Friday Puzzler: Why Threaten the US with Nuclear Attack?

By Barbara F. Walter

Today’s puzzler is simple: Why would Kim Jong Un think it was a good idea to threaten the US with a possible “pre-emptive nuclear attack”?  This week’s threat is especially puzzling given the response it elicited from the UN Security Council, which promptly unanimously agreed to pass tougher sanctions on North Korea.  (And yes, the UN Security Council includes China, which jointly drafted the sanctions along with the US.)  Given this response, what was KJU thinking?

Answer to last week’s puzzler:

Last week I asked why uneducated women in Pakistan might be more likely to support the Taliban than equally uneducated men. I also asked why women’s support appeared to decrease as they became more educated, while men’s increased. This question received two very interesting responses. Brian Urlacher astutely observed that interviews with females in rural parts of Pakistan were likely to be conducted in the presence of a husband or father, and that under these conditions women had incentives to appear more supportive of militants than they actually were. I think these interviewer effects almost certainly exist, but this doesn’t explain two patterns. Why would illiterate women claim to be more supportive than illiterate men? If you assume that many of these women’s husbands and fathers were also illiterate (which might be a strong assumption), why wouldn’t their level of support be different? It also doesn’t explain the pattern we see more generally, which is that less educated women tend to support more conservative forms of religion even when these religions significantly impinge on women’s rights.

Michael Dennis offers a possible explanation for this finding. It’s possible that illiterate women in rural Pakistan are the main beneficiaries of social services the Taliban is willing to provide: security, justice, and basic services. As women become more educated, wealthier and more urban, the need for these service declines and the negative effects of the Taliban’s policies become more apparent. It’s the very helplessness of rural, illiterate women that make them dependent on and supportive of even the most extreme group.

  1. 1. When you’re desperate and your nukes are the only thing that gets the attention of others, you rattle your nukes.
    2. Kim Jong Un is echoing the advice of his handlers.
    3. You can’t expect a 29-year old living in a bubble to behave sensibly.

  2. It may be that challenging the U.S. helps to ensure and solidify even further Kim Jong Un’s support and control over the population. Even though it is an authoritarian society, he still needs some level of support. He may be challenging the United States to show a very isolated and misinformed population (through state controlled media of course) that he is a great leader willing to stand up to the most powerful nation on earth, adding to his charismatic hold over them. There may also be trickle down effects such as using his challenge to the U.S. as a means of explaining away sufferings of the population such as shortages of foot and other goods and blaming these on UN sanctions, the source of which is the evil U.S. pulling the strings of its puppets (allies) in the U.N.

  3. The DPRK’s legitimacy is based on making their citizens feel they are constantly on the brink of war. For example, every time the US and South Korea hold a combined military exercise, the DPRK makes headlines with threats like turning Seoul into a sea of fire. I still can’t understand how such a routine comment makes the NYT, but it does. I have a paper where I try to find a systematic relationship between the military exercises and escalations in hostilities, but empirically the relationship isn’t there. I believe it is because the threats are so normal that event data doesn’t register any meaningful change when such threats occur.

  4. The problem with North Korea’s policy of using threats and provocations to extort international aid is that it requires periodic escalation — eventually the world’s attention turns elsewhere, and North Korea has to up the ante. I think this latest threat is just a continuation of this dynamic. It’s serious enough to draw international attention that’s induced sanctions in the short-run but maybe will lead to more aid down the road, but is nebulous enough to avoid any really threatening consequences.

  5. Previous comments to this puzzle recognize that authoritarian leaders like Kim Jong Un need to both justify internal repression and appease powerful domestic constituents like the armed forces, especially when they are the dominant institution in the state. I posit that the timing of the recent threats can be partially explained by Dennis Rodman’s comments about his recent visit to North Korea on George Stephanopolis’ Sunday morning news program. Rodman made several claims and observations about Kim, including that he was just a kid, was appreciably different from his father and grandfather, and who only wanted peace. According to Rodman, Kim even felt that a call from President Obama would do much to normalize US-North Korean relations. It may seem that blaming Rodman for Kim’s threats is preposterous, but we should remember that Kim is a new leader who probably feels insecure about his age and relative inexperience. As such, Kim may deem it necessary to publicly saber-rattle to placate nervous military leaders and/or potential rivals. Such statements and the consequent media ridicule about the episode might help us better understand the hyper-aggressive response we observed last week.

    1. Do you think these unspecific nuclear threats are tangible enough to be a credible demonstration of resolve to internal audiences? I certainly buy the idea that Kim Jong Un’s youth and insecurity make his position unstable, but after the precedent of the 2010 Cheonan sinking and other provocations nuclear talk is a comparatively cheap threat. I’m not sure these threats are practical enough to really placate Kim’s internal rivals.

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