A big welcome to the new readers from Gateway Pundit, and as always, many thanks to Jim for his link and his support.
All of us who wonder why Kim Jong Il has does some of the bone-headed things he’s done lately have shared a few common assumptions about him as we engaged in this speculative parlor game of ours:
* He is sane, rational, calculating, and reasonably well informed about his foes’ thought processes (some, however, would also argue that Kim is temperamental and impulsive, and therefore prone to emotional, irrational actions).
* He seeks to isolate his people. He knows that he could not withstand comparison to other systems of government, must prevent such comparisons at all costs, and is therefore unwilling to open his economy to the outside world (some believe that trade and aid can coax North Korea out of its isolation, although that view is largely discredited by recent events).
* Somewhat paradoxically, he needs controlled commerce with, and aid from, other countries to provide his regime with income to feed soldiers, pay perks, and keep the machinery of repression running (there is, of course, much disagreement about just how much trade Kim Jong Il will tolerate, and what effect it will have on North Korea’s political system).
* He created this crisis to achieve political or diplomatic advantages (some — and count me in here — think he means to do this by acquiring nukes; others think he just wants the better deal that we’ve stubbornly refused to give him).
* Finally, we’re all assuming that he’s the one calling the shots, and no evidence of which I’m aware seriously suggests otherwise.
But with Kim Jong Il openly threatening to test a nuclear weapon, you have to question how he can rationally expect to do anything but make his own predicament much worse. That’s causing me to reevaluate my assumptions. None of the conventional theories, all of which impute rational and calculating motives and plans to him, makes much more sense than the Chewbacca Defense. Either our assumptions are wrong, or we’re all analyzing this too rationally.
This is the conventional wisdom. Most observers think Kim Jong Il’s motive is extortion; some are willing to pay, while others aren’t. The Chosun Ilbo echoes the conventional wisdom, that this is simple extortion:
If the North goes through with the test, the objective must be to goad the U.S. into coming to bilateral negotiations. Since its declaration in February last year that it is a nuclear power and its missile tests last month proved fruitless, the North is now monkeying around with a more powerful card.
I don’t agree with that, because it should be obvious enough that nuclear extortion won’t accomplish North Korea’s imputed aid-seeking goals. The United States, Japan, and China would only punish North Korea for it, and South Korea would give the North anything it wants just for the asking anyway. This isn’t lost on the Chosun Ilbo, either. The reaction to the missile launches, after all, was the death of the Sunshine policy, a sharp downturn in diplomatic (and possibly economic) relations with China, and a sharply harder line by Japan, which is cooperating with the United States to impose some supposedly dreadful economic sanctions.
What’s more, if Kim Jong Il just wants a better deal, why did he turn down the deal of a lifetime? It’s hard to see how a rational North Korean government could reject a deal so good that one influential Republican staffer in Congress declared it dead on arrival. If Kim Jong Il is rational and aware of his foes’ thought processes, he can’t expect that a nuke test (or threats of a nuke test) will get him aid, benefits, trade, or recognition.
“Barrel of a Gun”
I proposed my own “Barrel of a Gun” theory, but its predictive power is inconclusive at best. That theory is named after North Korea’s most popular political novel, generously provided to me by Oranckay when we met last April in Seoul. The idea is that the missile tests were the equivalent of a ransom note to prove to the North Korean people that Kim Jong Il is strong when in fact he was about to ask for more aid.
Kim has in fact indicated his willingness to accept South Korean aid, but the unexpected severity of the floods just weeks after the missile launch make it more difficult to associate that request with a pre-existing strategy (although the North was already headed for severe food shortages). The launches had the effect of forcing even South Korea to promise to reduce aid (for what that’s worth, which isn’t much). In the end, my theory suffers from the same problem as all the rest of them — it’s already having too many of the wrong effects for any rational actor to continue pursuing it.
Richardson’s theory of “strategic disengagement,” that the North Koreans are doing this to withdraw from the world and keep their people isolated, makes sense on several levels. In fact, the North Koreans do desperately need to preserve a psychological state of war with the outside world to justify the isolation of the population. Were the people to find out how the other half lives, well, take Andrei Lankov’s word for that. It looks like Richardson’s side of the debate has picked up a new (ex-North Korean?) adherent at the Daily NK:
The Kim Jong Il regime, which already lost its ability to self-reliance, is in a dilemma as to whether it keeps the three survival conditions or weakens the conditions through transaction with the outside community. To Kim Jong Il, relationship from outside is a double-edged sword. In order to breakthrough the deadlock, Kim developed a “˜cooling strategy.’ He cools down the external relationship, periodically, by launching missiles and developing nuclear weapons.
