A danger lies in dis­miss­ing Kim Jong Un as ir­ra­tional

N. Korea’s volatile leader is no lu­natic, ex­perts warn

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNA FIFIELD

seoul — It’s easy to write off Kim Jong Un as a mad­man. What with the color­ful nu­clear threats, the grue­some ex­e­cu­tions of fam­ily mem­bers, the fact that he’s a self-ap­pointed mar­shal who’s never served in the mil­i­tary.

In­deed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did it just this past week, call­ing Kim “this crazy, fat kid that’s run­ning North Korea.” That came on the heels of a pro­nounce­ment from Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, that “we are not deal­ing with a ra­tio­nal per­son” in Kim.

It’s a rel­a­tively com­mon view. World lead­ers, mil­i­tary chiefs and Hol­ly­wood have all painted him as an un­hinged ma­niac.

But this is not just wrong, North Korea watch­ers and dic­ta­tor­ship ex­perts say. It also risks dan­ger­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tion.

“North Korea has con­sis­tently been treated like a joke, but now the joke has nu­clear weapons,” said John Park, di­rec­tor of the Korea Work­ing Group at the Har­vard Kennedy School. “If you deem Kim Jong Un to be ir­ra­tional, then you’re im­plic­itly un­der­es­ti­mat­ing him.”

Lead­ers through­out the cen­turies have

re­al­ized it can be ad­van­ta­geous to have your en­e­mies think you’re crazy. Machi­avelli once wrote that it can be wise to pre­tend to be mad, while Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon wanted the North Viet­namese to think he was un­sta­ble and prone to launch a nu­clear at­tack on a whim.

Writ­ing off Kim Jong Un as a lu­natic could equally be play­ing into his hands.

Want proof that he’s no sense­less mad­man?

Ex­hibit A: “He’s still in power,” said Ben­jamin Smith, an ex­pert on regime change at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida. “He and his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther have stayed in power through a se­ries of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents go­ing back to Tru­man.”

Longevity, of course, is the pre­serve of dic­ta­tors, not democrats. In­deed, the 33-year-old has de­fied pre­dic­tions that he would not be able to keep a grip on the au­thor­i­tar­ian state that has been in his fam­ily’s con­trol since 1948. De­cem­ber marked his fifth an­niver­sary in power — a mile­stone that demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent in the South did not reach.

In per­son, Kim is con­fi­dent and well spo­ken, said Michael Spa­vor, a Cana­dian who runs Paektu Cul­tural Ex­change, which pro­motes busi­ness, sports and tourism with North Korea. Spa­vor is one of the very few out­siders to have met Kim.

“He was act­ing very diplo­mat­i­cally and pro­fes­sion­ally,” said Spa­vor, who ac­com­pa­nied Den­nis Rod­man, the bas­ket­ball player, on his trips to North Korea. “He felt old beyond his years. He could be se­ri­ous at times and fun at times but by no means did he seem weird or odd.”

Smith pointed out that say­ing Kim is ra­tio­nal isn’t the same as say­ing “he’s a per­fect guy who makes per­fect de­ci­sions.”

Kim’s de­ci­sions to date have en­abled him to achieve his pri­mary goal — so far — of stay­ing in power by staving off threats, real or an­tic­i­pated, from the elite.

“He has rea­sons to be afraid of con­spir­a­cies in the top lev­els of his gov­ern­ment, es­pe­cially in the mil­i­tary and se­cret po­lice,” said An­drei Lankov, a Rus­sian scholar of North Korea who once stud­ied at Kim Il Sung Uni­ver­sity in Py­ongyang. “You can buy th­ese peo­ple off, but they can still be­tray you. You have to ter­rify them, and that’s what he’s do­ing.”

Kim has sent a mes­sage to the elites who keep him in power through a se­ries of ex­e­cu­tions and purges that keep ev­ery­one fear­ful that they will be next.

Kim has rid him­self of 300-plus of­fi­cials dur­ing his five years at the helm. He no­tably had his own un­cle, Jang Song Thaek, ex­e­cuted for dis­obey­ing or­ders and build­ing his own power base.

Other high-level fig­ures have been killed — a de­fense min­is­ter was re­port­edly dis­patched with an­ti­air­craft fire — or purged. The state se­cu­rity min­is­ter is said to be un­der house ar­rest.

