Inside the mind of a dictator: trying to grasp Kim’s thought process


A surprise visit to Sweden (which represents U.S. interests in Pyongyang) by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in what appears initial planning for a Trump-Kim summit is revving up the idle speculation that has become a favorite pastime of the chattering classes in both Washington and Seoul, pontificating on do’s and don’ts and will they/won’t they.

What is missing from this interminable babble is consideration of two core questions that will make or break both summits.

{mosads}Perhaps the bottom-line question: Is Kim Jong Un having a “Deng Xiaoping moment?” In the face of ever-toughening economic sanctions that are starting to disrupt his economy — and his ability to buy-off the elite — has Kim concluded that with China supporting sanctions and Trump threatening military strikes, he must rethink Byungjin — the parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy. 


The logic of Kim’s internal dialogue would be something like this:

“I’m getting squeezed, Byungjin is at risk. I’m 34, I want to be around for three or four more decades. I like basketball and single malt, and I want to see a more prosperous, hi-tech, unified Korea, maybe a loose confederation, that leaves me in place.

“Economic reform and communist authoritarian rule have worked in China and Vietnam, making them rich, and I can avoid their mistakes. I’ve played the regime in Seoul well, and I can continue to call the shots.

“But the price tag will be giving up all my weapons of mass destruction. I think a ‘Big Bang’ deal would jump start the economy like China’s reforms did, then economic performance would be enough for legitimacy.

“I wouldn’t need nukes, especially if the North and South move forward and the U.S. leaves the peninsula after a peace treaty. The U.S. doesn’t know where all my nukes are anyway, and I could hide away one or two that they would never find.

“But it may be worth it to try for both. I can propose a nuclear freeze at the North-South summit. President Moon Jae-in likes it as an ‘interim step’ to denuclearization, but I can insist on U.N. sanctions being lifted as the price.

“Then the pressure would be off, we can be accepted as a normal state like Pakistan, and I can find an excuse not to go beyond the freeze.

“If the U.S. opposes, I can gradually concede. I can raise the price for my nukes and intercontinental ballistic missiles. We need energy help and cold cash quickly, hydroelectricity from the Russian Far East. Oil and gas pipelines would build a Northeast Asian integrated energy scheme, and I would collect rents.

“Like we did in the 2005 agreement, I can demand U.S.-North Korea normalization and a peace regime with trilateral security guarantees from the U.S., Russia and China. That would reduce risk and open foreign investment. I could demand a $20-billion Korean Reconstruction Fund and put it under China’s AIIB as part of BRI.”

Such a scenario could occur if Kim decided to make a leap of faith and embrace Chinese-type reforms. But the second core question could undermine it — even if both sides cut a deal with the best of intentions.

That question is: How do you verify any agreement?

After secretly building a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in the 1990s as a hedge against U.S. reneging on the 1994 Agreed Framework and after secretly building a nuclear facility in Syria, Pyongyang has little credibility. For Trump, it will be a variation of Reagan’s line to Gorbachev during the Cold War: Distrust, but verify.

Apart from a nasty track record of cheating, there is a larger problem: We don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons Kim has or where they all are; we don’t know how many medium- and long-range mobile missiles he has or what mountains and tunnels they are hiding in; and we don’t know exactly how many HEU facilities they have or where they all are.

Normally, upon reaching a deal, Pyongyang would need to make a declaration detailing its weapons programs for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would monitor and conduct inspections. But even with the most intrusive inspections, would any one have confidence Kim has not squirreled away a nuke and a delivery system somewhere we would be unlikely to find?

All such deals are imperfect, so the U.S. must assume North Korean cheating. But how much cheating can you live with, and how would we know what we don’t know?

At present, we have little evidence of the first imperative — that Kim has made a strategic choice and is having a “Deng Xiaoping moment.” Kim’s behavior since his Jan. 1 speech has been unusually reasonable. The U.S. needs to test that proposition.

On the verification problem, there may be some viable formula that the U.S. could live with that I am not aware of. Whoever can provide answers to these questions should get the Nobel Prize. All the other issues are pale in comparison. 

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008-12. Find him on Twitter: @Rmanning4

Tags Aftermath of the Korean War Agreed Framework East Asia Government of North Korea Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un Korea Korean reunification North Korea Nuclear proliferation Politics Politics of North Korea

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video