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Like a Cornered Animal, North Korea Acts Accordingly


As sabres rattle and fiery rhetoric flies, we discuss the theories behind Kim’s actions.

The situation in and around the Korean Peninsula is tense, some would argue the tensions are as high as they were at the end of the Korean War. As CNN reports, at the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Trump vowed to “destroy” North Korea. As North Korean state run media outlet reported, Kim called trump “doting.”


Unfortunately, bellicose rhetoric may have catastrophic effects for millions of individuals. Some may wonder what’s to come next, but by applying theories and schools of thought regarding global actors, we may be able to predict the trajectory of this crisis.


The rational actor or rational choice theory, originally an economic principle, states that all actors are rational as they do not wish to cease being. This theory applies more and more to geopolitical dilemmas as the world becomes ever increasingly globalized. As Ostrom stated in the American Political Science Review, “Social dilemmas occur whenever individuals in interdependent situations face choices in which the maximization of short-term self-interest yields outcomes leaving all participants worse off than feasible alternatives.” Unfortunately, recent events have accelerated the frequency of “social dilemmas” forcing actors on the world stage to maximize their position, therefore the actor in the opposite interest will always and immediately respond to maximize their own short term interest.


Rex Tillerson was quoted by Slate saying, “the age of strategic patience is over,” and ending this Obama era strategy could prove to create a domino effect around the Pacific. “Strategic Patience” was the policy of applying pressure on the Kim regime to denuclearize using economic pressures and relying on Six-nation talks. While this policy had its critics, it did not accelerate the cycle of rational self-interest. So while the Trump administration has taken a more aggressive stance on denuclearization, it leads to a chain of events where actions such as ICBM tests by North Korea warrant responses from Japan and South Korea. Prime Minister Abe will push for Japanese remilitarization, and South Korea will add more THAAD short range missle defense systems. In effect, we have stepped into an arms race populated by rational choice actors, invested only in self-interest and preservation.


Should we be worried? While it would be hard to deny the abundance of worrisome developments, reassurance comes from the same source. The rational choice theory, when taken to its logical extreme, means that the Kim regime will not attack any allies of the United States, as Kim knows it would be antithetical to self preservation, and it would surely mean the end of his regime.


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