Top officials from the CIA said Wednesday that Kim's actions are not those of a maniacal provocateur
US-led efforts to apply additional diplomatic pressure on North Korea in recent months have been met with greater defiance
Between the ruthless executions of his own senior officers, bombastic threats of nuclear annihilation and defiant missile tests, it may be easy to agree with President Donald Trump’s recent assessment that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a “madman” who is “on a suicide mission for himself.”
But top officials from the CIA said Wednesday that Kim’s actions are not those of a maniacal provocateur but a “rational actor” who is motivated by clear, long-term goals that revolve around ensuring regime survival.
“There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong Un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, who discussed the escalating tensions between North Korea and the US during a conference organized by the agency at George Washington University.
Why North Korea wants nukes and missiles
“Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke” Los Angeles is not something Kim Jong Un is likely to do, Lee said. “He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”
And for CIA officers, diplomats and lawmakers tasked with utilizing intelligence to protect the US and its allies from the security threats posed by North Korea, understanding that purpose could prove to be key in avoiding a potentially devastating military conflict.
US-led efforts to apply additional diplomatic pressure on North Korea in recent months have been met with greater defiance as the Kim regime continues to march toward realizing its nuclear ambitions.
Despite assurances from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the US continues to seek a peaceful resolution, neither side has overtly indicated that it is ready or willing to engage in serious negotiations.
The mixed-messages coming from the Trump administration also continue to raise questions about the US approach to North Korea.
Trump has repeatedly undercut comments made by his top officials and publicly engaged in a war of words with Kim that has devolved into insults and name-calling – only raising fears of an eventual military conflict.
“When they hear what’s coming from the President, I think it resonates with them,” said Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani, who previously served at the Department of State as the Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea.
“But they also know we have a process and I think right now they’re probing,” he said.
Trump said Thursday the US will “do what we must do” to prevent further threats from North Korea.
“We cannot allow this dictatorship to threaten our nation or our allies with unimaginable loss of life,” he said at a meeting with top military officers.
“We will do what we must do to prevent that from happening and it will be done if necessary, believe me.”
But while Trump continues to publicly paint Kim as an irrational dictator, CIA officials said the intelligence community views the North Korean leader’s actions through a different lens.
“The last person who wants conflict on the peninsula is actually Kim Jong Un,” Lee said. “We have a tendency in this country and elsewhere to underestimate the conservatism that runs in these authoritarian regimes.”
While Kim may not want a war with the US, he does view the strategy of perpetuating a confrontational relationship as a key to maintaining his grip on power, according to Lee and Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the east Asia and Pacific mission center at the CIA.
“North Korea is a political organism that thrives on confrontation,” Lee said.
Since succeeding his father in 2011, Kim’s rise from political novice to adept operator has stemmed from a calculated commitment to consolidating power within his own regime and transforming North Korea into a nuclear state.
Internally, Kim has demonstrated a willingness to purge those who might pose a threat to his rule.
One report from a South Korean think tank, the Institute for National Security Strategy, claims he has ordered the executions of at least 340 people since he came to power – 140 of whom were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party.
In 2013 he executed his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek. By making it particularly visible, with state media declaring Jang a “traitor for all ages,” Kim made sure there was no dissent to the decision.
He is also accused of ordering the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, earlier this year in Malaysia but North Korea has repeatedly and vehemently denied any involvement.
While ruthless and violent, Kim’s behavior fits the profile of a leader acting out of his own self-interest, rather than emotion or impulse, Lee said – a theme that is consistent in his dealings with the US as well.
“Kim’s long-term goal is to come to some sort of big power agreement with the US and to remove US presence from the peninsula,” Lee said, adding he wants to make North Korea relevant on the global stage again.