Top admiral: North Korea wants to reunify peninsula, not protect rule

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The admiral in charge of U.S. military operations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region said Wednesday he believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s objective with his nuclear weapons program is the unification of the Korean peninsula, rather than the “prevailing” view that Kim’s motivation is to maintain power.

“I do think that there is a prevailing view that [Kim Jong Un] is doing the things that he’s doing to safeguard his regime; I don’t ascribe to that view,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee. “I do think that he is after reunification under a single communist system.”

Harris was responding to a question from committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) about whether people choose to believe Kim’s motivation is the survival of his government because the “alternatives are too terrible to contemplate.”


North Korea has made significant strides in its nuclear and missile programs over the last year, having tested its most powerful nuclear warhead to date in September and an intercontinental ballistic missile in November it says can reach the whole of the United States.

In his opening statement, Harris warned that Kim is “rapidly” getting closer to being able to match its rhetoric about striking America with action.

“While some might dispute both the reliability and quantity of the North’s strategic weapons, it is indisputable that [Kim Jong Un] is rapidly closing the gap between rhetoric and capability,” Harris said. “The Republic of Korea and Japan have been living under the shadow of [North Korea’s] threats for years, and now the shadow looms over the American homeland.”

Many experts and lawmakers argue Kim’s motivation in relentlessly pursuing a nuclear weapon capable of striking the U.S. mainland is as a deterrent against regime change by the United States. Kim saw what happened in the ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, the argument goes, and does not want the same to happen to him.

But Harris on Wednesday urged lawmakers to the take the “long view” on Kim’s motivations.

“He is after what his grandfather failed to do and his father failed to do, and he’s on a path to achieve what he feels is his natural place and where North Korea’s natural outcome is: a unified Korean peninsula that’s subject to [Kim Jong Un] and the communist regime,” Harris said. “I think his nuclear ambitions contribute to that view. It puts him in a position to blackmail the South and other countries in the region, and us.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the committee, replied that the “real answer” is that there’s “no way to know” Kim’s motivations.

“Anyone who confidently asserts that all Kim Jong Un wants to do is protect his regime is just as wrong as anyone who confidently asserts that he definitely wants to reunite the peninsula,” Smith said.

Still, Smith asked Harris what U.S. policy should be if the admiral is correct about Kim’s motivation.

Harris replied that he believes the Trump’s administration’s current pressure campaign is the right approach.

“What we should be doing is what we, in fact, are doing, and that is to increase and maintain the pressure campaign, run by the State Department, to convince Kim Jong Un that his nuclear ambitions are flawed,” Harris said.

Harris is expected to retire from the military soon and has been nominated to become U.S. ambassador to Australia.

Tags Adam Smith Kim dynasty Kim Jong Un Mac Thornberry North Korea Nuclear weapons

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