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Kim Jong-un: Can US trust North Korean leader to act rationally?

Kim Jong-un isn't the first North Korean leader to use threats for political gain. But the West doesn't really know what to make of him because of his youth and the uncertainty that shrouds the country.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / April 3, 2013

North Koreans rally in Nampo, North Korea, Wednesday, according to the official North Korean news agency. The rally is reportedly a demonstration of support for victory in a possible war against the United States and South Korea.

NCNA/Reuters

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Washington

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s saber-rattling rhetoric and threats to restart his nuclear program could be a rational move to garner more in the way of concessions in the world community and much-needed political street credentials among the populace and troops he commands.

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But just how confident can Pentagon officials be about whether Mr. Kim is a rational actor?

Could he, in fact, be young, reckless, without great political savvy and in grave danger of making a move that could set off a chain of events – including an inadvertent war – with dire consequences?

“We’ve seen some historical trajectory here on where North Korea occasionally will go to try to get the attention of the United States, to try to maneuver us into some position favorably to them, whether it’s more assistance or bilateral engagement,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a press conference last week. 

“But the fact is that this is the wrong way to go. The action that he’s taken and the actions they’ve taken and the words he’s used, it is not going to project a more responsible, accountable relationship.”

That seems evident. But how clear is it that Kim knows what he’s doing, anyway? And is he, in fact, the one in charge? Or could he be vying for power with, say, North Korean military leaders? 

On this question, Mr. Hagel appeared, publicly at least, to have little interest in a North Korean version of Kremlinology. “Well, he’s the leader,” he said. “I mean, he’s the leader of North Korea.” 

Defense analysts say that there are indeed some hints that Kim may be losing his hold on the military.

There have been defections of small units of North Korean soldiers to China – soldiers who were subsequently turned around and sent back to North Korea, says retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, former commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, which has an Asia focus.

This may seem like a positive development, but it is a problem because it means that Kim may feel the need to reassert his control over the military, by beating the war drum and trying to get his troops to rally around it. The more he needs their support, the harder he might beat the drum.

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