Method in Pyongyang’s madness?

That North Korea has managed to create a massive international incident over a Seth Rogen movie is kind of crazy. Right? Yet it is exactly the kind of mad thing you’d expect from such a mad regime. Right?

Vox suggests this is wrong and that there is actually a great deal of rational calculation underlying Pyongyang’s position:

The assumption is that North Korea would want to hack Sony as revenge for The Interview, a now-cancelled comedy that was to portray the cartoonishly tasteless assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Both North Korean state media and the hackers themselves have gone to great lengths to express outrage over the film, and the hackers have in fact repeatedly suggested that this is what motivated them.

This conforms with American understandings of how North Korea works. We see it as an irrational, inherently aggressive country, run by lunatic hotheads, whom we can easily imagine flying off the handle at hearing about The Interview, especially the craziest of them all, leader Kim Jong Un. North Korean media’s unhinged statements have done a lot to cement that view. That’s deliberate: North Korea wants us to see them as crazy, irrational, volatile — and dangerous.

North Korea has a long, and easy to study, history of launching these seemingly random attacks or provocations. The Sony hack fits clearly into that pattern. In the past, those have been military attacks. It test-launched long-range offensive missiles, fired dangerously close to Japan, in 2005, 2006, and 2007. It shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and sank a South Korean naval ship, Cheonan, both in 2010. It set off test nuclear warheads in 2006, 2009, and 2013. It has also launched offensive cyberattacks in the past, such as against US and South Korean government targets in 2009, against South Korean banks in 2011, and South Korean banks and TV stations in 2013.

Every time, the attacks are accompanied by a spate of over-the-top rhetoric and threats, and the North makes every effort to portray itself as dangerously irrational, and an unpredictable threat to world peace. It is certainly dangerous, but it’s anything but irrational or unpredictable.

The effort that North Korean state media makes to convince us they’re crazy gets to the three real reasons that North Korea launches these occasional attacks.

The first reason is to appear crazy and dangerous, so as to deter North Korea’s far stronger enemies from doing anything against the country.

Kim Jong Un isn’t stupid: he knows that his weak, impoverished state is much weaker than the US and South Korea and Japan, all of whom would just love to see his government collapse. North Korea can only deter those enemies by being more threatening and dangerous; it will never be stronger, so it has to be crazier instead, always more willing to escalate. This convinces the US and other countries, even if they see through Kim’s game, that it’s just easier to stay away from North Korea than to risk provoking the country into another flamboyant attack.

The second reason that North Korea does this is to keep the Korean peninsula perpetually locked in a state of high-tension and low-boil conflict, which is essential for North Korean domestic propaganda and for keeping out would-be foreign meddlers like the United States.

The country’s breathtakingly oppressive government had kept power, even since the 1990s famine, with something called the Song’un or military-first policy. This policy tells North Koreans that the reason they are hungry and impoverished and locked in a police state is because this is all necessary to fund the military and protect from internal enemies, so as to keep the country safe from the imperialist Americans who would otherwise surely overwhelm them and do unspeakable things. But the Song’un policy requires keeping the appearance of a conflict with the US going at all times, which means occasionally North Korea has to lash out to maintain tensions.

The third reason is that Kim Jong Un believes he needs to keep the Korean peninsula in a state of perpetual tension and conflict to maintain his government’s own physical security. This keeps the US and others on the defensive and wary of doing anything against North Korea. It also frequently generates concessions for North Korea — like Sony pulling the release of The Interview, or the US sending former Presidents Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton to negotiate the release of Americans held by North Korea. Even if these concessions are only symbolic , they still serve North Korean domestic propaganda.

I am in no position to venture an opinion on whether this is correct or not. I’m also not really sure whether the notion that the North Korean regime is playing geostrategic chess rather than lashing out randomnly is reassuring or not.

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