Tension over North Korea has risen substantially in recent weeks, as the U.S. and North Korea engaged in a 'war of words'. This fear of conflict climaxed last Tuesday, when Kim Jong-un threatened to fire their missiles at Guam and President Trump vowed to respond with "fire and fury". Setting aside the scientific debate on whether North Korea actually has the technology to launch nuclear-mounted ICBMs, I do not think North Korea is 'crazy' enough to use nuclear weapons in the first place. While North Korea's past diplomatic and military actions may lead us to believe Kim Jong-un 'has it in him' to annihilate millions of people, it is important to note that North Korea has a strong, rational incentive to look crazy, because only when nuclear weapons (especially if it is a very small amount) are held by a 'mad man' are they really capable of threatening anyone.
North Korea has a reason to act as if it is not rational. Imagine two different men with kitchen knives. One of them is in the kitchen, chopping some carrots; the other looks a little deranged and has a funny smile of his face. Which of these threaten you? The 'crazy' one. Similarly, any rational nation would like to avoid using nuclear arsenals, since they assure mutual destruction. For example, we are not afraid that France and the U.K. might one day bring us doomsday, even though their nuclear capabilities far exceed that of North Korea. As long as these states are rational agents, we can trust that their weapons are very unlikely to be ever used. Therefore, nukes are credible as a threat to other countries only if the holder is irrational.
The irony is that even a rational nation has an incentive to look like it is irrational, or 'crazy', in order to make its nuclear threat credible. This is where the problem gets tricky. It could either be that North Korea is simply presenting us with a façade of unpredictable and irrational behaviour, or, since it is a personalist dictatorship, the single man in charge of everything might actually be a little dangerous. In my opinion, it is more likely that North Korea is very rational and putting up a show for the world in order to make their nuclear threats credible. As a former North Korean counter-intelligence officer, Jang Jin-sung, notes in his book Dear Leader, North Korea is calculating all of its moves, even though to us they may seem random and erroneous. While they may have provoked South Korea and the U.S. in the past, their threats were always carefully choreographed to avoid total-war.
North Korea has deescalated its threats to Guam, saying it will watch what "the foolish Yankees" do before making its decision. Is this yet another provocation that never crossed 'the line', or is North Korea trying to buy time for an actual strike? With the limited amount of military intelligence I have (none), it is impossible to find out. What is clear to me, however, is that the key to dealing with North Korea is finding out how irrational it really is. This, in my view, can be done through carefully crafted provocations on our side that will test how rationally North Korea reacts. If, somehow, we manage to catch them off-guard and find out that they are more rational than they would like to be perceived, it may guide both the U.S. and South Korean governments to make better choices.
But here's the caveat: evidence on North Korea's rationality must be reliable enough to count all of our lives on. No matter how unlikely, if Kim Jong-un is in fact willing to press the red button, our assuming that he never will may lead to irreversible consequences.