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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Turkish Law Gives Spy Agency Controversial Powers

Parliament approves legislation to bolster powers of intelligence service, which government claims is necessary to modernize and deal with new threats Turkey faces More

Video Face of American Farmer Changing

Average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population 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.
Face of American Farmer is Changingi
X
Mike Osborne
April 18, 2014
The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid