit of whatever international relations goal they have is yet to be seen, but I would feel confident in asserting that North Korea will most likely come out the winner and the US will lose even more face and power on the international scene.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on this topic. I look forward to any discussions about North Korea.