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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs