Kim Jong-un: ‘He’s rational, not crazy’
North Korea’s leader is an easy target for jokes but calling him mad underestimates him
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a military operation at an undisclosed location in North Korea in April. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
With his trademark floppy fringe and shaved-back-and-sides hairstyle, his permanent grin and his corpulent frame packed into a military-style suit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looks like a dictator out of a Hollywood movie.
Dismissed as a “total nut job” by American president Donald Trump, who has threatened a nuclear assault if North Korea continues to provoke him with its atomic weapons programme, Kim has been scorned as a madman by the international community and has come to personify the weird mix of menace and stubbornness of his country.
He is an easy target for satirists, but to call Kim mad is to underestimate the 33-year-old leader. While he certainly has his eccentricities, he has shown himself to be a remarkably cunning and determined political leader, taking over swiftly from his father Kim Jong-il despite his lowly status in the family and developing a nuclear arsenal that now threatens American territory.
Kim is not suicidal, but I do think conflict has become more likely in recent months
Along the way, he has wiped out his rivals and even overseen an improvement in the country’s economy.
“Kim is rational, not crazy. His provocations and weapons programmes ensure regime security and stoke nationalism in order to help shore up his domestic legitimacy,” says Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing.
“At the expert level, I think this is widely understood, but for the general public, the idea that someone would choose a path of such extreme isolation and poverty for their country is hard to fathom, and may seem crazy,” says Haenle.
“Kim is not suicidal, but I do think conflict has become more likely in recent months. The threat posed by North Korea has reached a level that is unacceptable for the United States. As North Korea’s weapons programme has passed several critical thresholds in its development, it has become increasingly unlikely that North Korea would be willing to give up what it has successfully developed. The Trump administration appears to feel that it is running out of options.”
“The odds of conflict remain very low, but in 25 years of working on this issue in and out of government, I have never seen quite this level of anxiety in the region,” says Michael J Green of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who was an Asia expert in the George W Bush administration.
“Kim’s bluster and weapons-testing is primarily about regime survival … He needs nuclear weapons to intimidate his neighbours, get negotiating leverage to reduce sanctions and criticism of his regime, demonstrate his legitimacy vis-a-vis a far more successful democratic South, keep powerful China off guard, and to impress his own military so they don’t turn on him,” says Green.
“When threatened with real military action in the past, the North has upped its rhetoric, but always quietly backed down rather than risk complete destruction,” he adds. But Kim’s willingness to go to the brink has not been tested, unlike his father and grandfather.
“He may be somewhat more likely to overstep because of his greater lack of legitimacy and experience and the impunity he may feel with a new nuclear arsenal,” says Green. “He is reportedly not in good physical health, which raises questions about his mental health – and his regime has never confronted an American leader with the fiery rhetoric of Donald Trump.”
No appetite for destruction
In North Korea, the current nuclear crisis has been driven by the belief that the US wants to destroy it and finish the job started during the Korean War (1950-53), which ended without a peace treaty.
The US and South Korea are due to start joint military drills later this month, traditionally a period of fiery rhetoric from the North. But this year the world’s attention is more focused on North Korea than usual. Technological advances have made it possible for one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach the continental US. And Donald Trump’s threat to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never seen” has escalated tensions and fears.
This is the third generation of the Kim family to run North Korea, after the Dear Leader, his father Kim Jong-il, and the Supreme Leader, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Physically, Kim Jong-un most resembles his grandfather, an image he is careful to cultivate.
Eldest son Kim Jong-nam was in disgrace after he was caught in 2001 trying to enter Japan to visit Disneyland
Kim’s determination is evident in the way he managed to become the chosen successor, as his background was not particularly auspicious.
North Korea is a patriarchy in which the first son is traditionally the successor, but this third son assumed power in 2011 after the sudden death of Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-un’s mother, Ko Yong-hui, a professional dancer who died in 2004, was born in Osaka in Japan, and her mother was Japanese, making her of low social status. She was, however, Kim Jong-il’s favourite consort.
Eldest son Kim Jong-nam was in disgrace after he was caught in 2001 trying to enter Japan to visit Disneyland, while second son Kim Jong-chol was out of favour because he was seen as “effeminate”, according to the memoirs of a Japanese sushi chef who once worked for the Kim family in Pyongyang.
