Nuclear North Korea: Is Kim Jong Un Crazy—Or Crazy Like a Fox?

Kim Jong Un poster warhead tips
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles during a visit to the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Science in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on August 23. KCNA/via Reuters

Madman. Lunatic. Nut job. Listen to cable news or radio talk shows and these are the words routinely used to describe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

And who could argue? This is a young man who had his uncle shot by a firing squad and his half-brother assassinated with a VX nerve agent in a Malaysian airport. As heir to the family business—running the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—he presides over one of the poorest countries in the world, yet he uses his nation's meager resources to fund a nuclear weapons and missile program that, if used to start a war, would mean the near-certain destruction of his regime.

However crazy Kim's actions may seem, the people who conduct foreign policy in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo don't think Kim is an irrational whack job. They believe that he, like his father before him, operates with one overarching goal—maintaining power—and that he won't doing anything to jeopardize it.

Such an assessment explains a lot. The Kim regime saw that Saddam Hussein didn't have nuclear weapons, and the United States took out the Iraqi leader. Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi made the mistake of willingly giving up his nuclear program, and the U.S. wasted him too. It is therefore rational for Kim to conclude that the best way to protect against regime change is to build a nuclear arsenal and conduct menacing test flights of the missiles meant to deliver them. That way, no one will mess with Pyongyang. He arms up because he believes it's his ultimate insurance policy, and neither he nor any of the military leaders in North Korea are stupid enough to start a war, because that would mean his their inevitable defeat—and loss of power.

"I've always believed that the Kims aren't crazy," a senior South Korean intelligence official tells Newsweek, after asking for anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "I still think it's possible to analyze their base motives and produce an appropriate policy in response. I think that's why we haven't had another war [on the Korean Peninsula] since 1953."

But missile tests like the one on August 28 challenge the intelligence officer's proposition. Flying a missile directly over the northern part of Japan, given the tense geopolitical climate in East Asia, was a risky thing to do. Petrified residents of the Tohoku region awoke to the sounds of air raid sirens and instructions to head for cover after the launch. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was furious.

This wasn't the first time North Korea has fired a missile over Japanese territory, and in the past, after the ritual denunciations from the outside world, the situation didn't escalate. Pyongyang probably believes it had justification for threatening Japan: Tokyo had recently imposed more unilateral economic sanctions on the North. But if the missile had gone off course, or not flown as far as intended (as North Korean missiles have in the past), then instead of plopping into the sea it could have plunged into the heart of downtown Sapporo, a city in northern Japan.

And while there was no warhead on the missile, that doesn't mean the flight didn't risk casualties—or a wider war that could easily kill millions. "It was," as Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, put it, "a reckless act."

Related: What war with North Korea would look like

Was it sufficiently reckless to prompt the Trump administration and its allies to rethink basic policy toward Pyongyang? Their strategy is basic, Cold War-era deterrence: deploy sufficient military power across the region; make sure the North knows U.S. forces in the South are always ready to "fight tonight," as their motto has it; and then assume Kim gets the message.

But it's the possibility that Kim isn't rational that makes the constant advances in the North's missile program so vexing for Trump, The possibility that Kim could fit a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile and strike Los Angeles is sufficiently troubling that the president has repeatedly said that "all options are on the table," including a pre-emptive strike. That could trigger a wider war, one that conceivably could even draw in China.

Such a strike is still the very last option, Trump officials say, and pre-emption will likely occur only if there is clear satellite imagery showing the North is ready to fire an armed nuclear missile. Their assessment is that Kim may not be irrational but is more militant than his father was, and that he is more willing to expand his arsenal of weapons in pursuit of a goal that hasn't changed in decades: the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Korea and the re-unification of the peninsula on Pyongyang's terms. (Whether Kim and his advisers think Trump is rational is a big but important unknown.)

If Kim thinks his increasingly provocative acts will lead the Americans to finally leave Seoul—"and it's pretty obvious that he does," says the South Korean intelligence official—then he'll continue on this path. The problem, of course, is that accidents happen. A test meant to scare people could end up killing them. And then total chaos could ensue.