Expected effect of “˜cooling strategy’ includes;
1. The regime is able to gain more stable and safe benefit from cooling strategy than from normal relationship with the outside. Normal economic transaction with the international community would threaten the regime’s tight control over its people and weaken the isolationism.
2. The cooling strategy increases the level of tension and fear among the North Korean public. And therefore popular control becomes more effective. Kim Jong Il learned this from decades of his experience.
3. Kim Jong Il’s hawkish stance against the international community through “˜cooling strategy’ creates a defiant image of him, so firm control over North Korean military can be maintained.
I have some problems with this theory, too, however. First, it assumes that the North Koreans are intentionally cracking a walnut with a sledge hammer. Kim Jong Il is already in complete control of business and other exchanges with this country now. Witness the “Iron Ajumma” episode with Hyundai Asan if you doubt his ability to reduce his economic ties with the outside world without paying a diplomatic price. To control its interaction with the outside world, he need only announce that he is renegotiating the contracts on its own terms.
What of Kim’s profitable “legitimate” trade, such as the Kaesong Industrial Park, or Kumgang Mountain? Why would Kim jeopardize that? After the July missile tests, U.N. Resolution 1695 demanded that all states be “vigilant” about funds they send to the North, and how they’re spent. The benefits of these ventures may not be what we thought them to be, however. Our Treasury Department now says that cigarette counterfeiting is now North Korea’s largest source of forex. Nor are those ventures free of political cost, as I noted here:
In the end, however, the cultural isolation of Kaesong’s hand-picked workers will fail. The workers will eventually take note of the health and prosperity of their southern counterparts, and they will talk about it. And when the regime’s security forces find out, they will do what they did after learning that some members of the nation’s cheerleading squad talked about what they saw in Busan. Kaesong itself will not be immune to that reaction. That means that predictions of explosive growth at Kaesong will prove premature, and that Kaesong will be fortunate to remain what it is now: a small, carefully sealed cash cow for Kim Jong Il’s regime.
Kim could conclude that Kaseong creates more domestic political trouble than it’s worth to him financially. If its main purpose was really sudpolitik, the Uri Party’s abyssimal polling and its beating in recent elections could have convinced a rational actor that the political game was pretty much up, at least as it concerned electoral politics. That would suggest that Kim will shift toward subversion through radical labor and student groups.
The biggest problem I have with the theory is that Kim’s means of isolating himself are also causing the United States to get serious about cutting off Kim Jong Il’s foreign bank accounts, from which his largest sources of external funds come. It’s also reducing the incentive for nations hosting those accounts to resist the U.S. efforts to isolate him. The loss of those accounts threatens the funding that sustains the regime, and which comes from enterprises (lawful and otherwise) in which he has invested much time and money. Why jeopardize them, since they’re (1) profitable, (2) probably essential, and (3) no threat to the regime’s self-imposed isolation? The effect of losing those sources of income would be to increase North Korea’s dependence on China, which has never seemed more displeased with North Korea, to the point of reportedly reducing North Korea’s fuel supply. Doesn’t North Korea depend on Chinese fuel? Maybe not, if you put any credence on this report, or this one. Still, I doubt that Iran, Venezuela, and other arms clients would support Kim Jong Il if he lost both his Chinese patronage and his access to the global banking system.
The Scott Evil Theory
If rational explanations fail, we should look for irrational ones. Last month, James posted a piece called “Power Maddens, Absolute Power Maddens Absolutely?,” linking to a piece by Jay Homnick in The American Spectator. The executive summary is that perhaps we have overestimated Kim Jong Il’s propensity to act rationally. After all, we are talking about a man who Jasper Becker claims shot his barber over a bad haircut (a haircut that bad must be quite a sight). Jerrold Post, who profiled terrorists, dictators, and various narcissistic megalomaniacs, still finds Kim Jong Il to be an exceptional case:
“One of the most interesting questions about Kim Jong Il is: What does it mean to be the son of God?” says Jerrold Post, a George Washington University psychiatrist and a former psychological profiler for the CIA. “It’s hard enough to succeed a successful father, but it’s quite another thing if the father is elevated to a godlike stature.”
