But the rest of his government thinks Trump is wrong, and now there’s the embarrassing spectacle of Kim’s carefully orchestrated “Olympic outreach” to South Korea over the last few days to prove it once again. Kim sure seemed a lot more like a calculating, cold-blooded leader than a crazy man when he sent his athletes to join a united Korean team for the Games and dispatched his photogenic younger sister to smile, wave and present a personal invite to Pyongyang for South Korea’s president, upstaging Trump’s grim-visaged vice president in the process.
Madmen, as former CIA analyst Jung Pak—one of the agency’s original Kim-watchers—notes in a new interview for The Global Politico, don’t mount such diplomatically canny “charm offensives.”
Still, the fact of Kim’s ruthless sanity may be one of the few hard and fast things the U.S. government actually has concluded with a fair degree of certainty about North Korea’s murderous young dictator. He’s ruled a nuclear-armed outlaw state for the last six years, conducted four nuclear tests and fired off nearly 90 long-range missiles, used a chemical weapon to kill his own half-brother and launched a major cyberattack on a Hollywood studio -- and we still can’t even say for sure when he was born (either 1982, 1983 or 1984) or how many children he has (supposedly three, with a new baby born last year whose identity is officially “gender unknown”). “We just don’t know basic information,” Pak says. “We don’t know the enemy as well as we should.”
The sorry state of our knowledge about Kim – and the urgent need to do a better job of decoding him amid a genuinely escalating threat of armed conflict despite all the Olympic bonhomie – is the striking theme of my conversation with Pak, who served for the last nine years as a CIA analyst charged with understanding the North Korean leader. Pak left the intelligence agency for the Brookings Institution last August, right in the midst of Trump’s pledge to rain down “fire and fury” on “Little Rocket Man” if he didn’t give up his nuclear weapons, and she says the United States has consistently made the mistake Trump is now repeating: turning Kim into a “10-foot-tall baby” with name-calling that underestimates his strengths while overhyping him as a fearsome nuclear player.
In fact, she tells me that the CIA has been getting Kim wrong from the earliest days of his 2011 ascendance to run the country he inherited from his father and grandfather. She recalls an early meeting at the CIA when a senior U.S. intelligence official went around the room asking the analysts how long the government of Kim, at the time just in his 20s, would last. Many predicted he could be gone within two or five years. The CIA saw the regime’s inherent weaknesses – but not its resilience.
Six years later, it’s clear that was a gross miscalculation.
Now, Pak has done an invaluable job of cataloguing what we do know about Kim in a new Brookings Essay, a compelling biographical study of a spoiled scion of a tyrannical family who grew up wearing a miniature general’s uniform to his own birthday parties and now talks of modernity for his country while barricading himself in a bizarre isolation so complete he’s met with only two foreigners – the American basketball player Dennis Rodman and a Japanese sushi chef – in his entire time in power.
Pak is appropriately humble about the perils of Kimology, and she cites as a caveat the wise words of her former CIA colleague Bruce Klingner, who observed that “trying to understand North Korea is like working on a jigsaw puzzle where you have a mere handful of pieces, and your opponent is purposefully throwing pieces from other puzzles into the box.”
The portrait she assembles of Kim is by necessity incomplete, but it is still a fascinating, conventional wisdom-challenging view of one of the world’s most urgent characters, and her conclusion is that much American commentary about Kim is like Trump’s tweets on the subject: misleading and dangerous. Particularly pernicious is the madman canard, which persists despite the accumulating evidence of his six years in power.
Pak, who until recently was writing these same conclusions into the CIA analyses presented to Trump, says very clearly in her essay that “despite all the chest-thumping and bad behavior, Kim is not looking for a military confrontation with the United States.” What’s more, she argues, “he is rational, not suicidal,” and well aware that his regime could not fight and win against South Korea or the United States. In short, while he may be “aggressive, he is not reckless or a ‘madman.’”
In the past, this might have been the sort of debate confined to heated interagency discussions among national security insiders. But in the Trump presidency, the argument over Kim’s sanity has taken on a much more pressing and public cast, given the persistent and reliable reports coming from inside the Trump administration that it is seriously considering a military strike against North Korea.
Such a “bloody nose” attack was long believed to be unthinkable given the enormous risk of retaliation against millions of South Koreans right across the border in Seoul, within range of Kim’s artillery. But reports keep dribbling out of the Trump White House’s active discussion of such an attack. Late last summer, two alarmed former senior U.S. officials told me they had listened in dismay to national security adviser H.R. McMaster speak seriously about a “military option” against North Korea, though they differed at the time about whether McMaster was really contemplating such a strike – or merely wanted the world to think so. Another veteran U.S. government North Korea watcher told me recently that McMaster and other White House officials shared a “messianic fervor” about confronting Kim on his nuclear weapons that made them much more serious about a military course of action. “They view it as a moment in history,” the former official said. “If people have to die it may be better to let them die now.”
Daniel Sneider, a plugged-in Stanford University lecturer who recently traveled to the region and spoke with high-level U.S. State Department and military sources, reported that such scenarios were under active consideration. “Military planners privately acknowledge, and have told the White House,” Sneider wrote, “that there is no way to carry out such a strike without carrying a significant risk of North Korean escalatory response. But it is far from clear if those warnings have been considered seriously, or accepted, by the president and his closest advisors.”
Instead, such fears appeared to have been confirmed in recent days with an unusual public dispute that has broken out between the Trump White House and Victor Cha, a top North Korea expert in the George W. Bush administration who had been tapped as Trump’s ambassador to South Korea. Cha’s appointment was derailed at the last minute even after the Trump administration cleared it with the South Korean government (I’m now told retired Army general James Thurman, who commanded U.S. forces in Korea from 2011 to 2013, is under consideration for the post), and in a Washington Post op-ed Cha suggested it was because he warned the White House about the folly of a “preventive military strike.”
Which takes us right back to Kim Jong Un and the “madman” debate.
“It’s an important discussion,” Pak says, “because if he’s not a rational actor, that means he’s not deterrable” – which is presumably the entire point of a preemptive American attack in the first place.
Pak has now spent years studying the mind and meager public record of North Korea’s leader, and she tells me she has come to believe he’s a lot more willing, and able, to make a deal than Trump would seem to believe. “In looking at him over the past six-plus years, he knows how to step back,” Pak says. “He goes right up to the edge, and he steps back.” Indeed, the entire “Olympic outreach” of recent days, she says, may well be because of the Trump White House’s talk of war, a threat Kim took “seriously enough that they thought a no-cost outreach towards South Korea was warranted.”
“I don’t think he wants to start a nuclear war,” she adds, “because I think he knows that that would just mean the annihilation of his regime and his family.”
I hope she’s right. It’s a pretty sane conclusion about an awfully crazy situation.