SEOUL - It's easy to write off Kim Jong Un as a madman. What with the colorful nuclear threats, the gruesome executions of family members, the fact that he's a self-appointed marshal who's never served in the military.
Indeed, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did it just this past week, calling Kim "this crazy, fat kid that's running North Korea." That came on the heels of a pronouncement from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that "we are not dealing with a rational person" in Kim.
It's a relatively common view. World leaders, military chiefs and Hollywood have all painted him as an unhinged maniac.
But this is not just wrong, North Korea watchers and dictatorship experts say. It also risks dangerous miscalculation.
"North Korea has consistently been treated like a joke, but now the joke has nuclear weapons," said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. "If you deem Kim Jong Un to be irrational, then you're implicitly underestimating him."
Leaders throughout the centuries have realized it can be advantageous to have your enemies think you're crazy. Machiavelli once wrote that it can be wise to pretend to be mad, while President Richard Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese to think he was unstable and prone to launch a nuclear attack on a whim.
Writing off Kim Jong Un as a lunatic could equally be playing into his hands.
Want proof that he's no senseless madman?
Exhibit A: "He's still in power," said Benjamin Smith, an expert on regime change at the University of Florida. "He and his father and grandfather have stayed in power through a series of American presidents going back to Truman."
Longevity, of course, is the preserve of dictators, not democrats. Indeed, the 33-year-old has defied predictions that he would not be able to keep a grip on the authoritarian state that has been in his family's control since 1948. December marked his fifth anniversary in power - a milestone that the democratically elected president in the South did not reach.
In person, Kim is confident and well spoken, said Michael Spavor, a Canadian who runs Paektu Cultural Exchange, which promotes business, sports and tourism with North Korea. Spavor is one of the very few outsiders to have met Kim.
"He was acting very diplomatically and professionally," said Spavor, who accompanied Dennis Rodman, the basketball player, on his trips to North Korea. "He felt old beyond his years. He could be serious at times and fun at times but by no means did he seem weird or odd."
Smith pointed out that saying Kim is rational isn't the same as saying "he's a perfect guy who makes perfect decisions."
Kim's decisions to date have enabled him to achieve his primary goal - so far - of staying in power by staving off threats, real or anticipated, from the elite.
"He has reasons to be afraid of conspiracies in the top levels of his government, especially in the military and secret police," said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar of North Korea who once studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. "You can buy these people off, but they can still betray you. You have to terrify them, and that's what he's doing."
Kim has sent a message to the elites who keep him in power through a series of executions and purges that keep everyone fearful that they will be next.
Kim has rid himself of 300-plus officials during his five years at the helm. He notably had his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed for disobeying orders and building his own power base.
Other high-level figures have been killed - a defense minister was reportedly dispatched with antiaircraft fire - or purged. The state security minister is said to be under house arrest.
"What's irrational about that? Irrational is going to the ICC and surrendering," Lankov said. A United Nations commission of inquiry has recommended referring Kim to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The assassination of Kim Jong Un's half brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia with a chemical weapon was a message to outside rivals that the young leader could hunt them down wherever they are, analysts say.
To deal with threats from "hostile powers," in North Korean parlance, having nuclear weapons makes sense for Kim, said Kongdan Oh of the Institute for Defense Analyses. "Steadily pursuing nuclear weapons is a very rational thing for him to be doing."
Kim has ordered three nuclear tests since he took power - claiming that one was a hydrogen bomb - and has overseen steady improvements in the missile program. North Korea has "entered the final stage of preparation" for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, Kim has said, referring to a missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
North Korea was established in vehement opposition to the American "imperialist aggressors" and their "puppets" in South Korea. So maintaining a sense of threat from both provides a rationale for the state's existence and a shared menace to unite the elite and the common people.
Then there's the economy. The fact that it's growing is a sign that the leadership knows what it's doing, said Park of Harvard.
"There's a puzzle here: The regime is getting wealthier amid the increasing implementation of sanctions," he said.
While the North Korean economy is far from booming, it has been steadily expanding in recent years, as evidenced by all the construction in Pyongyang despite increasingly tight restrictions imposed by the outside world.
It has done this through state-run trading companies that form partnerships with entities in China, enabling them to circumvent sanctions.
