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Rationality in the North Korean Regime

Rationality in the North Korean Regime by David W. Shin. Lexington Books, New York, 333 pp.

Someone reading just the headlines about the actions of North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, during his 2017 verbal and cyber sparring with President Donald Trump might wonder about the rationality of the North Korean leader. Engaging in seemingly aggressive behavior not only to provoke the United States and South Korea but also to draw the ire of longtime allies in China and Russia—with the frightening prospect of a nuclear engagement—does not seem like the actions of a rational leader. In fact, many of the actions of the 70-year-old Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) appear irrational, if not insane. Yet a further analysis reveals that far from the actions of a series of mad rulers, the Kim Dynasty, to include Kim Jong Un, undertakes most of its actions, however provocative, with a rational and deliberate purpose.

To emphasize the logic behind North Korean leadership and their actions, David Shin, a professor at the National Intelligence University, offers his analysis and insight in his Rationality in the North Korean Regime. Shin looks at the decision-making processes and actions of the three Kims (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un) who have lead the country. Shin theorizes that the regime’s various undertakings reflect a logic of seeking to achieve a strategic objective for the regime, from attempting to reunify the Korean peninsula under the North Korean flag to attempting to stabilize and protect the North Korean government from collapse due to economic and international factors. By providing a theoretical framework for defining what rational decisions mean for the regime, Shin offers a historical analysis—from Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary days to the present day’s (circa 2017) Kim Jong Un—and places those actions within the context of that framework.

The results of those decisions varied in their degrees of success. Some actions did not result in the desired end states, such as the Korean War of 1950–53 to try to reunify all of Korea and the bombing of Korean Air flight 858 in 1987 to punish South Korea for not including North Korea as part of the bid to host the 1988 Olympics and also to disrupt the Games. However, other actions, such as the seizure of the USS Pueblo and the negotiations with Japan over abductees in the 2000s as well as leveraging Russia, China, and the United States against each other to achieve regime objectives in the 2010s, proved more successful. Even if the actions appeared confrontational, they resulted in either an improved security position for North Korea or offered the regime the chance to limit sanctions/obtain more economic and international concessions.

For most who would read Shin’s work, the theory of the rationality of North Korean leadership is not revolutionary. Away from the press and social media realm, most understand that the Kims, even the young Kim Jong Un, have a rational mind and will not just act without an objective or end state in mind. Without such rationality, the Kim regime could not have survived over 70 years in power, especially given the various hardships (many self-inflicted).  Even if the actions and decisions of Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, did not appear logical or rational to outsiders at first, those actions had a purpose and more often than not fulfilled a certain objective. 

The history and subsequent analysis of the Kims’ actions rate as the most interesting and insightful parts of the book. For all the headlines that North Korea generates, it still mystifies the outside world. Its system of total control of information flow into and out of the country and restrictions on its citizens’ movements in and out of its borders limit the depth of knowledge that an outside observer can glean about the nation and its leaders. Any information for analysis about North Korea that can offer more chances to decipher the country’s actions and intentions is useful for anyone looking to learn about the regime. The age and inexperience of Kim Jong Un proves especially challenging as there is that much less to go on about him than there was for his predecessors; thus, this work helps to add to that limited understanding about the leader and his actions. 

Using the analysis offered by Shin regarding North Korean leadership and their actions in the past, his framework can offer insights into what future interaction with the country will look like. Since the publication of this book, the June 2018 Singapore meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump can be viewed as a major political coup for the North Korean regime. The war talk between the two nations dominating headlines the year before faded into the background, along with much of the passion for maintaining crippling sanctions on the country, especially from China and Russia. Ramping down the war talk and meeting with Trump also achieved another aim of the regime: the reduction of combined US/South Korean military exercises, a long-standing goal of the North Korean leadership. As 2019 progresses, the actions of Kim Jong Un will offer more insight into the strategic objectives of North Korea, to include further reducing sanctions and looking to deal with the United States and its neighbors from a position of strength not seen in decades.

The book is academic in nature but very readable. The theoretical portion is dry but significant to understanding the author’s thesis. This work is a good complementary read for those planners and analysts looking at the North Korean problem set and attempting to figure out the decision-making calculus for a still relatively unknown regime.

Lt Col Scott Martin, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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