A New York Times column asks in this morning’s paper “Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?” Its answer is that, far from crazy, it is all too rational (“North Korea Crazy? Worse. It’s Calculating” by Max Fisher, September 11, 2016, page A6).
The problem with this approach is that it assumes a single rationality shared by North Koreans and everyone else. In my presentation at the 2014 International Political Science Association conference in Montreal, I called North Korea “exhibit A of currently persisting political closure.” More to the present point, I argued that political conflicts within authoritarian regimes (like the one I got to know while living in Brazil at the height of its military dictatorship) reflect a clash of orders – or a clash of distinctly different types of rationality. Authoritarian order is a very real type of order but it is mechanistic. It tries to mechanize human behavior. It is based on the absolutist assumption that disorder and uncertainty can be eliminated. Those who actually acknowledge the existence of uncertainty defy the “reality” of absolute certainty; they must be repressed. The dissenters also effectively acknowledge a radically different view of reality, one affirmed by 20th century science, namely that disorder and uncertainty can never be eliminated. They can only be reduced. Political conflict within North Korea reflects these clashing orders, these diametrically opposed views of rationality. In its dealings with the world, the North Korean regime is hypersensitive to real or perceived threats and tends to be irrational. Much of the challenge in dealing with it on the world stage is psychological. Is it possible that cracks in the absolutism of the regime can develop and that it might pursue more reasonable policies (notably, backing off of capacities for nuclear warfare)? I know too little to even speculate. But, for starters, I think we need to acknowledge that a mechanistic vision of order guides the North Korean regime and this also shapes its view of what is and is not rational.