.
I

n the summer of 2017, I found myself in Seoul, South Korea, for a series of meetings. It was my first time in that country (a country to which I very much want to return). Among the many experiences, perhaps the most fascinating was just talking with everyday Koreans about what it was like living with an unruly and unpredictable neighbor to the north. For their part, they were more interested in finding out what it was like having a fairly unpredictable president in the Oval Office, but to a person, they were very blasé about the North. A common refrain was “we’ve lived in a state of war for 50 years, to us it’s just another day” or some variation on that theme.

Becoming Kim Jong-Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator, Dr. Jung H. Pak Ballantine Books (April 2020).

For Washington, North Korea, and its leader Kim Jong-Un, is perhaps the most puzzling, threatening, and opaque national security challenge. Most of the country, outside of the beltway (and perhaps many inside), views the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as an oddball, a curiosity. They are more likely to conjure up images of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s puppet Kim Jong-Il or Seth Rogan’s lonely Kim Jong-Un from The Interview, than to have any real appreciation of the country itself. And that is not entirely their fault.

The pageantry, the hyperbole, the bombast, and the absolute dictatorship make understanding North Korea nigh impossible. The media, clamoring for anything out of the hermit kingdom, fixates on the wacky or the bizarre—how Kim Jong-Il scored a 34 on a round of golf, how his son learned to drive at the age of three and won a yacht race at nine years old. Still, the Western fixation on the silliness masks a frighteningly repressive regime, one that operates a massive system of gulags and, as is well known, a nuclear power with missiles now capable of reaching the United States.

How does one square this North Korean circle? What policies can Washington make to manage the North Korean challenge when the country itself, to borrow Churchill’s maxim, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” As the quote continues, “but perhaps there is a key” and Dr. Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution may well help find that key. Dr. Pak, a former CIA officer and the Deputy National Intelligence Officer at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is an excellent guide to understanding North Korea in the context of its history, its view of the outside world, and its leadership.

Applying Analytical Rigor to the Hardest Target

Dr. Pak brings her CIA analytical rigor and training to the challenge of Kim Jong-Un and North Korea. Throughout the book, she references Richards J. Heuer and his Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, a core text on how, and how not, to conduct intelligence analysis. Heuer warns of common analytical failings such as mirror-imaging—assuming the other side will act how the United States would—and “vividness bias” or the tendency to trust information received firsthand more than secondhand information, even though it may have more evidential value.

The inclusion of Heuer and Dr. Pak’s intelligence analysis 101 asides are a welcome addition. When looking at any foreign policy challenge, analytical shortcuts and logical fallacies will naturally be present (we are human, after all) and these weaknesses must be recognized and countered.

But when you add in a regime that is as confusing and opaque as North Korea, militating against these biases becomes even more critical. North Korea is the hardest of hard targets. It is the epitome of an authoritarian state, predicated on a cult of personality that is grandiose and hyperbolic in equal measures. Getting human intelligence from within North Korea is nearly impossible, and what information does come out is often of suspect value.

Look at the recent flurry of coverage on the fate of Kim Jong-Un. Every news outlet from the New York Times to TMZ was speculating that Kim Jong-Un had died or that he was on life support following heart surgery. It instantly whipped up the cottage industry of foreign policy experts speculating about succession in Pyongyang, who would or could succeed Kim Jong-Un, and what it meant for security on the Korean peninsula.

All of this was based on second- or third-hand information. Yet, regional security experts in South Korea, Japan, and China quickly downplayed or refuted such assertions. Even now, conspiracy theories abound that the Kim Jong-Un on display is a stand-in for the real Kim Jong-Un. Because of the behavior of the regime to date, for many such a replacement is entirely possible in the Alice in Wonderland world that seems to define North Korea.

The Millennial Dictator

Perhaps what is most fascinating is to look at Kim Jong-Un as a millennial dictator and what is changing in North Korea today. While he grew up in the lap of luxury and in the shadow of his father’s cult of personality (how many children have generals bowing before them?), he did a study abroad in Switzerland. While there, he became a fan of basketball and had the latest toys and technology. His subjects may have been deprived of access to the outside world, but he certainly wanted for nothing.

He’s a digital native, to a degree. Much like his age cohorts, he grew up with technology and today is frequently photographed with iPads and mobile phones. His embrace of technology is not just personal. He is working to invest domestically and create a North Korean Silicon Valley in Mirae Scientists Street and the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang. North Korea even operates its own domestic, yet tightly controlled, internet called Kwangmyong or “Bright Light”.

Kim Jong-Un presides over a population that in some ways is becoming more middle-class if you are of the right social caste and lucky enough to be connected to the right people. Today, in North Korea there exists a “market generation” or jangmadang, those who scraped out a living through clandestine capitalist activities. For those luckier to find themselves as donju or the “masters of money” life in North Korea is even better. These urban elites are making money, importing foreign designer clothes and high-end cars, and using Chinese cellphones. Dr. Pak recounts the story of North Koreans taking photos of their food, no different than hipsters in Brooklyn, albeit without the brutal socialist repression.

For his part, Kim Jong-Un sought to consolidate his position after he assumed North Korea’s leadership from his father. He worked to promote those who would be loyal to him and him alone, rooted out real or imagined threats to his leadership, and strengthened his cult of personality. Most famously he had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, killed ostensibly due to corruption, drug use, gambling, and other charges.

Even his family life is almost millennial. His wife, Ri Sol-Ju, assumed a much higher profile role in North Korea than his father’s or his grandfather’s significant others. She is seen as fashionable and an aspirational icon for North Korean women. Her public elevation is also likely an attempt to ward off potential challengers and preempt any further palace intrigue. It is believed he has one son, who would likely become his successor.

His behavior, at first, may seem irrational, but it is anything but. He seeks to deal bilaterally and split the American-led alliance. He wants to play Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States off of one another.

His behavior, at first, may seem irrational, but it is anything but. He seeks to deal bilaterally and split the American-led alliance. He wants to play Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States off of one another.

Having Your Songpyeon and Eating it Too

Kim Jong-Un is pursuing a policy of Byungjin, or “parallel development”—a dual-track effort to develop the country’s nuclear infrastructure, while also growing the domestic economy. His grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, sought to do the same, but with conventional military investment and economic growth. Here, Kim Jong-Un is in some ways breaking with his father’s policy of Songun or military-first prioritization. Whereas under his father, the policy was very much military investment and growth to the exclusion of everything else, Kim Jong-Un is pursuing a policy where North Korea can have both nuclear weapons and prosperity.

Under Kim Jong-Un, North Korea built ski resorts, amusement parks, riding centers, and sparked a construction boom called “Pyonghattan” by foreign diplomats. For the three million residents of Pyongyang, life is certainly improving. Consumerism, particularly among the jangmadang and donju is very much on display.

According to Dr. Pak, Kim Jong-Un may be using the signs of affluence as an effort to externally display the success of North Korea’s self-reliance while internally crafting a narrative of the population’s well-being while it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the outside world’s influences out. Indeed, it is hard to imagine North Korean hipsters, as it is in such stark contrast with the impoverished, decaying, hunger-ridden state.

Life for the Other Half of North Korea

To be sure, this is not a socialist utopia or “fairyland”. The jangmadang and donju are a very slim portion of the population. Their very existence in Dr. Pak’s analysis supports Kim Jong-Un’s belief that he is meeting “his own rhetoric of improving the life of North Koreans”.

For those not so fortunate, life in North Korean can and is indeed nasty, brutish, and short. North Korea continues to operate a brutal system of gulags: the Kyohwaso, for criminal and political offenders, but typically with fixed prison sentences, and the Kwanliso, political prison camps for anti-state and anti-people (regime) offenses. At least 120,000 North Koreans are in these gulags, many of whom suffer from the three generations of punishment. These prisons are scenes of horrific physical and psychological torture, some of which Dr. Pak recounts in the book.

The regime’s internal survival is predicated on a system of overlapping security organizations that are rewarded from suppression of human rights and loyalty to Kim Jong-Un. The system exists from the top down to the neighborhood level. The infrastructure is self-reinforcing—the more aggressive an adviser is, the better rewarded he is for demonstrating loyalty.

President Trump Meets with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Sunday, June 30, 2019, as the two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

President Trump Meets with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Sunday, June 30, 2019, as the two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

Conflict and Confrontation; Trump and Tensions

Kim Jong-Un has not been afraid to assert his country’s strength abroad. Indeed as Dr. Pak masterfully recounts, he has used his country’s cyber capabilities to strike against Hollywood in response to the Interview, generate funds through cyber theft and extortion, and attack South Korean targets. He used his country’s chemical weapons to assassinate his brother in Malaysia, having two women who thought they were on a reality TV show smear VX nerve agent on his face. He’s also used his country’s nuclear and ballistic missile program to ratchet up tensions and assert maximum leverage with the international community.

