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Understanding the Case for a Strike on North Korea: Brutality, Rationality and Deterrence

But these sorts of statements misunderstand the nature of both rationality and the North Korean regime. Rationality is determined by the mechanics of the decisionmaking process, not its outcome. That is, whether or not a leader’s decision or action should be deemed “rational” depends on how that leader arrived at that choice, not on what that choice ultimately was. A rational decisionmaking process involves setting objectives; weighing the costs, risks and benefits of the various ways of trying to advance those objectives; and choosing the option that appears to offer the best chance of doing so based on the information at hand. We tend, however, to confuse rationality and what might be called “reasonableness”—i.e., whether we like or agree with the actual choices others make. That’s a separate question, though; others’ choices may seem completely unreasonable to us and yet be perfectly rational nonetheless.

Put simply, just because most Americans find the policy decisions emanating from Pyongyang repugnant, that doesn’t make the regime irrational. Experts on North Korea seem unanimous in their assessment that the regime is in fact rational, and thus potentially responsive to incentives and disincentives. Even President Trump’s own outgoing CIA director and the agency’s senior officials have all conceded Kim’s fundamental rationality. Indeed, the administration’s own approach to the crisis to date—attempting to pressure the North into better behavior, whether through harsh rhetoric, economic sanctions or military exercises—assumes a calculating regime in Pyongyang weighing the pros and cons of different courses of action, and therefore subject to influence. And of course every day that the United States doesn’t attack the North would seem to be another day the administration has suggested a belief that the North can be convinced—has been convinced—not to attack us or our allies.

Causal Fallacy #2: Rationality Explains Deterrability

But President Trump’s public statements suggest that he views the North Korean leader as irrational and undeterrable. Speaking to the UN General Assembly, Trump said:

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”

While the nickname Trump used for Kim Jong-un got most of the attention following this speech, the rest of that sentence is the more important portion from a deterrence perspective. Claiming that Kim “is on a suicide mission” implies he isn’t making decisions based on a weighing of the costs and benefits of various actions—i.e., it suggests that he’s irrational. Similarly, offering only the United States and the United Nations as ways to stop Kim reinforces the idea that the North Korean leader can’t be convinced to abort that mission—i.e., it suggests that he’s undeterrable. As John Delury recently summarized, “War becomes rational if Kim is not, since he might do something crazy, even suicidal, like start a thermonuclear war with the United States.”

Again, though, this perspective misunderstands both rationality and deterrence. A rational leader or regime will be deterred from taking some action if and only if they view the overall expected utility of taking the action as lower than that of not taking the action. Simply put, we can deter others from doing things we don’t want them to do only if we are able to make doing the unwanted thing look worse for them than not doing it. But there might be situations in which taking the action doesn’t look as bad from the actor’s perspective as sticking with the status quo, and therefore in which even a rational actor might decide to go ahead and do something the United States is trying to deter.