"Look at the web of elite North Korean state trading companies. You can't be irrational or somehow crazy to consistently run this system to either make money off it or procure what you need for the nuclear weapons program," Park said. "That objectively shows that there is a game plan, and a pretty consistently implemented game plan."
But being rational is not the same as being predictable, and many analysts say that the youngest Kim appears to be temperamental and hotheaded.
That worries American military leaders. "Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong Un is a recipe for disaster," Adm. Harry Harris, the head of Pacific Command, said in December.
There is reason to be concerned about this factor, said Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who founded the CIA's personality analysis center and has studied Kim and his father.
Kim's capacity for brutality and his apparent spontaneity could be compounded by President Donald Trump's own impulsive acts, he said.
"This is all about big boys and their big toys," Post said. "Will he actively threaten the U.S.? I tend to think not, but I must say I'm concerned about words leading to actions between him and President Trump."
Let the blame game begin.
Republicans' failure to overhaul the U.S. health-care industry has ushered in a round of internal finger-pointing that threatens to deepen the very rifts that doomed the deal - and carve new ones that are likely to complicate the GOP's ability to function in the Trump era.
Recriminations have been underway for weeks, but they intensified Saturday and cast a new spotlight on the breakdown that led Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to pull the American Health Care Act from the House floor Friday afternoon, after it became clear to him and President Donald Trump that they did not have enough Republican votes to pass it.
Some top Republicans interviewed Saturday singled out Ryan for blame, arguing that he did not sufficiently represent the views of conservative lawmakers or interest groups, who had pressed for a fuller repeal of the law. But some blamed Trump or his aides for not smoothing out the differences, a sentiment that has been stronger privately than in public. Still others found fault with various GOP factions and interest groups, on the right and in the middle, who opposed the bill.
All of this puts pressure on Trump, Ryan, the hard-right House Freedom Caucus and the moderate Republicans who voted against the bill to shore up their relationships and show the nation that they can achieve real successes together.
"Paul Ryan is a really smart policy guy, and we saw that on display," Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in an interview Saturday. "But he lacks the legislative skills to put together a coalition to get the bill through." The Club for Growth circulated a memo Saturday arguing that "conservatives saved Republicans from voting for their own version of Obamacare."
Other Republicans argued that groups such as the Club for Growth and the hard-right House Freedom Caucus are at fault for stubbornly opposing the bill and continually demanding a more aggressive attack on the Affordable Care Act.
"Quite frankly, I think we had a group of people that are traditionally 'no' on everything. And they vote as a bloc. And so you've got to penetrate that bloc. And so we've got figure out how to do that," said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).
"I sometimes wonder with some of my colleagues, though, if they wrote the bill themselves, whether they could get to yes, you know?" said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. "Because it's about protecting their brand or protecting their voting record or protecting their purity with an outside group."
The bill also had its fair share of critics from the more moderate wing of the party - which has led some to conclude it's not about Ryan or Trump but the hard-to-reconcile nature of the GOP right now.
"This is not a failure of leadership; it's a failure of follow-ship," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a frequent defender of both Ryan and Trump.
That still puts the burden on Ryan to figure out how to manage a new dynamic within his conference, with right and left flanks willing to buck him.
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The discord started weeks ago but reached a critical point Thursday night, when the members of the Freedom Caucus sat in the Capitol before Ryan, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and budget director Mick Mulvaney, who had helped found the group of Republican hard-liners two years ago.
With the bill - and the rest of Trump's legislative agenda - hanging in the balance, Ryan polled the room: Would they support the bill after changes that would partially, but not entirely, meet their demands?
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the group's chairman, spoke up: "I speak for the group. We're a bloc. And we're a no."
The meeting sealed the fate of the AHCA, which would be pulled from House consideration less than 24 hours later, and brought to a head months of simmering frustrations between each of the parties - the Freedom Caucus, the House GOP leadership and the Trump administration.
Freedom Caucus members bristled at many of the talking points Ryan used as he blitzed conservative radio and television shows to project Republican unity on health care. One that particularly grated, according to several members of the group, was his repeated claim that Republicans had "run on" the health-care plan in 2016, because it was sketched out in Ryan's "A Better Way" policy agenda.