In Dr. Pak’s analysis, Kim Jong-Un accelerated the missile and nuclear weapons program to highlight his country’s strategic relevance and secure leverage. Much as his father did, Kim Jong-Un sought to raise tensions, draw the international community to the table, and secure some concessions and breathing room. But where Kim Jong-Un differs is in his application of maximum engagement, as well.

Throughout 2017, the world waited with bated breath as President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un waged a war of words over social media, trading barbs and threats. The risk of miscalculation seemed very much real. Yet the following year, Kim Jong-Un engaged with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, his sister Kim Yo-jong traveled to the South Korean Winter Olympic Games, and, in June 2018, the North Korean dictator met President Trump at the DMZ.

For Washington, the pivot was a result of President Trump’s tough rhetoric, which pressured Kim Jong-Un to come to the proverbial negotiating table. This is, of course, only part of the story. To be sure, the sanctions against North Korea had never been stronger than at the time of the meeting or the thaw. Washington’s aggressive diplomatic effort led to Pyongyang being even more isolated than before.

Perhaps more than just the isolation and the sanctions, the thaw and pivot were strategic decisions by Kim Jong-Un resulting from his belief that he held a stronger hand. Kim Jong-Un had a more receptive counterpart in President Moon Jae-in of South Korea who favored engagement over pressure. President Trump, for his part, was distancing America from its allies in Asia. All this took place amidst the backdrop of being now established as a nuclear power. From Kim Jong-Un’s perspective, there was no better time to act.

Understanding Kim Jong-Un

For Kim Jong-Un nuclear weapons are central to the country’s identity. They are enshrined in the constitution and linked to North Korea’s prosperity. Looking at the examples of Saddam Hussein and Mummar Qaddafi, they are a bulwark against American aggression as well as a sign of modernity. He inherited the country from his father, but he has truly made his mark, completing the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, growing the country economically (while under severe international sanctions), and securing multiple meetings with a sitting U.S. president. He has yet to face a real crisis and, largely, escaped the consequences of his actions be it the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan, the Sony hack, or the murder of his brother in Malaysia.

His behavior, at first, may seem irrational, but it is anything but. He seeks to deal bilaterally and split the American-led alliance. He wants to play Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States off of one another. His unwillingness to relinquish or abandon the nuclear program speaks to his desire to retain power and ensure the survival of the country—and the regime. Despite the claims to the contrary, the denuclearization of North Korea is unlikely to happen. Equally, anyone who suggests a first strike against the regime, or the country, is a fool. The consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic.

Full peace with North Korea may be elusive. Pyongyang requires a hostile outside world to justify, in the words of Dr. Pak, the investment of the country’s limited resources into the military. It also allows a convenient scapegoat for the country’s underperforming economy. Perhaps most notably, it allows Kim Jong-Un to play the role of the protector of the country and its people—the defenders of North Korean honor, culture, and heritage against a hostile West.

Kim Jong-Un wants prosperity and growth, but on his terms. He wants to provide a high-tech world for the North Korean people—or at least those who can afford it—but disconnected from the outside world. He wants to grow the economy, but without integrating with the global economy and foreign investment.

For Dr. Pak, the path forward is attempting to convince Kim Jong-Un that nuclear weapons are a liability and a threat to the regime. She suggests that Washington and its allies work to “intensify North Korea’s internal contradictions, sharpen the choices that Kim has to make, and alter his risk calculus.” As she notes “there are no silver bullets” in dealing with North Korea. Indeed, it seems as though Washington must learn to live with and chart a path toward managing North Korea and Kim Jong-Un.

Having read Dr. Pak’s book one is left with the realization that the real North Korea—not the bombast and silliness with which most of the public views it—is infinitely more interesting and complex. Behind the façade of over-the-top parades, declarations of superhuman feats of skill, and beyond the—to western eyes—strangeness, North Korea is simply fascinating. To look at it as a Monty Python-esque country is to look at through a lens at which the CIA’s Heuer would almost surely shake his head. To make policy based on that superficial appearance is the height of folly. It is a truly hard problem, but one that Washington can better understand and, hopefully, make better policy towards.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Becoming Kim Jong-Un

May 23, 2020

Becoming Kim Jong-Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator, Dr. Jung H. Pak Ballantine Books (April 2020).

