The psychology of North Korea

Francesc Pont
North Korea Research Intern a Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung Korea

Francesc Pont

Beyond the analyses we have grown accustomed to from journalists, analysts and academic experts in North Korea, behavioural psychology can help us better understand what lies behind the words of the Pyongyang regime, what we can expect from it at the end of the day, and what would be the best path to peace. What we often seem to forget is that North Koreans, whether ordinary people or leaders, are individuals with feelings, motivations and psychological processes just like ours.

The North Korean regime has historically distinguished itself by knowing how to survive between major powers and using disputes to its best advantage, often through a 'diplomacy of confrontation' rife with verbal and military provocations which, although it may seem irrational at first glance is actually far from being so. Precisely, one of the main characteristics of this particular strategy is the ability to attract the attention of the international public opinion, something that Pyongyang is very successful at: never before had there been so many people searching for information on North Korea, or had its threats monopolised international news headlines in newspapers, on the radio and on television for so long.

A number of empirical studies have shown that the human brain has a built-in mechanism designed to give priority to bad news: this is what is normally known as the survival instinct. In fact, the human brain is quick to respond to purely symbolic threats: the most emotionally charged words attract attention faster. That is to say that the human brain responds faster and with more intensity to the rhetorical concept of 'war' than that of 'peace'. While the threat is not real, merely remembering the negative characteristics of the concept sets alarm bells ringing. North Korea is a small and poor country which has historically pursued this notoriety through fear to extract concessions from the major powers that surround it.

There is another side to North Korea's actions, which likewise happens to be highly useful for the regime. We humans find it very difficult to multitask: that is to say, if we focus on one issue, we give lower priority to the rest. North Korean leaders are fully aware that the hysteria generated by the current escalation of tension allows them to detract attention from an issue which should always be a top priority: human rights within the country and the appalling living conditions of a large portion of the population.

After worriedly witnessing the events of the Arab Spring, the ruling elite knows that the best way to prevent a hypothetical spread is to avoid both foreign military intervention, the reason why the regime has developed a nuclear program, and prevent North Koreans from being exposed to outside influences, which would be much more likely if the international community were to constantly focus its attention on the situation inside the country. Diverting attention both outside and within the country is one of the regime's top priorities: indeed, this dialectical confrontation is usually directed exclusively at the North Korean public. Simply creating the perception of latent conflicts with external enemy forces is a great way to minimise internal conflict and unite a nation heavily indoctrinated by ultra-nationalist propaganda behind a common cause.

This dual strategy necessarily leads us to the rational calculation made by the key players in the North Korean regime, a political and military elite whose main objective is to retain its control over the nation for as long as possible. Going back to the psychology of human behaviour, it is known that our brains are also programmed to give greater importance to losses and failures than to successes and gains. There is a clear asymmetry between the strength of the motivation to avoid losses and risks we are willing to assume in order to maximise profits. This aversion to losses is a powerful conservative force which favours minimal change and makes people and institutions tend to preserve the status quo. In other words, what the Pyongyang regime really wants is peace, not a conflict where the risk of loss is too great to bear.

Despite all this, North Korea is no longer just a spoilt child prone to crying and screaming who, when all said and done, remains a child among adults: unfortunately, thanks to its nuclear and ballistic capabilities, it has now become a rebellious teenager and far more dangerous than ever before. The days when the international community could smother the regime through sanctions and isolation, making it into an international pariah, may now be a thing of the past. Abandoning diplomacy could prove extremely dangerous and counterproductive for all parties involved.

The process thus has to involve dialogue and negotiation. If South Korea, China, Japan and the United States want to guarantee peace and stability in Northeast Asia while promoting economic, social and perceptual changes within the borders of North Korea, they should opt for a policy fostering a gradual opening of the regime, even if this means making concessions that are difficult to swallow initially.

John Gottman, a psychologist and relationship expert, gives us the key to human coexistence: to succeed in the long term, any relationship should spend more time focusing on preventing negative events than in search of positive ones. According to his calculations, for a relationship to be healthy and stable, positive interactions should outweigh negative ones at least five-fold. Therefore, the time has come to negotiate a multilateral peace treaty, with the US in the front row, and to generate a climate which maximises positive interactions between the parties currently involved in the conflict.