CIA Analyst on What Drives North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

CIA Analyst on What Drives North Korea’s Kim Jong Un
North Koreans watch a statement delivered by dictator Kim Jong Un on a television screen outside of the railway station in Pyongyang on Sept. 22. A top CIA analyst says Kim is not irrational and must face a strong threat from the United States in order to be restrained. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Matthew Little

North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un may launch a missile or take some other calculated action on Columbus Day, but that doesn’t make the dictator irrational, suggested a top CIA official for the Korean Peninsula.

Not speculating as to what exactly Kim may do, Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, told students and reporters at George Washington University that he expected some new provocation from Kim on Oct 10.

“I told my own staff October 10 is the Korean workers party founding day, that’s Tuesday in North Korea, but that’s Monday, Columbus Day holiday in the U.S. so stand by your phones.”

Rational Fear

Speaking on a panel at the CIA’s Ethos and Profession of Intelligence 2017 conference, Lee said Kim was not the irrational actor many believed him to be and that the United States maintaining a threatening posture against his regime was critical to holding him in check.

“There is a clarity in purpose in what Kim Jung Un is doing. I don’t think he is done in fact,” said Lee, who has studied North Korea for 24 years.

There are clear and predictable ways to restrain to North Korea’s behavior, but those restraints have broken down in recent years.

“Since the end of the Korean War, what has bound North Korean behavior is fear of Chinese abandonment on one end, and fear of a U.S. strike on the other end.”

Currently, Kim is not afraid of either possibility, said Lee.

To that end, President Donald Trump’s clear position on North Korea is a benefit, he suggested.

“I think that clarity of the strong purpose statement from the President, clarity of purpose demonstrated on the ground with our South Korean allies in lockstep, I think that needs to continue, that actually needs to probably increase,” he said.

The China Factor

While China and the United States have both toughened their position toward Kim’s regime, they have not yet reached the degree needed to curb Kim’s behavior.

The United States needs to continue holding military exercises like the joint drills conducted with South Korean allies and the B1 bomber flights that passed near the North Korean coast in September, said Lee.

Strong military demonstrations deter North Korea, and motivate the Chinese regime to act, said Lee.

“The only way they [China] are going to put pressure on North Korea is if they are convinced of the seriousness of the U.S. purpose.”

“Their main strategic goal is not to bring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, China’s strategic goal is to frustrate the U.S. and maintain a permanent division of the Korean Peninsula view with the very cynical view that they want that buffer zone between the Yalu River and the DMZ.”

Internal Conflict

Those hoping the United States can de-escalate tensions with North Korea may not understand aspects of the conflict, suggested Lee.
The North Korean regime has constantly demonized the United States, using the threat of an American invasion and ongoing sanctions to justify the regime’s “Songun” or military-first policy.
Songun prioritizes the needs of the military over all other affairs of state, including feeding the civilian population. 
The approach demands a clear and present danger, namely the regime’s fundamental enemy, the United States.
“North Korea is a political organism that thrives on confrontation,” said Lee, describing this as one of biggest lessons he has learned over two decades of studying North Korea.
“One of the big stumbling blocks for dialogue is that if we do come to a good place, North Korea is going to have to explain to its people that ‘suddenly we are friends with the United States.' North Korea exists to oppose the United States so how are you going to explain to your population what you’re last 60, 70 years of sacrifice was all about.”
“At the end of the day, all politics are local,” said Lee.

Bluster Versus Bombs

Fears that Kim would launch a nuclear strike against Los Angeles aren’t well-grounded, he suggested, noting that Kim’s main goal is to remain in power, something unlikely to happen if he should provoke a war with the United States.

“He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed,” Lee said

Leaders of democracies can retire, said Lee. They can write some books, make some speeches and move on to other things.

“That’s not an option for Kim Jong Un, that’s not an option for Assad, you either win and stay in the game…or you lose it all.”

“We have a tendency in this country and elsewhere to underestimate the conservatism that runs in these authoritarian regimes.”

North Korean elites know the cost of war with the United States as well, he said.

“Believe me, North Korean elites are not interested in getting their faces on a deck of cards,” he said.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops were given playing cards with pictures on the face side of senior figures in President Saddam Hussein’s government. The cards were used to help military personnel recognize wanted figures in the field.

Accidental War

Rationality does not preclude the possibility of war, however. Lee warned that the situation on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korean and South Korean navy ships face each other toe-to-toe in the Yellow Sea, could escalate at any moment.

“We are concerned,” he said. “Stumbling into a conflict, that risk exists at any time on the Korean Peninsula.”

That risk is amplified by Kim’s recent provocations, said Lee.

“I think Kim Jong Un himself and North Koreans themselves have miscalculated. They wanted our attention, believe me, they have our full, undivided attention.”

That sentiment was echoed by fellow panelist, Michael Collins, Deputy Assistant Director of CIA for East Asia Mission Center.

“With each increasing escalation, they’re raising the threshold for the United States and others to accept or press back against that,” said Collins.