I

n the summer of 2017, I found myself in Seoul, South Korea, for a series of meetings. It was my first time in that country (a country to which I very much want to return). Among the many experiences, perhaps the most fascinating was just talking with everyday Koreans about what it was like living with an unruly and unpredictable neighbor to the north. For their part, they were more interested in finding out what it was like having a fairly unpredictable president in the Oval Office, but to a person, they were very blasé about the North. A common refrain was “we’ve lived in a state of war for 50 years, to us it’s just another day” or some variation on that theme.

Becoming Kim Jong-Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator, Dr. Jung H. Pak Ballantine Books (April 2020).

For Washington, North Korea, and its leader Kim Jong-Un, is perhaps the most puzzling, threatening, and opaque national security challenge. Most of the country, outside of the beltway (and perhaps many inside), views the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as an oddball, a curiosity. They are more likely to conjure up images of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s puppet Kim Jong-Il or Seth Rogan’s lonely Kim Jong-Un from The Interview, than to have any real appreciation of the country itself. And that is not entirely their fault.

The pageantry, the hyperbole, the bombast, and the absolute dictatorship make understanding North Korea nigh impossible. The media, clamoring for anything out of the hermit kingdom, fixates on the wacky or the bizarre—how Kim Jong-Il scored a 34 on a round of golf, how his son learned to drive at the age of three and won a yacht race at nine years old. Still, the Western fixation on the silliness masks a frighteningly repressive regime, one that operates a massive system of gulags and, as is well known, a nuclear power with missiles now capable of reaching the United States.

How does one square this North Korean circle? What policies can Washington make to manage the North Korean challenge when the country itself, to borrow Churchill’s maxim, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” As the quote continues, “but perhaps there is a key” and Dr. Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution may well help find that key. Dr. Pak, a former CIA officer and the Deputy National Intelligence Officer at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is an excellent guide to understanding North Korea in the context of its history, its view of the outside world, and its leadership.

Applying Analytical Rigor to the Hardest Target

Dr. Pak brings her CIA analytical rigor and training to the challenge of Kim Jong-Un and North Korea. Throughout the book, she references Richards J. Heuer and his Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, a core text on how, and how not, to conduct intelligence analysis. Heuer warns of common analytical failings such as mirror-imaging—assuming the other side will act how the United States would—and “vividness bias” or the tendency to trust information received firsthand more than secondhand information, even though it may have more evidential value.

The inclusion of Heuer and Dr. Pak’s intelligence analysis 101 asides are a welcome addition. When looking at any foreign policy challenge, analytical shortcuts and logical fallacies will naturally be present (we are human, after all) and these weaknesses must be recognized and countered.

But when you add in a regime that is as confusing and opaque as North Korea, militating against these biases becomes even more critical. North Korea is the hardest of hard targets. It is the epitome of an authoritarian state, predicated on a cult of personality that is grandiose and hyperbolic in equal measures. Getting human intelligence from within North Korea is nearly impossible, and what information does come out is often of suspect value.

Look at the recent flurry of coverage on the fate of Kim Jong-Un. Every news outlet from the New York Times to TMZ was speculating that Kim Jong-Un had died or that he was on life support following heart surgery. It instantly whipped up the cottage industry of foreign policy experts speculating about succession in Pyongyang, who would or could succeed Kim Jong-Un, and what it meant for security on the Korean peninsula.

All of this was based on second- or third-hand information. Yet, regional security experts in South Korea, Japan, and China quickly downplayed or refuted such assertions. Even now, conspiracy theories abound that the Kim Jong-Un on display is a stand-in for the real Kim Jong-Un. Because of the behavior of the regime to date, for many such a replacement is entirely possible in the Alice in Wonderland world that seems to define North Korea.

The Millennial Dictator

Perhaps what is most fascinating is to look at Kim Jong-Un as a millennial dictator and what is changing in North Korea today. While he grew up in the lap of luxury and in the shadow of his father’s cult of personality (how many children have generals bowing before them?), he did a study abroad in Switzerland. While there, he became a fan of basketball and had the latest toys and technology. His subjects may have been deprived of access to the outside world, but he certainly wanted for nothing.

He’s a digital native, to a degree. Much like his age cohorts, he grew up with technology and today is frequently photographed with iPads and mobile phones. His embrace of technology is not just personal. He is working to invest domestically and create a North Korean Silicon Valley in Mirae Scientists Street and the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang. North Korea even operates its own domestic, yet tightly controlled, internet called Kwangmyong or “Bright Light”.

Kim Jong-Un presides over a population that in some ways is becoming more middle-class if you are of the right social caste and lucky enough to be connected to the right people. Today, in North Korea there exists a “market generation” or jangmadang, those who scraped out a living through clandestine capitalist activities. For those luckier to find themselves as donju or the “masters of money” life in North Korea is even better. These urban elites are making money, importing foreign designer clothes and high-end cars, and using Chinese cellphones. Dr. Pak recounts the story of North Koreans taking photos of their food, no different than hipsters in Brooklyn, albeit without the brutal socialist repression.

For his part, Kim Jong-Un sought to consolidate his position after he assumed North Korea’s leadership from his father. He worked to promote those who would be loyal to him and him alone, rooted out real or imagined threats to his leadership, and strengthened his cult of personality. Most famously he had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, killed ostensibly due to corruption, drug use, gambling, and other charges.

Even his family life is almost millennial. His wife, Ri Sol-Ju, assumed a much higher profile role in North Korea than his father’s or his grandfather’s significant others. She is seen as fashionable and an aspirational icon for North Korean women. Her public elevation is also likely an attempt to ward off potential challengers and preempt any further palace intrigue. It is believed he has one son, who would likely become his successor.

His behavior, at first, may seem irrational, but it is anything but. He seeks to deal bilaterally and split the American-led alliance. He wants to play Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States off of one another.

His behavior, at first, may seem irrational, but it is anything but. He seeks to deal bilaterally and split the American-led alliance. He wants to play Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States off of one another.

Having Your Songpyeon and Eating it Too

Kim Jong-Un is pursuing a policy of Byungjin, or “parallel development”—a dual-track effort to develop the country’s nuclear infrastructure, while also growing the domestic economy. His grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, sought to do the same, but with conventional military investment and economic growth. Here, Kim Jong-Un is in some ways breaking with his father’s policy of Songun or military-first prioritization. Whereas under his father, the policy was very much military investment and growth to the exclusion of everything else, Kim Jong-Un is pursuing a policy where North Korea can have both nuclear weapons and prosperity.

Under Kim Jong-Un, North Korea built ski resorts, amusement parks, riding centers, and sparked a construction boom called “Pyonghattan” by foreign diplomats. For the three million residents of Pyongyang, life is certainly improving. Consumerism, particularly among the jangmadang and donju is very much on display.

According to Dr. Pak, Kim Jong-Un may be using the signs of affluence as an effort to externally display the success of North Korea’s self-reliance while internally crafting a narrative of the population’s well-being while it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the outside world’s influences out. Indeed, it is hard to imagine North Korean hipsters, as it is in such stark contrast with the impoverished, decaying, hunger-ridden state.

Life for the Other Half of North Korea

To be sure, this is not a socialist utopia or “fairyland”. The jangmadang and donju are a very slim portion of the population. Their very existence in Dr. Pak’s analysis supports Kim Jong-Un’s belief that he is meeting “his own rhetoric of improving the life of North Koreans”.

For those not so fortunate, life in North Korean can and is indeed nasty, brutish, and short. North Korea continues to operate a brutal system of gulags: the Kyohwaso, for criminal and political offenders, but typically with fixed prison sentences, and the Kwanliso, political prison camps for anti-state and anti-people (regime) offenses. At least 120,000 North Koreans are in these gulags, many of whom suffer from the three generations of punishment. These prisons are scenes of horrific physical and psychological torture, some of which Dr. Pak recounts in the book.

The regime’s internal survival is predicated on a system of overlapping security organizations that are rewarded from suppression of human rights and loyalty to Kim Jong-Un. The system exists from the top down to the neighborhood level. The infrastructure is self-reinforcing—the more aggressive an adviser is, the better rewarded he is for demonstrating loyalty.

President Trump Meets with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Sunday, June 30, 2019, as the two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

President Trump Meets with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Sunday, June 30, 2019, as the two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

Conflict and Confrontation; Trump and Tensions

Kim Jong-Un has not been afraid to assert his country’s strength abroad. Indeed as Dr. Pak masterfully recounts, he has used his country’s cyber capabilities to strike against Hollywood in response to the Interview, generate funds through cyber theft and extortion, and attack South Korean targets. He used his country’s chemical weapons to assassinate his brother in Malaysia, having two women who thought they were on a reality TV show smear VX nerve agent on his face. He’s also used his country’s nuclear and ballistic missile program to ratchet up tensions and assert maximum leverage with the international community.

In Dr. Pak’s analysis, Kim Jong-Un accelerated the missile and nuclear weapons program to highlight his country’s strategic relevance and secure leverage. Much as his father did, Kim Jong-Un sought to raise tensions, draw the international community to the table, and secure some concessions and breathing room. But where Kim Jong-Un differs is in his application of maximum engagement, as well.

Throughout 2017, the world waited with bated breath as President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un waged a war of words over social media, trading barbs and threats. The risk of miscalculation seemed very much real. Yet the following year, Kim Jong-Un engaged with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, his sister Kim Yo-jong traveled to the South Korean Winter Olympic Games, and, in June 2018, the North Korean dictator met President Trump at the DMZ.

For Washington, the pivot was a result of President Trump’s tough rhetoric, which pressured Kim Jong-Un to come to the proverbial negotiating table. This is, of course, only part of the story. To be sure, the sanctions against North Korea had never been stronger than at the time of the meeting or the thaw. Washington’s aggressive diplomatic effort led to Pyongyang being even more isolated than before.

Perhaps more than just the isolation and the sanctions, the thaw and pivot were strategic decisions by Kim Jong-Un resulting from his belief that he held a stronger hand. Kim Jong-Un had a more receptive counterpart in President Moon Jae-in of South Korea who favored engagement over pressure. President Trump, for his part, was distancing America from its allies in Asia. All this took place amidst the backdrop of being now established as a nuclear power. From Kim Jong-Un’s perspective, there was no better time to act.

Understanding Kim Jong-Un

For Kim Jong-Un nuclear weapons are central to the country’s identity. They are enshrined in the constitution and linked to North Korea’s prosperity. Looking at the examples of Saddam Hussein and Mummar Qaddafi, they are a bulwark against American aggression as well as a sign of modernity. He inherited the country from his father, but he has truly made his mark, completing the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, growing the country economically (while under severe international sanctions), and securing multiple meetings with a sitting U.S. president. He has yet to face a real crisis and, largely, escaped the consequences of his actions be it the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan, the Sony hack, or the murder of his brother in Malaysia.

His behavior, at first, may seem irrational, but it is anything but. He seeks to deal bilaterally and split the American-led alliance. He wants to play Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States off of one another. His unwillingness to relinquish or abandon the nuclear program speaks to his desire to retain power and ensure the survival of the country—and the regime. Despite the claims to the contrary, the denuclearization of North Korea is unlikely to happen. Equally, anyone who suggests a first strike against the regime, or the country, is a fool. The consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic.

Full peace with North Korea may be elusive. Pyongyang requires a hostile outside world to justify, in the words of Dr. Pak, the investment of the country’s limited resources into the military. It also allows a convenient scapegoat for the country’s underperforming economy. Perhaps most notably, it allows Kim Jong-Un to play the role of the protector of the country and its people—the defenders of North Korean honor, culture, and heritage against a hostile West.

Kim Jong-Un wants prosperity and growth, but on his terms. He wants to provide a high-tech world for the North Korean people—or at least those who can afford it—but disconnected from the outside world. He wants to grow the economy, but without integrating with the global economy and foreign investment.

For Dr. Pak, the path forward is attempting to convince Kim Jong-Un that nuclear weapons are a liability and a threat to the regime. She suggests that Washington and its allies work to “intensify North Korea’s internal contradictions, sharpen the choices that Kim has to make, and alter his risk calculus.” As she notes “there are no silver bullets” in dealing with North Korea. Indeed, it seems as though Washington must learn to live with and chart a path toward managing North Korea and Kim Jong-Un.

Having read Dr. Pak’s book one is left with the realization that the real North Korea—not the bombast and silliness with which most of the public views it—is infinitely more interesting and complex. Behind the façade of over-the-top parades, declarations of superhuman feats of skill, and beyond the—to western eyes—strangeness, North Korea is simply fascinating. To look at it as a Monty Python-esque country is to look at through a lens at which the CIA’s Heuer would almost surely shake his head. To make policy based on that superficial appearance is the height of folly. It is a truly hard problem, but one that Washington can better understand and, hopefully, make better policy towards.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.