North Korea repeatedly makes warlike threats and acts aggressively toward, well, everybody but China, I guess. When these threats are made, is there any evidence of the calculation behind them? Is there evidence for a strategy that these are part of? For example, did the threats start after aid was refused by the US, are the threats related to specific demands?

Surely the North Korean government knows that the outcome of any attack would be disasterous (for all parties) and doesn't really want to go to war

Apologies if this has already been asked, I've searched for a similar question but haven't found one

  • Well, I don't think the risk of war decreases in any way if NK reduces its aggression. Aug 10, 2017 at 16:55
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    Just heard a professor addressing this question (on public radio) from an objective, strategic consideration of geo-political factors that does not actually require mind-reading. Based the analysis on actions and standard considerations for nation-states. Voting to re-open because of that. Aug 10, 2017 at 17:03
  • Perhaps it would be useful to ask the inverse question: If the North Korean leadership just shut up, would anyone bother with them? Does anyone get worked up over Mongolia, Benin, or Costa Rica?
    – jamesqf
    Aug 10, 2017 at 19:04
  • @jamesqf Nobody bothers Mongolia, Benin or Costa Rica, but the behaviour of the North Korean government is similar to someone who wants something from you and will threaten you to get it. I'm curious to know if that is the case and if so, what is it they want. All we hear in the news is threat and counter threat, there must be more depth to it than that Aug 11, 2017 at 9:09
  • We assume that Kim Jong cares about North Korea and their people. We may be wrong, maybe he just wants his 5 minutes of frame regardless of the outcome. Aug 11, 2017 at 16:22

3 Answers 3


It's pretty difficult to tell the true intentions behind the North Korean regime due to it's extreme opacity, but we can try to reason through some rationales. The most important thing to keep in mind with North Korea's government is it does not act in the best interest of the North Korean people, it acts in the best interest of the North Korean government. Even though Kim Jong Un seems to be a madman, he is in fact a very rational actor. North Korea doesn't actually believe it can become a great power that rivals the United States. Kim Jong Un's sole goal is regime survival, and based on that, we can make a few guesses as to the reasons behind North Korea's provocations.

  • Deterrence - To me, this is the most convincing rationale for North Korea's recent provocations. If North Korea can make itself seem as dangerous as possible, foreign nations will be less likely to take action against the North Korean regime for fear of the massive retaliatory cost. As Vox explains:

This limit-pushing behavior is designed to show that the North is willing to escalate aggressively in the event of any kind of action from Washington or Seoul that threatens the regime, thus deterring them from making even the slightest move to undermine the Kim regime.

  • Domestic Audience - North Korea's most recent threat against Guam was announced on State Media, indicating that it was intended for a domestic audience. The North Korean government has a couple reasons for showing this to their people. The first is to make the government seem powerful, and therefore discourage average citizens from revolting. After all, if the North Korean military seems strong enough to take on the United States, what chance does a malnourished dissident have? The second reason is to create more support for the government through a "Rally around the flag" effect. In essence, the belief is that the North Korean people will support their government if there is the threat of a terrifying foreign actor.

  • Negotiating Power - As others have brought up, North Korea's government desperately needs outside assistance. However, in order to use leverage in a negotiation, North Korea's threats have to seem credible enough that foreign nations believe appeasement would be of lower cost than the cost of conflict. From a personal perspective, this is the least convincing of the arguments because having made these threats before, and with most North Korean experts recognizing that Kim Jong Un likely wouldn't risk his regime in a conflict, it doesn't make a ton of sense that North Korea's government would make threats the rest of the world knows it can't follow through on.


Traditionally actions like these from North Korea have resulted in The U.S. in coalition with surrounding countries giving food and other aid to North Korea in exchange for stopping whatever threats they are making and not developing nuclear weapons. This really hasn't been an effective strategy as North Korea has shown continual process in their weapons development. What's not really clear at this point is if Kim Jong Un really does believe that North Korea is a super power and intends to act on all the threats, or if it's learned behavior from the attention received from previous actions. If this is just posturing to get aid from the rest of the world, it appears the U.S. has called that bluff. If North Korea was a rational actor then we could safely conclude they won't launch any attacks and will have to try a different tactic to get more aid, but there isn't much if any evidence to support them being a rational actor.

  • Can you give some source to document your first sentence ? In particular, has humanitarian aid towards NK evolved in response to the stops-and-go of NK nuclear program ? Also, your statement that NK main point is to receive more aid seems speculative to me. IMHO, their main point is to be considered (by the US) as a serious military threat.
    – Evargalo
    Aug 11, 2017 at 12:52
  • this is fairly detailed for U.S. aid through 2014. this covers the last few presidents policies of aid for not developing nukes/sanctioning after they kept developing nukes.
    – Ryathal
    Aug 11, 2017 at 14:28
  • Thanks for the link. I think you should include them in your answer.
    – Evargalo
    Aug 11, 2017 at 15:17
  • @Ryathal That document is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for Aug 13, 2017 at 0:27

There is another reason... a common tactic of dictators. By creating an external threat, it takes the people's minds off of their own wretched living conditions, and their own wretched leadership.

This is especially pronounced in the case of Korea. Same people, same resources, same land, yet the south is an economic powerhouse while the north is destitute, prone to occasional bouts of starvation. This Verge article has a photo at the top that says it all.

How do you justify a standard of living that is far below what your neighbor has? You paint the prosperous countries as a threat. Galtieri of Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, to take his people's minds off of economic problems at home. Even Stalin was wise enough to paint WW2 as 'the great patriotic war', that Germany was a threat not to Stalin and his heavy hand, but to the Russian people.

The more the gap between north and south widens economically, the more shrill the rhetoric defending the miserable conditions becomes.

  • "Creating external threat" - like all those pesky Commies for US, right? Sep 11, 2019 at 17:55

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