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.

NCNA/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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