We may not know much about the man currently plowing full speed ahead toward international nuclear crisis, but one thing we do know for sure is that he is young — 29 or 30. And this, most news outlets seem to agree, is an important factor in understanding how we wound up where we are today — and where we may be headed. CNN calls Kim Jong Un "a rash young leader." "Young, reckless, without great political savvy," writes the Christian Science Monitor. The Daily Mail calls the North Korean supreme leader a "boy despot."
It’s conventional wisdom that age and experience are calming forces in international relations — that with a few gray hairs comes the moderation and wisdom to avoid, say, calling other, much larger states, "boiled pumpkin[s]." But one academic study on the question finds the connections between age and political crises to be a little more nuanced. For every brash, brassy Louis XIV — who, at 29, invaded the Spanish Netherlands in 1667 and was forced to give almost all of it back a year later — there is a Nikita Khrushchev placing missiles on Cuba in his late 60s.
A 2005 study from the Journal of Conflict Resolution examined the ages of the leaders involved in 100,000 interactions between states from 1875 to 1999, and found that, in fact, the older the leader, the more likely he is to both initiate and escalate conflicts. Having an experienced counterpart on the other side of a dispute didn’t seem to help much either. The study found that the risk of escalation — to use of force, and then to all-out war — also increases as the age of the leader in the second state goes up.
What’s going on? The authors of the study, "Leader Age, Regime Type, and Violent International Relations," speculate that older leaders may have fewer institutional constraints on them, having gained credibility and freedom to act by virtue of their experience:
One example of this is the presidency of George H.W. Bush in comparison to the presidency of Bill Clinton. Bush, as a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an ambassador, and a vice president, had amassed an enormous amount of institutional credibility … that gave him a greater latitude to direct U.S. military policy.
In addition, the authors reason, the shorter time horizons of aging leaders may prompt them to take greater risks in the hopes of building a legacy.
So does this mean that we should all take a deep breath and relax about North Korea — that young Kim is exactly who we want in charge in this situation? Not quite. The authors go on to look at how the relationship between age and leadership changes when the data set is reduced to just "personalist regimes" where power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader. Here, they find that the relationship is turned on its head: younger leaders are actually slightly more prone to initiate and escalate crises. Why? The authors hypothesize that young autocrats may face fewer institutional constraints from the get-go.
This is important to note when looking at Kim’s behavior, because most North Korea watchers believe North Korea’s institutions don’t restrain Kim’s behavior; if anything, they drive him to be more aggressive, as the only institution whose voice really matters in the Hermit Kingdom is the military (not an uncommon situation in many autocratic regimes — perhaps suggesting that young despots beholden to the military are just as institutionally constrained as their counterparts in democracies, but pushed toward aggression rather than peaceful behavior).
The authors do close on a somewhat reassuring note — they encourage further study of the effect having children has on leaders’ aggression: "Testosterone concentrations … [are] lowest in the new father population immediately after their wives" give birth, they write.
Good news for those of us who want peace on the Korean peninsula: Kim Jong Un is rumored to be a new father.