The possibility that we’re seeing a paranoid totalitarian state beginning to spin completely off the game-board of comprehensible action seems fairly plausible to me. But my general attitude in interpreting what appear to be bizarrely aggressive moves is that they’re likely to represent screwups, snafus, and underlings’ fear of disciplinary action for insufficient vigilance. The Soviet decision to shoot down KAL 007 back in 1983, for instance, was an excellent demonstration of exactly what made the USSR so awful: with gales having (unbeknownst to America) knocked out Soviet radar in Siberia and allowed the plane to accidentally cross Kamchatka without being intercepted, Air Force generals were more worried about being humiliated by not shooting down whatever the thing was than they were about the possibility of killing a few hundred civilians. (Talk about the banality of evil.)
The KAL 007 incident brings up another issue. Malcolm Gladwell has a famous/notorious chapter in “Outliers” in which he makes the case that Korean Air Lines’ abysmal safety record before 2000 was related to a dysfunctional culture of deference to rank in the cockpit. Mr Gladwell cites the six forms of address in Korean, based on seniority, and the high score of Koreans on a psycho-cultural ranking called the Power Distance Index; he says that in a series of Korean Air crashes in the 1980s and 1990s, flight officers were reluctant to indicate to the captain that anything was wrong except in elliptical and confusing ways, because it would have been viewed as criticism of a higher-up. One theory of the KAL 007 incident holds that such deference by lower-ranking flight officers was in part why the plane drifted hundreds of miles off course.
Mr Gladwell’s case was challenged in a pretty trenchant review in Asiance magazine, arguing that he’d misunderstood the Korean and mischaracterised cockpit transcripts, and that KAL pilots were inappropriately deferential to rank not because they were Korean but because they’d been trained in the military. So take it with at least a small grain of salt. Still, if there’s one thing that North Korea certainly has, it’s a dysfunctional culture of deference to rank. And that can lead people to do some very counterproductive and confused things in high-pressure situations. If we can’t figure out what the North Koreans are trying to do, it may be because they can’t figure it out either. Not that that makes them less dangerous. Maybe the opposite.
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