Between the ruthless executions of his own senior officers, bombastic threats of nuclear annihilation and defiant missile tests, it may be easy to agree with President Donald Trump’s recent assessment that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a “madman” who is “on a suicide mission for himself.”
But top officials from the CIA said Wednesday that Kim’s actions are not those of a maniacal provocateur but a “rational actor” who is motivated by clear, long-term goals that revolve around ensuring regime survival.
“There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong Un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, who discussed the escalating tensions between North Korea and the US during a conference organized by the agency at George Washington University.
“Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke” Los Angeles is not something Kim Jong Un is likely to do, Lee said. “He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”
And for CIA officers, diplomats and lawmakers tasked with utilizing intelligence to protect the US and its allies from the security threats posed by North Korea, understanding that purpose could prove to be key in avoiding a potentially devastating military conflict.
US-led efforts to apply additional diplomatic pressure on North Korea in recent months have been met with greater defiance as the Kim regime continues to march toward realizing its nuclear ambitions.
Despite assurances from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the US continues to seek a peaceful resolution, neither side has overtly indicated that it is ready or willing to engage in serious negotiations.
The mixed-messages coming from the Trump administration also continue to raise questions about the US approach to North Korea.
Trump has repeatedly undercut comments made by his top officials and publicly engaged in a war of words with Kim that has devolved into insults and name-calling — only raising fears of an eventual military conflict.
“When they hear what’s coming from the President, I think it resonates with them,” said Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani, who previously served at the Department of State as the Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea.
“But they also know we have a process and I think right now they’re probing,” he said.
But while Trump continues to publicly paint Kim as an irrational dictator, CIA officials said the intelligence community views the North Korean leader’s actions through a different lens.
“The last person who wants conflict on the peninsula is actually Kim Jong Un,” Lee said. “We have a tendency in this country and elsewhere to underestimate the conservatism that runs in these authoritarian regimes.”
While Kim may not want a war with the US, he does view the strategy of perpetuating a confrontational relationship as a key to maintaining his grip on power, according to Lee and Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the east Asia and Pacific mission center at the CIA.
“North Korea is a political organism that thrives on confrontation,” Lee said.
Since succeeding his father in 2011, Kim’s rise from political novice to adept operator has stemmed from a calculated commitment to consolidating power within his own regime and transforming North Korea into a nuclear state.
Internally, Kim has demonstrated a willingness to purge those who might pose a threat to his rule.
One report from a South Korean think tank, the Institute for National Security Strategy, claims he has ordered the executions of at least 340 people since he came to power — 140 of whom were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party.
In 2013 he executed his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek. By making it particularly visible, with state media declaring Jang a “traitor for all ages,” Kim made sure there was no dissent to the decision.
He is also accused of ordering the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, earlier this year in Malaysia but North Korea has repeatedly and vehemently denied any involvement.
While ruthless and violent, Kim’s behavior fits the profile of a leader acting out of his own self-interest, rather than emotion or impulse, Lee said — a theme that is consistent in his dealings with the US as well.
“Kim’s long-term goal is to come to some sort of big power agreement with the US and to remove US presence from the peninsula,” Lee said, adding he wants to make North Korea relevant on the global stage again.
But Kim’s efforts to develop a reliable long-range nuclear weapon have long conflicted with the security priorities of the US and its allies in the region — a concern that has become more urgent in recent months in the wake of several successful missile and nuclear tests.
“North Korea is clearly testing the patience of the US and international community,” Collins said. “With each increasing escalation, they’re raising the threshold for the United States and others to accept or press back against that.”
But Kim seems undeterred by Trump’s threats despite the US President telling the United Nations General Assembly last month that Kim is “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Kim’s actions indicate he is no longer constrained by fears that China might abandon its support for his regime or that the US will launch a military strike — two major factors that have tempered Pyongyang’s boldness in the past, according to Lee.
Unbounded by those fears, the situation “becomes a tolerance of wills,” Lee said, adding now the question is “how far will Kim Jong Un go?”
Collins and Lee both emphasized that China could still wield significant influence over North Korea but said Beijing would have to make the choice of prioritizing its relationship with the US over the strategic benefits of backing Pyongyang.
“China’s strategic goal is to frustrate US and maintain division of peninsula,” Lee said, adding that the US must continue to demonstrate to both Beijing and Pyongyang that all options remain on the table through shows of military force.
“First and foremost, the situation with North Korea is a test of what China wants in its relationship with US,” Collins added.
According to Collins, the intelligence community is currently wrestling with questions related to North Korea’s resolve and monitoring how major players in the region respond to Pyongyang’s provocations in an effort to gauge how far the Kim regime is willing to push the envelope.
Kim remains unlikely to intentionally start a war with the US or its allies like South Korea as that would almost certainly result in his own destruction, according to Collins and Lee, but both CIA officials said they anticipate tensions with North Korea will continue — raising the risk of a miscalculation from both sides.
“The South Korean and North Korean Navy’s are going toe-to-toe every day … there is potential for conflict at anytime,” Lee said.
“We could stumble into something,” DeTrani said, noting a potential scenario in which the US shoots down a North Korean missile deemed to be an imminent threat and prompting a response from Pyongyang.
And while the prospect of a North Korean preemptive strike on the US or one of its allies remains unlikely, DeTrani admitted that “there is a sense that North Korea is unpredictable if put into a corner.”