Although his posture could induce us to consider him as a madman, unconcerned with the consequences of his actions, the reality behind the “mad mask” can be different; as other authors have already noticed about the current and the past North Korean administrations [Lankov, 2017; Waltz, 2003], the madman posture might be a tactic performed to ensure the safety of the dictator and of his nation. Indeed, in the mind of the North Korean’s leader and elite, an aggressive and illogical posture could deter other states to attack their nation.
According to the defensive realism paradigm, states take aggressive external actions when they have a security dilemma (or, to be more specific, when the elites perceive a danger); how does this description fit with the North Korean situation?
We should consider that North Korea practically is a lonely state, surrounded by enemies and with all the reasons to be paranoid about a hypothetical attack carried out by the United States against it. As things stand, the only plausible way in which it can ensure a deterrence from an external attack is to have nuclear weapons and to show that it is not afraid to use them.
The international dimension is not the only problem which the young North Korean leader has to face; indeed, the strongest threats against his power might come from within the country. The significant quantity of executions which have been carried out are a signal of the insecurity which Kim Jong-Un lives.
Such a paranoia is not totally illogical; indeed, a number of factors contributed to the development of a dangerous internal situation for the power and stability of the Kim Jong-Un’s regime.
An important element which we should consider in this analysis is that the young leader had relatively few time to prepare his succession to the previous dictator, Kim Jong-Il; indeed, the originally designated heir was his brother Kim Jong-Nam, but in 2009 Kim Jong-Il changed his mind and appointed Kim Jong-Un as “crown prince”.
The newly-elected leader had hence just three years to prepare his accession to the throne; and when you have to rule a difficult country such as North Korea, this decisively is an insufficient quantity of time to pave the way.
Just by way of example, the previous leader Kim Jong-Il prepared his rise to the throne in practically 20 years. In that time frame, he took some important measures to ensure the power for himself and to control and eventually eliminate possible rivals for his coming to power. First of all, he created a black-market economy filled up primarily through the commerce of weapons, of certain fisheries, mining, labor export and export of indigenous products. The revenues from these activities were held in secret bank accounts, whose funds were used to “buy” the allegiance of characters who might have stood in the way or, otherwise, who could have been helpful for his power grab.
Then, he entirely based his legitimacy on the Juche ideology, of which he proclaimed himself as the true interpreter.
Internal alliances and an assured legitimacy: these were the first two elements which lacked in Kim Jong-Un when he ascended to the throne: indeed, he did not have enough time to cultivate alliances as his father did before him and, further, he did not have the way to act in such a manner to be automatically identified with the Juche ideology (as his grandfather and father previously did). This last element might be difficult to figure out, but we should keep in mind that Juche is an important substrate in North Korean culture, and it is assumed as a raison d’être which allows the dictatorship to continue to persist.
Another troublesome factor which makes Kim Jong-Un insecure is the disaster economic situation: a great part of the North Korean population is literally starving, the economy is suffocated by the international sanctions and, according to a FAO estimate, 2016 has been a negative year for agriculture.
A last adverse factor should be considered: a growing dissatisfaction among the militaries is present, due to the dictator’s choice to transit from military-first policies to party-oriented policies. In order to better grasp the importance of this last point, a small in-depth consideration should be made: together with the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) and the “State” (DPRK), the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is one of the three key bureaucratic organizations which dominate the political landscape in North Korea.
The army has always been a crucial element to ensure the safety of the country, and the militaries are part of the Special Caste, which is the top social class in North Korea. Apart from the social context, the importance of the army was emphasized through the political dimension too, and this was effectively exemplified by the military first policy. The shift of focus from military to party- oriented policies which occurred during the Kim Jong-Un’s regime clearly shows the will to relocate the power from the army to the party.
The combination among the dissatisfaction of the militaries, the troublesome economic situation and the increasingly-dangerous international scenario might result in a fatal outcome for the young dictator; and the only way in which he can ensure his safety is to demonstrate to be even more dangerous than the threats that surround him.
And it is in this sense that he can be defined altogether “rational”, in all his lunacy.