Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The North Korean Dictator Is Behaving Rationally

Kim Jong-Un is sane but absolute power can alter the brains' risk calculation

North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Un is behaving rationally. The survival of his dictatorship depends on maintaining a sense of threat from the outside world, and empowering his impoverished people with images of military power. The 30-year-old is new leader of a gang which has taken over – nay, created – an entire country, and like any boss he wants to keep his gang in power and build its wealth and status.

He is no different from the Congolese warlords who rule country-size regions of central Africa or Mexican drug cartel bosses running parts of Mexico with private armies better-armed than the state’s own forces.

Nor is his gang different from the House of Saud, a family which also contrived a country to boost its family fortunes.

Napoleon, self-crowned Emperor of France, plunged Europe into war and successive kings of England plundered Ireland, Scotland and Continental Europe during adventure-wars of the type that Mr Kim Jong-Un is now threatening against the USA, South Korea and Japan.

Kim Jong-Un is as sane. He is not a psychopath – he made good friends while in school in Switzerland - and is quite intelligent, being good at mathematics although lazy in his studying, according to his closest friend at school, Portugese diplomat’s son Joao Micaelo.

He was the ‘fiercely competitive’ star of his school basketball team and ‘hated to lose’. He also, according to Micaelo, listened to the North Korean national anthem ‘thousands’ of times and was proud of his country. He seems to have had a close relationship with his father.

In spite of the sneering rhetoric in the press – prominent BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman for instance last night described him as looking like a haggis – Kim Jong-Un is a world leader with enormous, albeit malign, influence. But he is little different from many other world leaders over the centuries, except in a couple of respects.

The first is the extraordinary personality cult which his family and its supporters have created through complete control over the media, education and civic life. Kim Jong-Un is essentially a god – or at least a demi-god on the way to full godship. Julius Caesar allowed statues of himself as a demi-god to be erected and the pre-democracy English monarchy perpetuated their family gang through the propaganda of ‘the divine right of kings.'

Absolute power changes peoples’ brains and makes them feel like gods, or at least in communication with gods. In June 2003, George W. Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen that God had told him to invade Iraq. Osama bin Laden also believed his actions to be divinely inspired.

Kim Jong-Un almost certainly feels god-like because of the drug-like effects — the chemical messenger dopamine is a key player — that power has on his brain. Power is an aphrodisiac which casts a spell of charisma around the holder and bewitches those he has power over, and if that be millions of people, so be it.

A former North Korean soldier interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight last night said that he and everyone else he knew completely believed the world view of the country’s leadership. This held that North Korea was poor because of the unfair persecution by South Korea, USA and Japan, and that it was in constant threat of being destroyed by these enemies, which is why it had to have its nuclear weapons.

And that is the second difference between Kim Jong-Un and other world gang leaders — his power is supercharged by nuclear weaponry. This not only affects his brain but also empowers millions of his soldiers and citizens whose otherwise drab and miserable lives are given this drug-like fix which is re-ignited every time they hear the national anthem played on television to images of ballistic missiles blasting off to destroy their enemies.

Animals low in a pecking order –— powerless, in other words — are more likely to take and become addicted to cocaine if offered it than are those at the top of the dominance hierarchy. Cocaine acts on the brain in the same way as power does and to the powerless, impoverished North Koreans, these repeated images of mushroom clouds and military aggression are — almost literally — equivalent to repeated intoxicatingly-rewarding cocaine fixes which bind them emotionally to their leader and make everything else seem unimportant in comparison.

So, while Kim Jong-Un was a sane adolescent, power is such a strong drug that it will have changed him fundamentally. Excessive, unconstrained power makes people feel over-confident, blind to risk, inclined to treat other people as objects, tunnel-visioned, narcissistic and protected from anxiety. These are all real effects, as biologically driven as those caused by any powerful drug.

All gang leaders experience these effects. But there are two other symptoms of power which should give us special pause. The first is that excessive power so increases dopamine activity in the front part of the brain that it distorts rational judgment of cost and benefit: for instance. Hitler’s military decisions on the Russian front were an example of this.

The North Korean leadership’s aggression and threats are a rational strategy within the twisted confines of gang-logic: they help keep a powerless populace in thrall to their nuclear-cocaine fixes, for whose continued efficacy a sense of constant threat is essential, and they also squeeze concessions out of the international community. They also provide international attention which feeds the power-kindled narcissism of its leaders.

But the most worrying symptom of power in the current crisis is its god effects. Gods are invulnerable. Gods are not constrained by the laws of nature. Gods are immortal.

We should be worried.


More from Ian H. Robertson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today