A gratuitous anecdote that I couldn’t resist adding:
In interviews, they were surprisingly kind to the Dear Leader. Sure, he drank too much, cheated on his wife and humiliated his underlings, they told reporters, but he was also smart, funny and hard-working — a man who would make a great Hollywood producer.
Choi told a story that made the Dear Leader seem almost charming: One day, he came for a visit and asked, “What do you think of my physique?”
She hesitated, pondering how to answer such a question when it comes from a short, dumpy dictator known to execute his enemies.
“Small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?” he said, smiling.
One theme that emerges is a great desire for constant attention and adulation. One wonders how Kim Jong Il reacts to being despised, or ignored. It that woman had spoken the truth, there isn’t much question of how it would have ended for her. We speak here of a man who is capable glib charm, but lacks ordinary psychological restraint. It’s also very likely that Kim Jong Il has a ferocious temper, and that that temper is actually setting North Korea’s security policy. Dr. Post, who is after all a medical professional, has a diferent diagnosis. It follows a long discussion of Kim’s upbringing, one that redefines the word “dysfunctional:”
All this family drama and trauma could drive a man crazy. And Jerrold Post, the GWU professor and former CIA psychiatrist, believes that the Dear Leader has a serious mental illness.
“He has the core characteristics of the most dangerous personality disorder, malignant narcissism,” Post theorized in a recent psychological profile.
The disorder is characterized by self-absorption, an inability to empathize, a lack of conscience, paranoia and “unconstrained aggression.”
The Dear Leader, Post concluded, “will use whatever aggression is necessary, without qualm of conscience, be it to eliminate an individual or to strike out at a particular group.”
The Wikipedia entry on malignant narcissism suggests that we can expect more dangerously impulsive, irrational behavior:
Otto Kernberg described malignant narcissism as a syndrome characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial features, paranoid traits, and ego-syntonic aggression. Some also may find an abscence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance (grandiosity). Pollock wrote: “The malignant narcissist is presented as pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.” Malignant narcissism is considered part of the spectrum of pathological narcissism, which ranges from the Cleckley’s antisocial character (the today’s psychopath) at the high end of severity, to malignant narcissism, to NPD at the low end.
Kernberg wrote that malignant narcissism can be differentiated from psychopathy because of the malignant narcissists’ capacity to internalize “both aggressive and idealized superego precursors, leading to the idealization of the aggressive, sadistic features of the pathological grandiose self of these patients.” According to Kernberg, the psychopaths’ paranoid stance against external influences makes them unwilling to internalize even the values of the “aggressor”, while malignant narcissists “have the capacity to admire powerful people, and can depend on sadistic and powerful but reli[a]ble parental images.” Malignant narcissists, in contrast to psychopaths, are also said of being capable to develop “some identification with other powerful idealized figures as part of a cohesive “gang” … which permits at least some loyalty and good object relations to be internalized.”
Malignant narcissism is highlighted as a key area when it comes to the study of mass, sexual and serial murder.
Some, but not all, of the characteristics associated with the related diagnosis of “psychopathy” also seem consistent with what we know of Kim Jong Il, or are worth contrasting to the imperfect information we have. Here’s the actual test used by psychologists today, known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. Values in brackets are mine.
This is a clinical rating scale with 20 items. Each of the items in the PCL-R is scored on a three-point (0, 1, 2) scale according to specific criteria through file information and a semi-structured interview. A value of 0 is assigned if the item does not apply, 1 if it applies somewhat, and 2 if it fully applies. The items are as follows:
Glibness/superficial charm 
Grandiose sense of self-worth 
Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom [?]
Pathological lying 
Lack of remorse or guilt 
Shallow affect [?]
Callous/lack of empathy 
Parasitic lifestyle 
Poor behavioral controls [1, although it will be a “2” if he tests a nuke.]
Promiscuous sexual behavior 
Early behavioral problems [?]
Lack of realistic, long-term goals [an excellent question]
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions 
Many short-term marital relationships 
Juvenile delinquency [?]
Revocation of conditional release [n/a]
Criminal versatility 
The items are then summed in order to obtain a total score. The cutoff for psychopathy is 30 points or greater (25 in some studies).
I put him at 23, just below the cutoff, but (1) I’m operating with incomplete information, and more importantly, (2) I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist. Although this is definitely not a delusional, wacky sort of madness, it’s scary stuff indeed for those who had believed Kim Jong Il incapable of any number of destructive acts that would also mean the end of his regime, and his life. Madness is a matter of degree, of course, but irrational men are not as easily deterred.