Strategically playing the fool
Image by (stephan) on Flickr

Our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh writes a weekly column for Dutch newspaper NRC. In these columns, he shares his insights about changes in the global hegemony, economy and society. In this column he writes about North Korea’s seemingly irrational practices.

A few years ago, I visited a North Korean restaurant in Amsterdam, which has since been closed for unknown reasons. The employees had been flown in to the Netherlands just to work here. Whenever a new course arrived, I tried to ask the waitress about her native country, but I never managed to speak to her without a colleague attentively eavesdropping in the background. The only thing I got out of her was a book on the official state ideology, juche.

North Korea is an enigma. There is no other country in the world that we know so little about. Compared to North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Burma are open books. This is why often people cannot do much else than laugh at the bizarre footage that comes out of the country: of the leader and his unique hairstyle, of news anchors shouting on state television and of civilians in the streets melodramatically crying their eyes out over the death of a beloved leader.

How can this country differ so much from the open, democratic and innovative South Korea? That is a complicated issue. In truth, both countries have more in common than we think. Koreans possess a major talent for organization that predates the separation of the country into a northern and a southern part. As early as the eighth century, this kingdom regularly conducted a census among its people. Even the numbers of trees and livestock per household were carefully registered.

Throughout their history, Koreans have managed to stand firm among the Chinese and the Japanese. The country often refers to itself as a “shrimp among whales.” The perceived threat has made Korea into a close-knit society. During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), the country closed itself off from the rest of the world, earning it the nickname of “hermit kingdom.”

Even the numbers of trees and livestock per household were carefully registered

After the official separation in 1948 and the Korean War, the fragile south embarked on a path of integration with the rest of the global community in the sixties. With an iron will, the country developed such large multinationals as Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia. Today, South Korea is the largest ship manufacturer in the world. The South Korean Ban Ki-moon became the United Nations’ Secretary-General and Jim Yong Kim is the President of the World Bank. South Korean popular culture is also famous all over the world. Korean soap operas are massively popular throughout Asia and Indonesian barbers offer their customers “K-cuts.” In the west, our most recognizable encounter with “K-pop” music came in the form of the hit song Gangnam Style.

Meanwhile, the north opted for a hermit’s strategy and cut itself off from the world. The state ideology juche translates to “self-sufficiency.” Despite its small size, North Korea has the fourth-largest army in the world. As its people starved, the country allocated funds to the development of its nuclear program. More than 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, this is the only surviving Stalinist regime in the world. That in itself is a macabre miracle of organizational prowess.

It would be a mistake to dismiss North Korea as being bizarre and irrational

However, if the country is so disciplined, why does it make so many bold claims and appear so irrational? It is all a strategic ruse. Image a small, weak person in hostile company. If the stronger parties believe the weaker person is thinking clearly, they will assume he knows his limits. He will stay calm and they do not have to pay him much heed. If, on the other hand, the weak person appears crazy and irrational, he might do something unpredictable, even if it spelled his own certain doom. In that case, the other parties would have no choice but to take him seriously. For decades, North Korea has been strategically playing the fool in order to get other nations to concede to them.

It would be a mistake to dismiss North Korea as being bizarre and irrational. Sometimes, playing the fool is a smart thing to do.

To read the article in Dutch, click here.