Pondering the possibility of a nuclear war with North Korea is so frightening that any rational person looks for assurances that it won’t actually happen. It can’t happen. Yes, we would “win” but the cost to human life and the impact on America, and the world, would be so apocalyptic that it must only be regarded with the greatest fear and dread.
Korean peninsula Cassandras are typically rebutted with one primary psychological argument about the North Korean leader. Kim Jong Un is a survivor, rational we are told, with a singular goal of keeping himself and his family in power. That, it would seem, offers some comfort that he will act with a modicum of rationality thereby preventing him from entering a suicidal war with the United States where he loses both the power that serves as his lifeblood, and that blood itself.
I rely on those assessments from experts on the region to allow me to sleep at night. But lately I have been lying awake thinking about one thing. Saddam Hussein. A man who also seemed obsessed with retaining power and his honor. And a man who, like Kim Jong Un, was described as a rational actor, not a madman, before he recklessly and fatally stood up to the United States despite a pre-ordained outcome.
Looking back at how Saddam was characterized well before his defeat, arrest and death, I quickly found a 1991 LA Times article about him by a professor of psychology (and long time CIA analyst) who presented a profile to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. It offers haunting similarities to the North Korean dictator.
The first paragraph read: “The violence and aggression that have marked Saddam Hussein‘s career have led him to be characterized–mostly in the West–as a madman.” The next sentence even more striking for its similarities: “In fact, there is no evidence that Saddam is suffering from a psychotic disorder. He is a shrewd and ruthless political calculator, by no means irrational, but dangerous to the extreme”
ForeignPolicy.com published a well researched and thoughtful assessment of Kim Jong Un earlier this year with the headline: Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman: North Korea’s behavior might seem irrational to outsiders, but the Kim regime is just taking logical actions to survive.
The 1991 LA Times Saddam piece went on to analyze his behavior:“There is no evidence Saddam is constrained by conscience; he uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Both killed scores including friends and family members to keep a firm grip on power. Not because they were “crazy” per se, but in response to even a hint, no matter how far-fetched, of any potential threat to their control and power. Each invoked a variety of invented political and legal justifications to try to explain his barbarity.
And their lenses are similarly parochial and myopic:“He is surrounded by sycophants who are cowed by his reputation for brutality and afraid to criticize him,” wrote professor Jerrold Post about Saddam in that 1991 assessment.
In 2011, Scientific American, citing psychological studies, compared Saddam, Hitler and Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il and concluded that:
“Kim Jong-il had more in common with Saddam Hussein (their profiles had a correlation of .67) than with Hitler (their profiles had a correlation of .20). Indeed, both Jong-il and Hussein had sadistic personality disorder as their highest rated item, and their scores were nearly identical – more than three standard deviations above the population average.”
Sure, there are relevant distinctions between Kim Jong Un and Saddam Hussein in terms of everything from their upbringing to the warped forces driving them, but it’s the final paragraph of that 1991 article that frightens me most as it foreshadowed the future: “Intoxicated by the elixir of power and the acclaim of the Arab masses, Saddam will not yield. He is willing to shed the last drop of the Iraqi people’s blood in pursuit of his revolutionary destiny.”
Dr. Post turned out to be spot on more than a decade later.
How this comparison ought to impact U.S. policy regarding North Korea is for the experts to determine. Kim Jong Un is well aware of what happened to Saddam, and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear weapons program. Now, he is apparently counting on North Korea’s nuclear program to protect him from a similar fate.
But simply allowing them to continue advancing those weapons (and also potentially selling them to other rogue actors) isn’t a long term option. So the question may become not if, but when, some confrontation occurs. At that point, one would hope, it would be on our terms after careful deliberation. Not based on some accidental confrontation or overreaction to taunting the “little rocket man.” If mocking Kim was part of a broader strategy then so be it, but thus far there’s nothing (that we know of) to support that contention.
Regardless, our limited history with an allegedly non-madman, “rational” despotic dictator suggests that these types may be literally willing to go the depths of hell before caving to pressure. Recognizing that doesn’t mean we are cowed by Kim’s rhetoric, it does mean we appreciate the gravity of the stakes and can not count on him to behave the way a rational actor should to avoid a suicidal confrontation. Unlike the showdown with Saddam, this one would have an immediate and potentially cataclysmic impact on all of us around the globe.
I hope and pray that we think, and act, accordingly.