News / Asia

Is North Korea's New Kim Same as Old Kims?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, March 31, 2013.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, March 31, 2013.
Reuters
North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un is using his forebears' time-tested "crazy-guy-in-the-neighborhood'' strategy, senior U.S. officials say, but with a provocative new twist - aiming Pyongyang's threats directly at the United States.

There are indeed signs of an earlier method in what might seem like Kim's rhetorical madness, which U.S. policymakers say is patterned after more than a half century of rule over the reclusive state by his father and grandfather.

But with a large degree of uncertainty surrounding Kim and limited U.S. intelligence on North Korea's leadership, Washington is still trying to gauge how far the untested 30-year old leader might go to prove himself to his people, and his generals, or to make a belligerent point to South Korea's new president and the world.

North Korea's surprise announcement on Tuesday of plans to restart a long-shuttered nuclear reactor, while not issued by Kim personally, could further raise the stakes in his standoff with the West.

"All bets are off on whether this guy recognizes where the off-ramps are,'' one senior administration official said. ``We don't have enough history with him to know whether or not he has the sophistication that his father displayed in dealing with diplomatic confrontation.''

This official and others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss months of North Korean threats and actions, including missile and nuclear tests, that pose a challenge to President Barack Obama's policy of "strategic patience'' toward Pyongyang.

That policy - a refusal to offer new incentives to Pyongyang until it suspends its disputed nuclear program - has yielded little but defiance since Obama took office in 2009.

Joseph DiTrani, formerly the U.S. intelligence community's top expert on North Korea, said the "cadence change'' displayed by Kim's tough talk and military gestures, such as this year's nuclear test, indicate he is under heavy pressure from the country's military elite.

"He's got to present [an image of] ... strength to those elements,'' DiTrani said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) presides over an urgent operation meeting on the Korean People's Army Strategic Rocket Force's performance of duty for firepower strike, at the Supreme Command in Pyongyang, March 29, 2013.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) presides over an urgent operation meeting on the Korean People's Army Strategic Rocket Force's performance of duty for firepower strike, at the Supreme Command in Pyongyang, March 29, 2013.


No cause for alarm?

Though Kim has fired or demoted some generals since taking power, Pyongyang's military leadership remains a political force to be reckoned with.

He has sought to placate them by paying homage to the "Military First,'' or Songun, philosophy his late father, Kim Jong Il, preached to justify use of impoverished North Korea's scarce resources to build a 1.2 million-strong army and a nuclear weapons program, Asia experts say.

Still, the Obama administration insists there is no cause for alarm.

 Pyongyang's assertion over the weekend that it had entered a "state of war'' with South Korea over its joint military drills with the United States, has not led to corresponding movements of North Korean forces, the White House said.

And while Pyongyang's bluster may be unsettling, images of Kim posing in front of maps portraying missile targets on the U.S. mainland require a stretch of the imagination, given that North Korea has yet to prove it has mastered ballistic technology capable of reaching American shores.

U.S. officials insist they are anything but nostalgic for Kim Jong Il, who was seen by Washington as dangerous though at least predictable. He issued threats and even acted militarily to get the world's attention but would draw the line at open armed conflict, using crises he provoked as leverage in international negotiations.

 The younger Kim, little known to the West when he took power in December 2011, appears intent on stretching the limits of his family's playbook. He has taken the spotlight not only to issue some threats in person but has gone a step further, hurling them at his country's superpower foe.

"There are clear differences in style and tone [between father and son],'' another senior U.S. official said. "He is much more personally involved in the forefront ... and these threats are more specific and more directly oriented at the United States this time around.''

But this official insisted that even with this new variation of what he called North Korea's "crazy man strategy,'' Kim would not succeed in getting Washington and its allies to "buy them off'' with aid, fuel or other concessions, as previous U.S. administrations have periodically tried to do.

Obama himself offered food aid to North Korea last year, under stringent monitoring terms to ensure it wouldn't be diverted to the military, in return for a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. The deal imploded less than three weeks later when Pyongyang announced plans for what it called a satellite launch and U.S. officials said was a missile test.

Screen grab shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) pointing to a South Korean island during a trip to an artillery unit on Wolnae Island near the disputed maritime frontier with South Korea, Mar. 12, 2012.
Screen grab shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) pointing to a South Korean island during a trip to an artillery unit on Wolnae Island near the disputed maritime frontier with South Korea, Mar. 12, 2012.


Targeting domestic audience

Some U.S. officials believe Pyongyang's bellicosity is aimed primarily at a domestic audience.

They see Kim trying to keep his vast, poorly paid army motivated with anti-U.S. propaganda and improve his status among North Korea's largely dirt poor population by standing up to foreign enemies, even as he seeks to cement his grip on power.

But there is growing concern that Kim's inexperience coupled with his drive to prove himself could lead to a limited strike on a South Korean target, such as a ship or border post, or that the two sides could stumble into military confrontation.

"The greater likelihood is miscalculation,'' former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNBC on Monday. "And if they do something that escalates quickly, that's the greater danger.''

 U.S. officials and independent Korea watchers alike acknowledge, however, they are so short on personal information about Kim that predicting his behavior remains a guessing game.

The Obama administration's original hopes that Kim would turn out to be a reformer have yet to materialize and seem unlikely to any time soon, U.S. officials say.

Despite that, most Korea watchers believe Kim is a rational actor who understands his military is no match for Seoul and its U.S. ally and that straying too far from historic North Korean practices could jeopardize his own political survival.

Kim dialed down the harsh rhetoric in his latest speech this week when he avoided repeating recent threats to attack South Korea and the United States. And he has occasionally tried to project a warmer image.

 Weeks after ordering an internationally banned nuclear explosion, he indulged his passion for basketball by hosting former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

"An awesome kid,'' said Rodman, who has now spent more time
 with Kim than any Western officials ever have.

You May Like

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More