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.
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The rehabilitation of Kim Young-choi, who was responsible for sinking the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan in 2010, which killed 46 seamen, is another clue, says Howard, who is now the director of the Terrorism Research and Education Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.Skip to next paragraph
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It could signal that Kim Jong-un is taking a harder military line, since Kim Young-choi is also believed to have coordinated cyberattacks on South Korean firms, as well as an assassination attempt on a high-ranking North Korean defector.
“It seems that a more aggressive clique now has influence over Kim,” Howard says.
Indeed, plenty of questions remain about just what Kim’s relationship is to the military, says Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Is he in control, is he not in control? There are so many unknowns here,” Mr. Cha says.
“We don’t know how he views the world, we don’t know how he views the credibility of his own nuclear arsenal, whether he views the US and South Korea as paper tigers – we know none of these things.”
Even though Kim’s current behavior seems like bluster, says Cha, “The more he does these things, the more worried you get.”
The concern is that as a favored, privileged son, perhaps he doesn’t realize the seriousness of his actions. “This kid who they have as a leader now is perhaps starting to believe his own press,” Howard says.
“I was fairly certain that his father was rational – or at least had people around him that wouldn’t let him carry out these threats. His grandfather played it to the hilt successfully,” he adds. “I just don’t know with this young Kim."
In that case, it may be up to the US to cool the rhetoric, which Secretary of State John Kerry and others have been endeavoring to do. “This is a game of chicken. You’ve got a car coming head-on at you, and you see the driver of the oncoming car throw the steering wheel out the window,” says Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “It’s up to you to move.”
On this point, Pentagon officials seem willing to take some bluster in stride, but also emphasize that they will defend US interests and allies in the region.
“Well, you all know enough about North Korea. There is uncertainty in that government and in their leadership and intentions. But that isn't the issue,” Hagel said in the press conference.
“The issue is that we have to be prepared to defend our interest and the allies' interests,” he added.
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