“What’s ir­ra­tional about that? Ir­ra­tional is go­ing to the ICC and sur­ren­der­ing,” Lankov said. A United Na­tions com­mis­sion of in­quiry has rec­om­mended re­fer­ring Kim to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court for crimes against hu­man­ity.

The as­sas­si­na­tion of Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia with a chemical weapon was a mes­sage to out­side ri­vals that the young leader could hunt them down wher­ever they are, an­a­lysts say.

To deal with threats from “hos­tile pow­ers,” in North Korean par­lance, hav­ing nu­clear weapons makes sense for Kim, said Kong­dan Oh of the In­sti­tute for De­fense Anal­y­ses. “Steadily pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons is a very ra­tio­nal thing for him to be do­ing.”

Kim has or­dered three nu­clear tests since he took power — claim­ing that one was a hy­dro­gen bomb — and has over­seen steady im­prove­ments in the mis­sile pro­gram. North Korea has “en­tered the fi­nal stage of prepa­ra­tion” for the test launch of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile, Kim has said, re­fer­ring to a mis­sile ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the U.S. main­land.

North Korea was es­tab­lished in ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to the Amerthe ican “im­pe­ri­al­ist ag­gres­sors” and their “pup­pets” in South Korea. So main­tain­ing a sense of threat from both pro­vides a ra­tio­nale for the state’s ex­is­tence and a shared men­ace to unite the elite and the com­mon peo­ple.

Then there’s the econ­omy. The fact that it’s grow­ing is a sign that the lead­er­ship knows what it’s do­ing, said Park of Har­vard.

“There’s a puz­zle here: The regime is get­ting wealth­ier amid the in­creas­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of sanc­tions,” he said.

While the North Korean econ­omy is far from boom­ing, it has

“Steadily pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons is a very ra­tio­nal thing for him to be do­ing.” Kong­dan Oh, In­sti­tute for De­fense Anal­y­ses

been steadily ex­pand­ing in re­cent years, as ev­i­denced by all the con­struc­tion in Py­ongyang de­spite in­creas­ingly tight re­stric­tions im­posed by the out­side world.

It has done this through staterun trad­ing com­pa­nies that form part­ner­ships with en­ti­ties in China, en­abling them to cir­cum­vent sanc­tions.

“Look at the web of elite North Korean state trad­ing com­pa­nies. You can’t be ir­ra­tional or some­how crazy to con­sis­tently run this sys­tem to ei­ther make money off it or pro­cure what you need for the nu­clear weapons pro­gram,” Park said. “That ob­jec­tively shows that there is a game plan, and a pretty con­sis­tently im­ple­mented game plan.”

But be­ing ra­tio­nal is not the same as be­ing pre­dictable, and many an­a­lysts say that the youngest Kim ap­pears to be tem­per­a­men­tal and hot­headed.

That wor­ries Amer­i­can mil­i­tary lead­ers. “Com­bin­ing nu­clear war­heads with bal­lis­tic mis­sile tech­nol­ogy in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong Un is a recipe for dis­as­ter,” Adm. Harry Harris, the head of Pa­cific Com­mand, said in De­cem­ber.

There is rea­son to be con­cerned about this fac­tor, said Jer­rold Post, a psy­chi­a­trist who founded the CIA’s per­son­al­ity anal­y­sis cen­ter and has stud­ied Kim and his fa­ther.

Kim’s ca­pac­ity for bru­tal­ity and his ap­par­ent spon­tane­ity could be com­pounded by Pres­i­dent Trump’s own im­pul­sive acts, he said.

“This is all about big boys and their big toys,” Post said. “Will he ac­tively threaten the U.S.? I tend to think not, but I must say I’m con­cerned about words lead­ing to ac­tions be­tween him and Pres­i­dent Trump.”

LINDA DAVIDSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A gi­ant im­age of Kim Jong Un and con­fetti cap a con­cert last year at Py­ongyang Arena in the North Korean cap­i­tal. The 33-year-old has de­fied pre­dic­tions that he would not be able to keep a grip on the au­thor­i­tar­ian state that has been in his fam­ily’s con­trol since 1948.

SHAN­NON STAPLETON/REUTERS

Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, at­tends a news con­fer­ence with South Korea’s U.N. en­voy, Cho Tae-yul.

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