Questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets about North Korea appear to be exposing some possible rifts between the White House and the U.S. intelligence community over how best to read North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders Wednesday suggested the North Korean leader was mentally unstable when asked about the most recent tweet, despite previous, public assessments from Central Intelligence Agency officials that for all the dangers, Kim is a “very rational actor.”
“The president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” Sanders said. “He’s made repeated threats. He’s tested missiles time and time again for years.”
It is not the first time the U.S. president has disparaged Kim.
In the past, Trump has also referred to Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man,” and in one tweet said he was “obviously a madman.”
CIA: Kim not crazy
Those assessments from the White House, though, seem to stand in contrast to what CIA officials have been saying for months, arguing that while the threat from North Korea is grave, Kim Jong Un is not crazy.
Instead, they have said the North Korean leader displays “clarity of purpose” even as he antagonizes and provokes on the world stage.
“Kim Jong Un is a very rational actor,” Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, said at an agency-sponsored event this past October.
“Bluster and rhetoric aside, Kim Jong Un has no desire to go toe to toe with [U.S. and South Korea’s] combined forces command,” Lee said. “Kim Jong Un wants what all authoritarian rulers want ... to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”
Pyongyang’s goal, according to Lee and other intelligence officials, is to gain recognition as a major nuclear power and eventually negotiate a deal with the United States that sees American forces leave the Korean Peninsula.
Other U.S. intelligence agencies have been in agreement.
“We have long assessed that Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in its 2017 World Wide Threat Assessment, issued this past May.
Limits to rationality?
Asked about the apparent differences in the White House and CIA assessments of the North Korean leader’s rationality, a U.S. intelligence official said, “there is no daylight between the idea that Kim is someone who acts with clear goals of self-preservation and the fact that he uses brutal and abnormal methods to achieve these goals.
“To some, testing nuclear weapons while your people are starving is not rational,” the official added. “But when you believe those weapons are critical to your survival, it is not so irrational.”
There are also concerns that Kim’s ability to think and act rationally is limited.
“We don’t think he has an understanding about how tenuous his position is,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California last month, suggesting, “Those around him are not feeding him the truth about the place he finds himself and how precarious his position is in the world today.”
Questions to the National Security Council about differences between the White House and the intelligence community went unanswered.But on Tuesday, U.S. National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, offered little hope that Kim Jong Un and North Korea would be willing to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program.
“The only way to do that really now short of war is through coercive economic power,” McMaster told VOA.
“What’s important to recognize is that North Korea is pursuing this nuclear weapon, not for just defensive purposes that you hear some people argue about, but really for coercive purposes, for offensive purposes, and the world has to recognize that,” he added.