Not so western
Kim Jong-un, although educated at a private school in Switzerland, kept very much to himself and didn’t absorb western influences in the way his elder brothers did. He returned to Pyongyang for his third-level education, attending the Kim Il-sung Military University.
Since coming to power, he has entrenched his powerful position ruthlessly. His uncle Chang Song-thaek, who was once considered a possible voice of reform and who had reportedly been plotting a coup, is thought to have been shot to pieces at the Gang Gun Military Academy using anti-aircraft howitzers. Kim’s older brother Kim Jong-nam was apparently assassinated in Kuala Lumpur using the highly toxic nerve gas agent VX.
The army is the key to power in North Korea, and Kim consistently repeats how the country is a “military-first” society. The People’s Army is the world’s fifth-largest military.
“In order for us to eternally glorify the dignity of military-first Korea and successfully accomplish the cause of building a powerful socialist state, first, second, and third, we must strengthen the people’s army in every way,” Kim Jong-un said in 2012 on Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather.
In that same speech he clearly signalled his nuclear ambitions. “Military technological supremacy is not a monopoly of imperialists any more, and the time has gone forever when the enemies threatened and intimidated us with atomic bombs,” he said.
The Chinese question
There have been eight rounds of sanctions from the United Nations since 2006 and they have certainly affected economic development in the countryside, although recent economic data seem to indicate that economic growth is rising.
Cai Jian, executive director of the Centre for Korean Studies and an associate professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, does not believe that North Korea will respond to the new extra-tough round of sanctions with dialogue.
“The US describes the new sanctions against North Korea as the hardest yet. This new round of sanctions is stricter and will shrink North Korea’s revenues by $1 billion. But it is very unlikely that any sanctions will bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Sanctions are merely a gesture,” says Cai.
Zhang Liangui, North Korean expert at the Communist Party School in Beijing, points out how Pyongyang has said many times it will not give up its nuclear programme.
“So far no methods have worked to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table because it is not a thing North Korea is willing to negotiate,” said Zhang.
China’s role in resolving the issue is a key factor in the crisis, with Donald Trump regularly tweeting that China is not doing enough to help. North Korea’s economy is strongly reliant on China.
Beijing’s leaders are said to be angry that its ideological ally, at whose side China stood during the Korean War, developed nuclear technology despite repeated demands to stop. The assassination of Kim Jong-nam, who was living under Chinese protection in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, has also upset Beijing.
President Xi Jinping has not made an official visit, nor has he invited Kim Jong-un to visit and is said to be personally aggrieved by the behaviour of the young leader. Kim seems prepared to let relations with China suffer and concentrate instead on his key aims of ensuring security and keeping a strong grip on power.
“China is always blamed for not doing enough, but China doesn’t agree that sanctions are the only way of fixing the situation,” says Cai. “China has the responsibility to maintain international order, but because of agreeing to the sanctions as a member of the UN Security Council, our relationship with North Korea has worsened.”
Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia-Pacific country risk at IHS Markit, believes reaching a negotiated settlement with North Korea will become more problematic after Trump’s “fire and fury” comments.
“North Korea is likely to continue testing and advancing its weapons capabilities undeterred by US pressure or UN sanctions,” she says. “Even a limited pre-emptive military strike by the US or its allies would be almost certain to draw a retaliation by North Korea, risking a nuclear conflict.”
The role of other principals is primarily to slow down Trump's decision-making and steer him toward a less confrontational direction
Assessing the chances of conflict breaking out has been complicated by the clearly different voices in the US administration. Trump has said his “fire and fury” remarks might not have been enough of a threat, and defence secretary James Mattis has warned of the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if North Korea attacks the US.
On the other hand, secretary of state Rex Tillerson has indicated that the US would be willing to negotiate if North Korea stops its nuclear tests. He has said war is not imminent.
“I think the president listens to Mattis, Tillerson, and national security adviser HR McMaster,” says Haenle. “But the president’s impact on the direction of US policy cannot be understated. I think the role of other principals is primarily to slow down his decision-making, walk him back from options to use force, and steer him toward a less confrontational direction.”
Zhang Liangui says: “Northeast Asia will continue to be unstable. It is not even a race between tougher sanctions and nuclear development, as North Korea is developing missiles and nuclear weapons, with or without sanctions. It is a national strategy.”