While some caucus members participated in listening sessions about health care, the policy provisions that ultimately were included in the plan were written largely by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, then the House Budget Committee chairman, as well as Ryan's own policy staff and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas. The plan included provisions that many hard-liners considered unacceptable - such as the inclusion of a refundable tax credit, something they saw as a new federal entitlement.
Michael Needham, the president of Heritage Action for America, a group that opposed the bill, said that a "blame game" is a distraction from the need to forge a better replacement.
"The problem with this bill wasn't that it would be sound health policy if only it wiped away one set of benefit mandates," said Needham. "It was that it was not designed from the ground up to circumvent Obamacare's regulatory architecture. We would be very eager to be involved in crafting legislation that achieves that objective while navigating the relevant procedural hurdles."
House leaders insisted that they were constrained by the special budget procedures they needed to follow to get the bill through the Senate without Democratic support. That prompted policy trade-offs that left some conservatives fuming. And the leaders faulted the Freedom Caucus hard-liners - and outside groups encouraging them - for ignoring that reality and constantly shifting their demands.
The sense that the bill was simply bad policy was shared by many of the centrist Republicans who opposed it - as well as the Democrats who united against it.
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Since the defeat, Trump and Ryan have declined to say anything indicating that they blame each other. That has not stopped some Republicans from musing that Trump's less-than-full-throated support for Ryan and the bill along the way helped embolden critics to believe he was on their side.
While Trump supported the bill and sought to build support for it, he also sent confusing signals suggesting that he might be open to changes. It was Ryan who introduced it, championed the details and served as chief salesman. He also took most of the public heat from critics.
Still, Republicans have been less willing to criticize Trump publicly. One top Republican who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly likened the dynamic to a football game in which Ryan was the struggling starting quarterback, and fans were chanting for Trump to come off bench to relieve him. When Trump did engage, the Republican said, "Whatever good he did was amplified, because it makes a bad start look better."
And like a second-string player, Trump took less grief for the eventual loss.
"I think he follows a pattern," said Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., a member of the Freedom Caucus. "He trusts the people that are around him, and I don't know that the people around him and the people that he trusted actually did him service in this."
A senior White House official said Saturday that the biggest lesson learned is that Trump and his aides must drive the process from the beginning. It was a mistake to come on board with the House plan rather than present Trump's own initiative, this official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about White House strategy, said that when he is ready, Trump will offer his own plan on tax reform in a bid to have more control over the process.
"We've got to line up commitments earlier," the official said. "Of course we're going to look at these things."
The White House also was caught off guard by the response of lawmakers who had repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Trump aides never expected so many lawmakers in this category to decline to support this bill.
Some White House staffers and Trump advisers have pinned blame for the debacle on White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who is close to Ryan and who encouraged Trump to embrace the House bill, according to several Trump associates, not all of whom say the criticism is fair.
For many Republicans, it was a problem of timing. They felt House GOP leaders rushed ahead in crafting the bill to repeal and replace the ACA, needlessly trying to hold a final vote on Thursday, the law's seventh anniversary.
"Really, are we in the Hallmark card business?" asked Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., hours before the bill was officially pulled Friday. Amodei held both Ryan and Trump culpable for the mess.
Trump and some Republicans have sought to blame Democrats for not joining their effort - a claim Democrats say is outrageous. And they have embraced another potential path forward on health-care reform, predicting that the current laws will collapse under their own weight and that some Democrats finally will join their calls for repeal.
"ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry!" Trump tweeted Saturday.
"I don't think one party is going to be able to fix this by themselves," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a town hall meeting a few hours later. "So here's what I think should happen next: I think the president should reach out to Democrats."
But the Republican failure has only emboldened Democrats to defend the ACA.
"If they would denounce repeal . . . then we'll work with them on improving it and making it better," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "They can't continue to want to repeal."
As they quickly filed out of a meeting Friday where GOP leaders officially announced the bill was doomed, many with dejected facial expressions, Republican House members said it was on them to work out their differences during this period of one-party control - and acknowledged it would not be easy.
"This is a learning experience. I want to learn from this experience. I hope my colleagues will learn from this experience," said Rep. Garland "Andy" Barr, R-Ky.
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The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.