Domestic Politics, Misperception, and North Korea’s Missile Launch

North Korea's missile launch produced fear, anger, and condemnation from many in the international community. But was it really all about domestic politics?

North Korea’s provocative missile launch last week evoked a feeling of deja vu.  On its surface, it seemed to be just another instance of “saber rattling” aimed at foreign targets–the latest act in a long series of missile launches, nuclear tests, verbal threats, and other provocations calculated to signal strength, to deter, or perhaps even to coerce or blackmail the foreign opponents of the insular Communist regime.  But there is reason to believe that this high profile launch–and many other provocative actions in world politics–are driven less by foreign policy goals than by the requirements of domestic politics.

Many analysts believe that North Korea’s missile launch was part of an effort by 28-year-old leader Kim Jong Un (who only succeeded his father Kim Jong Il last December) to consolidate power through a demonstration of strength.  In a late December blog post we detailed the challenges the young leader faced in consolidating his power, emphasizing the centrality of the military as the most powerful domestic actor and the most important part of the selectorate that would determine the next leader.  Richard Haass, the president of  the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that “…the test’s failure constitutes a humiliating setback for the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. It is likely that a principal reason for the launch was to signal his emergence and consolidate his authority. There is thus a real risk that he will turn to a tried and true path to accomplish the same ends.  If history is any guide, this suggests that a test of a nuclear warhead or some sort of aggressive military action — for example, an artillery strike — against South Korea could be in the offing.”

Other examples of this pattern abound.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis, analysts have linked President Kennedy’s tough response to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba to a need to show resolve to combat domestic charges of his being “soft on Communism” after the Bay of Pigs debacle.  Similarly, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s intransigence and demands for concessions such as the withdrawal of U.S. missiles in Turkey can be traced to his need to placate hardliners in the Communist party.

After the U.S.-led invasion failed to uncover evidence of Iraq’s alleged weapons of the mass destruction (WMD), Western analysts were puzzled at Saddam’s willingness to endure painful sanctions, isolation, and even war rather than simply prove to UN weapons inspectors that he had dismantled his WMD.  But after his capture, Saddam admitted that he had been bluffing in order to deter Iran–and likely to maintain his own power in the cut-throat domestic scene.  Had he admitted to disarming, it is likely that the military would have attempted a coup against him (as it reportedly had on several occasions from 1988-1990, which had encouraged him to demonstrate his toughness by invading Kuwait in August 1990).

In short, many provocative acts in world politics can be traced–at least in part, and sometimes entirely–to the requirements of domestic politics.  But foreign actors often misperceive the underlying sources of this behavior, and assume these actions are driven by aggressive designs on the world stage.  Robert Jervis, in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, notes that a common psychological bias is to assume other countries’ behavior is the product of a rational, unitary actor who is intentionally targeting you.  In reality, your country may just “be in the way” of the other state’s domestic political struggle.

What do you think?   How much of countries’ hostile rhetoric and behavior on the world stage can be traced to domestic politics rather than real international ambitions?  Is this less of a problem in democracies, or does the nature of democratic politics actually promote more conflict with foreign opponents?

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