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Is North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un rational?

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Is Kim Jong-un rational? The new US ambassador to the United Nations thinks he is not. Nikki Haley said after North Korea’s simultaneous launch of four ballistic missiles: “This is not a rational person.” But is she right?

Kim Jong-un may have many flaws. He is without doubt ruthless – the bereaved relatives of the victims of his regime, including within his own family, would testify to that. He may have driven through an economic policy that keeps his people living at a standard way below that in South Korea and, increasingly, China.

And he seems to have personal issues, such as eating a lot – photographs show his bulging girth – and being a fairly heavy smoker.

But whatever these failings and foibles, is he actually irrational – which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “not logical or reasonable, not endowed with the power of reason”?

Scholars who study him think he is behaving very rationally, even with the purging and terrorising of those around him. Prof Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul told the BBC: “He is perfectly rational. He sometimes overdoes it. He sometimes tends to apply excessive force. Why kill hundreds of generals when dozens will do?

“Most people he kills would never join a conspiracy but he feels it’s better to overdo it. It’s better to kill nine loyal generals and one potential conspirator than to allow a conspirator to stay alive.

“But he is rational.”

Prof John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul said that even having his half-brother killed (as the allegation is – denied by Pyongyang) would be a rational act; not nice but rational.

“A sad fact of history is that young kings often kill their uncles and elder brothers. It may be cruel, but it is not ‘irrational’. If you don’t take my word for it, read Shakespeare.”


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