Former CIA Analyst Provides Holistic View of Kim Jong Un, North Korea on the Global Stage
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, September 18, 2020 — Asia Society Texas Center hosted Brookings Institution senior fellow Dr. Jung Pak along with moderator J.J. Green, national security correspondent at WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C., for a discussion on Dr. Pak’s book Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer's Insights into North Korea's Enigmatic Young Dictator. Informed by her experience as the former top CIA analyst on North Korea, Dr. Pak shared her insights on how the current North Korean leader differs from his predecessors and the global impact his time in power has had.
Becoming Kim Jong Un
The conversation began with Dr. Pak discussing how Kim Jong Un is heavily influenced by his family’s history. Explaining that Kim Jong Un was born in a different era than his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, she noted that Kim Jong Un did not experience world-changing shifts such as the Korean War or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, he instead grew up in a North Korea that was already a nuclear power, she said, thanks to the efforts of his father, and has only ever known a North Korea whose economy was growing.
In Dr. Pak’s opinion, much of Kim Jong Un’s belligerence and swagger is heavily influenced by the fact that he has only known privilege and been surrounded by sycophants all his life. Consequently, she said what motivates Kim Jong Un as a dictator is likely the desire to preserve the dynasty and regime established by his father and grandfather, which he inherited. However, Dr. Pak said that he is constrained by the particular social structure and rules that govern every aspect of life in North Korea. Because Kim Jong Un “can’t deliver on having broad-based prosperity for all, he has to rely on an infrastructure of repression,” she said. There is a degree of the “theater of governance” that the dictator has to put on for his people, she explained, especially the high elites of North Korea.
She highlighted as examples how the recent record number of typhoons and the coronavirus pandemic led to Kim Jong Un meeting with farmers, displaying people in hazmat suits disinfecting public areas, and releasing grain from his own reserves to feed his people. According to Dr. Pak, these are methods of showing the people that he is the one taking care of them. However, she said that, at the end of the day, “he is the only one who controls every aspect of people’s lives from cradle to grave.”
North Korea as a nuclear threat
As the conversation shifted towards North Korea on the global stage, Dr. Pak said while predicting the timing of North Korea’s tactics may be difficult, Kim Jong Un’s strategic goals are generally clear, including the need to present a hostile outside world to justify his policies inside North Korea. She also commented that Kim Jong Un seeks to prove himself as a modern leader, and North Korea as a modern country, by embracing cyberattacks and growing its nuclear capabilities.
She said that expert assessments have determined the country has 20-60 nuclear weapons and that accelerating the nuclear weapons program of the country seems to be a priority for Kim Jong Un. Although no one can say with certainty whether North Korea has missiles that can be miniaturized or can reach the United States, Dr. Pak said one must assume that they do have this capacity or are very close to it.
Kim Jong Un and North Korea on the global stage
Dr. Pak went on to add that she believes the summits between Kim Jong Un and the Trump administration were a missed opportunity for North Korea to work toward having sanctions lifted or U.S. troops move out of the Korean peninsula. She explained that North Korea had favorable political conditions in 2018 and 2019 with world leaders who were willing to engage, but in the end, she indicated that North Korea achieved very little beyond the U.S. postponing military exercises and Kim Jong Un being validated in the media.
When asked about the effect that the global pandemic has had on North Korea, Dr. Pak responded that the country has taken extensive measures since January, including closing their borders to China, quarantining thousands of people, and issuing robust public service announcements on how to protect from the disease. Dr. Pak said these measures could indicate that the virus has been dealt with somewhat effectively, although the country’s claim of zero cases cannot be verified.
Looking toward the future of North Korea
As the conversation began to come to a close, questions about the future of North Korea’s leadership came up, especially around the state of Kim Jong Un’s health and the false claims of his death in recent months. Dr. Pak said that although the exact ailments affecting the North Korean leader cannot be confirmed, physical observations make it clear that he is not in good health. She indicated that nothing is certain regarding succession, but said it is likely no coincidence that Kim Jong Un has made a point of keeping his wife and sister in the public eye as a way of emphasizing that they will play a role in shaping the next generation of the Kim dynasty.
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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