Jung Pak: The Full Transcript
Glasser: Welcome back. It’s Susan Glasser, and I’m delighted to join you once again on The Global POLITICO. This week, we have an extremely well-timed conversation with Jung Pak from the Brookings Institution. She spent, right up until August 2017 — amid fire and fury, and Donald Trump — she spent the last nine years before that as a CIA analyst, and her mission was one of the hardest, I think, at the whole agency, which was trying to figure out what the heck is going on inside the mind of Kim Jong-un. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
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She has a fantastic new essay, which I highly recommend to you: “The Education of Kim Jong-un,” the Brookings Essay. I think a better title for it would have been one of your sub-heads, “Kim Jong-un, the ten-foot tall baby.”
Pak: They really liked the ten-foot tall baby idea, because I think it says so much. We have these overlapping misperceptions about Kim Jong-un that I think skews our policy discussions.
Glasser: Well, that’s exactly right, and I’m a firm believer in the fact that biography, if it’s not destiny, is certainly a lot more relevant than it’s often excluded from our policy conversations, and one of the first things we did at POLITICO in the 2016 campaign, when it was clear that Donald Trump really was barreling towards the Republican nomination, we convened a group of Trumpologists, the four or five biographers who’d really spent the last two decades in different forms, trying to understand him.
And now flash-forward a year into his presidency, we get a lot out of understanding the biography and the psyche of President Trump when it comes to decoding the otherwise indecipherable. So, I think one of the world’s other great acts of Kremlinology, if you will, at the moment, is Kimology, and you’re one of the leading practitioners. First of all, set the scene for us a little bit. You had been at the CIA’s headquarters here not that long when this major succession drama started to play out inside the world’s most closed society. What did we understand and what did we not understand about Kim Jong-un back in 2009, 2010, 2011 when he became the leader?
Pak: When Kim Jong-Il died, it was a shock to everybody, even though everybody knew that he had suffered a stroke and this moment was going to come sooner or later, but I think what was so—what was doubly jarring was that he had picked this 20-something-year-old third son to succeed him.
And it set off the Korea experts into various debates and predictions about how long this regime was going to last. I remember having a conversation where one of the senior intel officials, we were in a room and he went around and asked myself and some other senior analysts—I wasn’t a senior analyst at the time, but that how long do you think this regime is going to last? And lots of people said two years, five years, ten years.
But I said that, “Well, you know, he has a kid, and he’s probably in this for the long haul, and there are various structures in place that will help him to succeed, and to be—maintain his leadership of North Korea.”
Glasser: It does look in hindsight like we all underestimated him, and it sounds like that debate broke out pretty quickly inside the U.S. intelligence community. Why do you think they were underestimating him? Just because he was young, or—
Pak: I think there’s a tendency to—going back to the ten-foot-tall baby, there’s a tendency to see North Korea as this bizarre place, and it is bizarre. And part of it has to do with this over the top, extreme rhetoric coming from Kim Jong-un himself, other officials, and the socialist realist art that just dominates and dots the landscape, plus they have water parks and dolphinariums, which just seems so at odds with this socialist country, this very isolated country.
And the fact that Kim was 20-something, I think that contributed to this notion that there’s something that is inherently weak about this regime, and I think there is, but I think there are other factors that contribute to the resilience of the regime, as well.
Glasser: So, you quoted a former CIA analyst who once said that trying to understand North Korea is like working on a jigsaw puzzle where you have a mere handful of pieces, and your opponent is purposefully throwing pieces from other puzzles into the box.
Pak: I love that quote. That’s from Bruce Klingner who’s at Heritage Foundation, and he was at CIA for 20 years. And I stumbled across that quote, and I thought, this is so perfect. But I would also add that with a jigsaw puzzle on the cover of the box, you have that picture that you’re supposed to—
Glasser: It’s without the picture.
Pak: We don’t have the picture, and that picture might change. So, and I think that—I’m very conscious of how that picture might change, and I think that in looking at Kim Jong-un, I think we still—we have to constantly be reassessing and adapting our analysis based on new information.
Glasser: So, let’s go back to talking about Kim Jong-un, which again, I think the power of the biography that you’ve assembled is really the most useful thing at a time when there’s a lot of pointless speculation about what’s going to happen next. We’re talking on a day of the opening ceremony in Korea at the Olympics, Kim has sent his sister to South Korea for the Olympic Games. There’s this incredible picture of her sitting in a box for the opening ceremony, right behind the vice president of the United States Pence, and she’s the first high-ranking North Korean official member of the family ever to visit South Korea.
Pak: Right, and she—as far as we know, Kim Jong-un has not left the country since his days in Switzerland when he was a student. So, the fact that he sent his sister, we’re full-on into the charm offensive from Kim Jong-un, and when we talk about how Kim is learning, in this essay, I wanted to reinforce that he’s learning from us, and he’s watching us as much as we’re watching him. And I just don’t see how given the fact that the vice president has refused to shake hands or even dine with the North Korean delegation, and the fact that the Kim regime did this big military parade, and has vowed that it’s never going to give up its nuclear weapons, how the Olympics are going to bring the two sides together to talk about denuclearization in a serious way.
Glasser: So, tell us—what do we know about Kim and his relationship with his sister and his family? On the one hand, it’s definitely a family regime. He is the third generation in his family. His sister has been repeatedly promoted by him. On the other hand, Kim has been reported to have ordered the very gruesome murder of one of his brothers.
Pak: It seems clear to me, and to various other Korea experts, that he has pruned off the other branches of the Kim family dynasty. So, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother was killed with the VX nerve agent in Malaysia, so he was a half-brother, but Kim Yo-jong who’s at the Olympics now, she’s a full sister and there seemed to be a very good relationship between Kim Jong-un and his sister, and with his older brother Kim Jong-chul.
Glasser: And they also studied in Switzerland.
Pak: Right, so there seems to be genuine affection, and she’s in charge of propaganda, and cultivating and creating and maintaining this image of Kim Jong-un as this modern leader. So, she has a really important role in this regime.
Glasser: So, that, I think, was one of the fascinating tensions in this biographical portrait you’ve assembled of Kim that I haven’t seen elsewhere, was the parallel and competing strands of him as both a modernizer, and he seems to be at pains to project himself as a younger, not your grandfather’s dictator, on the one hand. On the other hand, there’s not only the gruesome murder of his brother, but the extreme isolation that continues.
You write that since becoming leader, his significant foreign contacts have been limited literally to two people: Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef, and Dennis Rodman, the American basketball player. Two foreigners—that’s just extraordinary.
Pak: Right. There are a couple of Chinese Politburo members who had gone to North Korea over the past several years, but they haven’t had significant contact. So we learn a lot of information from these two people who would—you would normally think should have—or wouldn’t have any particular national security role, or have any particular insights, but we get a lot of—some interesting first-hand observations from Dennis Rodman, and from Kenji Fujimoto, the sushi chef.
Glasser: What do you think you learned from them?
Pak: What we learn is there are lots of pictures of—when Dennis Rodman went to visit Kim, joking with him, laughing, smiling, partying with him, and that—from the outside, it looked like odd, but I think Kim wanted to show that he can go with the flow, and hang out with Dennis Rodman, and he’s a fun, modern kind of guy. And from the Japanese sushi chef, we learn about what he was like as a child, and that he grew up in this cocoon of privilege and indulgence, and what I wanted to explore in this essay is how that childhood and upbringing might have contributed to his outlook on life, and what his position is in North Korea, and North Korea’s position in the world.
Glasser: Well, and that is, I think for me, at least, some of the most powerful and revelatory parts of this biographical portrait is going back in time, to that pampered, odd, isolated, even crazy childhood. You have a photograph that accompanies this, of the young Kim in a military uniform being smiled over indulgently. You talk about reports that at one of his birthday parties, as a young child, he was wearing a military uniform; a luxury vehicle that was adapted for him so that he could drive when he was just seven years old; skiing in the Swiss Alps; swimming pools; he carried a Colt .45 pistol, according to the sushi chef, when he was 11 years old.
And by the way, this was during the 1990s famine in which as many as two to three million North Koreans died as a result of starvation. What kind of a warped persona comes out of an experience like that?
Pak: Right, I’m not a psychologist by any means, but I try to extrapolate what we can learn about his world view based on that upbringing. So, what happens when a child grows up thinking that he can do anything? And given the regime’s practice of repression and fear and executions, what does that mean for the people around him? Do they give him good advice? And I think on the one hand, it could make him very risk-averse; he doesn’t want to lose things, but I think it’s the other side of the spectrum, where I think he’s more risk-tolerant, because there are people to support him or fix things if something goes wrong.
So, in that way, I worry about how his confidence and his apparent swagger with the military parades and thinking that he can drive events on the Korean Peninsula, how that might change the way he thinks about reunifying Korean Peninsula on his own terms. So far, I think that we’re not quite there yet, in terms of Kim having aggressive or offensive aspirations, for example, to reunify.
But I think as he’s learning, and he’s responding and reacting to the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan actions that could lead him to believe that yes, maybe he can do it.
Glasser: So, you also, I think, had a really striking to me, listing of all the challenges that his grandfather and father had faced, all the kinds of adversity—external events or serving in the military, fighting a war against the United States, versus this very small list of challenges Kim has faced in his life. The point being that he might not be as flexible, adaptive, and resilient as the family leaders who came before him.
Pak: Right, and under Kim, as we said earlier, that he is not—as far as we know, he hasn’t visited outside the country and hasn’t really met with a foreign head of state. Under Kim Jong-un, it’s been Fortress North Korea. He has rebuffed any Chinese engagement, South Korean engagement until the Olympics, has not talked to the U.S. in any significant way, but he can do that. He was able to do that.
But his father and his grandfather, during these very turbulent Korean War, Cold War, Soviet Union collapse, and normalization of ties between China and South Korea, they couldn’t be Fortress North Korea. They didn’t have nuclear weapons, so they had to—the two elder Kims had to manage these vast geopolitical dynamics, and they had no choice but to negotiate and compromise.
Glasser: Well, that’s right, and they were experienced in diplomacy as well as in the military in a way that this Kim does not yet seem to be. There have been no major talks with the United States, for example, on his watch. The Russian relationship, we don’t really know the extent of it, but his father and grandfather were meeting face to face with Russian and Soviet leaders.
Pak: Right, and that would contribute to the elder Kims’ practice and training in talking to other countries, and other heads of state. But Kim Jong-un, I worry that he’s built this wall around himself, and how much that might skew the way he views his nuclear weapons, and how he can use them.
Glasser: Well, and that’s another striking thing about the Fortress North Korea, and a leader who has resisted efforts to meet with foreigners or really to engage, while at the same time, projecting modernity. Look at this family chart that you’ve assembled, and I’m just blown away, when you look at the next generation, what do you have listed under Kim and his wife? We can talk about his wife in a second. She’s an interesting character in this drama, too, but son, born 2010; daughter born 2013, gender unknown, born 2017. We don’t know their names, we don’t even know the gender of his child born last year, born in the midst, by the way, of this escalating nuclear-tinged rhetoric with the United States, an escalating tempo of missile tests and the like.
He’s a new father, at the same time he’s scaring the world with nuclear war. So, how can we not know even a basic fact as to the names of this man’s children?
Pak: That is the most basic, fundamental problem with North Korea, and this is why we call it the hardest of the hard targets. We just don’t know basic information. As you noted, and in this graphic, we have a footnote or an asterisk that says we just cannot confirm any of these dates, how many children, or what their birth dates are. So, that is the most basic information that we should know, but we don’t, because it’s a state secret.
Glasser: Why are they keeping it a state secret? What would be the rationale behind making your family a state secret?
Pak: I think you don’t want to be known as—if there is the common refrain about know your enemy, we don’t know the enemy as well as we should, and that’s why it makes it imperative for people who are watching North Korea to be flexible, and to confront the unknowns, and acknowledge the unknowns as well as the knowns, and proceed with thinking about how our analysis would change if we knew one thing was certain versus another.
Glasser: So, do you really think we don’t know? I mean, even in the deepest vaults of the U.S. government, we just don’t know the gender of his children?
Pak: We know about the first daughter or the second child, because Dennis Rodman saw her, he said, and that her name was Ju-ae. So, we want to be—we don’t want to be certain where there’s no certainty, and at the CIA and with the IC, we don’t want to say that we know something as a certainty when it’s not, because I think that’s misleading.
Glasser: So, you think there probably is reliable speculation about the latest child, the third child?
Pak: Sure, there’s reliable speculation. That information comes from the South Korean intelligence services that had briefed the South Korean national assembly. But with that, too, we have to take with a grain of salt.
Glasser: I’m sorry, what did they say as far as the third kid?
Pak: Gender unknown, but they have a son.
Glasser: I see. So, even just the fact of the birth is what they were reporting.
Glasser: And what do you take from this information that Kim is a father three times over, a young father; at the same time, he’s expanding his military might and capacity.
Pak: One of the data points that I point to about how long he intends to stay, and how he wants to craft his regime is that he has at least one, maybe three children, and what kind of legacy does he want to leave his children? And I don’t think he wants to start a nuclear war because I think he knows that that would just mean the annihilation of his regime and his family.
So, I think that’s one of the constraints for him in that way, and that he wants to leave behind a modern, prosperous North Korea that is evident in the dolphinariums, the water parks, the ski resorts.
Glasser: And also, in the much more public role that he has carved out for his wife.
Pak: Yeah, so that’s different from his father, who kept everything pretty close hold and quiet. His father, in his nearly 20 years of ruling North Korea, never spoke in public. But Kim regularly speaks in public, and I think that’s his way of trying to connect with the public, to say that, “I’m with you,” and I—
Glasser: And by the way, when you say his father never spoke, you mean never. It was incredible that when Kim—this Kim gave his first speech, they hadn’t heard the voice of a leader of North Korea in a long time.
Pak: Right, and usually the New Year’s addresses were just sent out as a document, and that was reported through state media. But when he spoke for the first time for 20 minutes, it was—that was something that we took note of. And when we look at the New Year’s address that he gave back in January, it’s clear where he thinks he is in North Korea. He says in the whole nuclear button, who’s got a bigger nuclear button debate, he said, “The nuclear button is in my office.”
My office, not the regime’s office, not the family’s office, but my office. So, I think he was trying to say that the only thing that stands between invasion, annihilation by the United States is him, and that he is the sole protector of North Korea.
Glasser: You know, it’s a really striking thing. So, let’s jump right into that war of words, and whose button is bigger than whose button, one of the, I think, most significant public debates here in the U.S. around Kim Jong-un has been on this question of what kind of an actor he is on the world’s stage, and the president, as we know, has called him a madman. Publicly, your colleagues from the CIA have come out and disagreed with President Trump, and said their assessment, in fact, is that he is a rational actor.
Your conclusion is that despite all the chest-thumping and bad behavior, Kim is not looking for a military confrontation with the United States. He is rational, not suicidal, and he is surely aware of what the consequences would be of any military confrontation with the United States. He’s not reckless, he’s not a madman. So, first of all, why is the president of the United States saying this publicly if his own intelligence agencies have told him repeatedly that’s not the case?
Pak: I think there are lots of messages coming from the White House on this, especially from President Trump. On the one hand, he’ll say he will sit down with Kim Jong-un, but on the other hand, he’ll say it’s—everything is locked and loaded, and the whole fire and fury issue. So, there are lots of mixed messages coming from the White House on this.
But I spend a lot of time talking about whether Kim is a rational actor. I think that it’s an important discussion, because if he’s not a rational actor, that means he’s not deterrable. But I think in looking at him over the past six-plus years, he knows how to step back. He goes right up to the edge, and he steps back. What I think is really interesting is the commentary about the latest military parade on the—it was yesterday, and how people were disappointed that it wasn’t as big as the previous years.
But Kim Jong-un had paraded some ICBMs that shocked us, back when he tested them over the fall. And I think, how much has he conditioned us to expect these things, and he just keeps on pushing the boundaries so that we just get desensitized to what he’s doing. That shows me that he’s incrementally making moves for us to accept things the way they are.
And so, that makes me think that he’s a rational actor. For example—and I’ll also point to the fact that in 2015, when there was a land mine along the DMZ that injured two South Korean soldiers, and people thought that there was going to be a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, I remember that was a scary time; that Kim said, “Let’s talk.”
So, South Korea and North Korea talked after that 2015 incident, and then everything just calmed down. So, he can walk up to the brink, but then he knows how to walk back.
Glasser: So, was there a moment behind the scenes—you talked and gave us a little bit of an insight into the debate when he first became the leader in 2011, inside the agency and this question of how unstable it might be in a period of transition, and it turned out to be quite stable and quite resilient, and he was able to consolidate power. Were there any other moments where you—people reevaluated? At what point did people realize their initial concerns about the instability under Kim were wrong? Walk us through kind of the timeline of our assessment? Did we always think that he was a rational actor?
Pak: We had to be very careful. This was a really trying time because there were so many unknowns.
Glasser: You mention in the essay that there are so many unknowns—
Pak: We had nothing. We had almost no—because there was no track record, but we now have six years of a track record.
Glasser: So, we know a lot more about Kim now.
Pak: We know a lot more based on the various actions that he’s taken. But when you have so many uncertainties and so many unknowns, you have to be careful and weight various factors. So, of course, there will be lots of meetings, and lots of discussions about how to couch this, and I think the Obama administration, when Kim first came to power, was to test his willingness to talk, and therefore you had the Leap Day deal.
And the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday was coming up, so I think the administration believed that we can use the food aid and that type of engagement as a way to test this new leader and to try and draw him toward engagement, and away from the bluster and the aggressiveness of his father.
Glasser: Yeah, that didn’t work, did it?
Pak: No, it didn’t, but it also goes to show his confidence, even at that early stage, that he was just going to go forward, and do it, and while we were testing him, he was testing us. So, over the years, he’s learning from us as much as we’re learning from him.
Glasser: It’s interesting, I’ve had some conversations with former high-level policymakers from the Obama era on The Global POLITICO. We had Tom Donilon on here, who was the national security advisor through much of this period. We had Jim Clapper, who was the director of national intelligence. Both of them in our conversations have expressed some degree of regret that there might have been missed opportunities or perhaps we didn’t—it wasn’t front and center, certainly, for the Obama administration when it came to foreign policy crises. Is it your view that there were moments where we could have taken action that would have prevented this current nuclear escalation?
Pak: I suppose there are missed opportunities. Kim Jong-un has done a lot in the past six-plus years. It’s not just the nuclear weapons or the ballistic missiles. I mean, he’s diversified all of these ballistic missiles. They’re mobile, they can travel to various ranges, they might be able to be closer—they’re moving closer to being—having the capability to hit the United States with an ICBM, but he’s also training the conventional military. He’s developed cyberwarfare, and he’s not afraid to use cyber-attacks.
He’s used a chemical nerve agent against his brother, so he’s doing a lot of things. And he’s diversifying the ways that he can hurt South Korea, other regional neighbors, and the United States. So, I wish we weren’t at this point, where he has so many tools at his disposal.
Glasser: Well, you know, it’s really interesting, listening to you talk. I’m thinking at the same time of that picture of the young Kim in his little baby general’s uniform, and that he himself seems to be playing a very leading role as a military strategist or orchestrating this. Do you think that is a correct assessment of him, that he himself is very much the military leader? Or do you feel like he has a new cadre of advisors that’s guiding this strategic development?
Pak: Yes, I think he’s very much more comfortable being the military leader than he is with the economy. So, since—for the past four or five years, he’s been talking about his byungjin policy of simultaneously developing the military, the nuclear weapons program, and the economy. And we’ve seen various pictures of him talking earnestly with a scientist, and the missile people, and going—visiting various missile facilities, and overseeing all of these missile launches, but on the other hand, he doesn’t seem as interested or as hands-on on the economy.
And I’ll point back to the New Year’s address from January, where he’s very happy about what he’s accomplished in the nuclear [inaudible]. I did it, this is great, we’re going to produce more. But on the other hand, with the economy, he wants people to work harder, longer, faster.
Glasser: The perpetual dictator’s demand.
Pak: Exactly, exactly. And he seems to be outsourcing the economy or economic development to the local levels. He says the provinces have to work harder, the local industries have to do this, and all of these things, so he seems less aware or confident about how to develop this economy, and I—if I were an economic person in North Korea, and in charge of developing various industries, I’d be very nervous.
Glasser: That is a really—again, this is all stuff that I feel like does not break through in the normal coverage of the North Korea conflict, which tends to be very one-dimensional, very focused on nuclear, and very much missing the element of Kim himself despite the evidence of his control. And that’s my other question, actually, is how solid do you think his consolidation of power is at this point? Is the economy a vulnerability? Has he succeeded in these attacks on his other branches of the family in firmly placing rule in his hands? Are there any internal threats to him?
Pak: It’s hard to say what the internal threats might be, but as I mentioned in the essay, there have been several scores of purges and executions, including the one that you mentioned of his uncle by marriage Jang Song-thaek, in 2013. So, he continues to engage in shuffling, executing, demoting, promoting various senior officials. So, he’s still in the process of consolidating. I wouldn’t say that he’s—I don’t know if any dictator ever feels that they’re completely in charge, because they’re constantly vigilant about who might be out to get them.
And what the fear and repression does, and these demotions and promotions do is that it tells people don’t make big moves. Don’t say anything that might displease him; make sure that you’re on board with these things. A lot of people, I think, focus on the executions or the demotions as creating ill will. I’m sure there’s ill will. But on the other hand, these demotions means that other people are getting promoted, and that creates a whole different set of loyalists.
And what Kim Jong-un did after he—very soon after he came to power, is that he started replacing the people who were loyal to his father, and started replacing them with people he knew were loyal to him.
Glasser: So, let’s jump to the present day, and here we are in this extraordinary moment where he sent his sister to South Korea. There’s this unified picture, at least, of the Olympic team with athletes from both the north and the south. Why did he agree to do this? Do you think that his goal right now is to break up the U.S.-South Korea unity of purpose when it comes to North Korea? And does he have a good chance of accomplishing that?
Pak: When he first made that outreach to South Korea, and South Korea jumped at the chance immediately to have the North Koreans come to the Olympics, I said, and I wrote that it’s not North Korea’s position to say whether there will be a wedge. It’s up to the U.S. and for South Korea to decide whether there will be a wedge, and I think we’re starting to see that there is a wedge, and that it’s affecting us.
South Korea has this two-track policy of bettering inter-Korean relations, but also maximum pressure, and those are very different tracks. And while South Korea has been paying lip service to maximum pressure, it’s unclear to me how much longer they can keep those two trains on the same track, and what speed they’re going to go. Are they going to—right now, they’re speeding up the inter-Korean engagement track, while possibly slowing down the maximum pressure track.
And I think that’s going to inevitably lead to a conflict with the U.S. and Japan, who has stood steadfast against engagement, or premature engagement. So far, North Korea has done very little or said very little to make the U.S. or—the international community believe that they’re willing to talk about nuclear weapons, so South Korea has a very big choice to make, I think, and it’ll present challenges to the U.S. maximum pressure strategy.
Glasser: So, take us back to January 2017; the new administration comes in, you’re still an analyst inside the CIA, President Obama has told President Trump that North Korea is going to be, like it or not, the biggest policy challenge on his plate. At the same time, there were reports that the North Koreans were seeking potentially to have talks with the new administration or are interested in some way of reaching out. Did you assess that to be a serious opportunity, and if so, a missed one? Were you surprised that things have escalated so quickly between President Trump and Kim?
Pak: I got the sense that, yes, the North Korea issue is a top national security issue, and I got the sense that the Trump administration, and President Trump himself, I think, takes this as his task. He wants to solve the North Korea issue, where other presidents have failed, Republican and Democratic presidents have failed. And that while there was a period of quiet from North Korea in the early part of 2017, I think the North Koreans were trying to figure out what was going to happen with the candlelight demonstrations in South Korea, who is going to be elected in South Korea? What was going to be the new administration’s take on the North Korea issue?
So, I think there was a period of waiting and seeing what’s going to happen. But what triumphed in the end was really that North Korea wanted to—and Kim Jong-un really wanted to show these two new presidents—South Korea and the U.S.—who was boss, and who was going to run things in this neighborhood. And it wasn’t going to be them; it was going to be Kim, because he’s been there longer than they have, he’s outlasted President Park Geun-hye, from South Korea, who left very ignominiously, and President Barack Obama, who left at the end of—in January of 2017.
So, I think there—North Korea knows how to get in touch with the U.S. I think there is a lot of talk about North Korea signaling that they want to talk, but there are ways to signal that they’re serious about talking about their nuclear weapons program, and they haven’t done that. They’re—the New York channel is obviously open, the State Department and the—and Joe Yun and Secretary Tillerson have been very active and robust in their engagements with the international community.
But without North Korea, or South Korea having any deliverable with North Korea saying that they want to talk about nuclear weapons, I don’t see any progress being made on the U.S.-North Korea issue.
Glasser: A lot of people have talked about North Korea’s seeming efforts to try to understand Donald Trump; that in many ways, while we are fascinated and puzzled by Kim and what kind of an actor is he on the world stage, that they have been extremely puzzled by the rhetoric and positioning of our new president. What do you think having a volatile and unpredictable new president means for North Korea? Are they capable analytically of understanding Trump? I mean, look, we’re struggling every day to understand him.
Pak: Right, I think so. I think part of the—one of the reasons for the Olympic outreach is that they took the military strike option seriously enough that they thought that a no-cost outreach towards South Korea was warranted. So, I think that’s at least part of the reason. But I’ll go back to Dennis Rodman again. Apparently in his last meeting, or last visit to North Korea, he had given the North Korean officials The Art of the Deal, to give to Kim Jong-un.
I would be shocked if they didn’t read—everybody up and down the North Korean hierarchy didn’t read that book and various other books that are attributed to President Trump. So, the North Koreans are trying to figure things out in the way that we’re trying to figure things out, and I think that’s absolutely right, that we’re just trying to stare each other down and see what the other’s thinking.
Glasser: If The Art of the Deal is the North Korean template for understanding Donald Trump, what is the American template for understanding Kim Jong-un?
Pak: Oh, gosh.
Glasser: Is there some obscure juche text that explains it all?
Pak: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of—well, I hope maybe the Brookings Essay. But I think given that Kim Jong-un is not writing books as far as we know, we have to go by his speeches and what he’s saying and read between the lines. And think about what he’s not saying, as well as what he is saying. So, I think we should take the rhetoric seriously, and their actions seriously.
So, it’s the crafting—trying to craft that puzzle with very limited pieces, knowing that your opponent is constantly throwing other pieces of other puzzles into your box.
Glasser: That’s right, and we don’t have the picture. For you, the picture changed a bit, when you decided to leave the CIA and that happened to be at exactly the month in August of 2017 when we saw this dramatic escalation. I remember vividly President Trump’s fire and fury press conference, followed in September by his very strong rhetoric at the U.N. General Assembly. He called Kim not only “Rocket Man” but then “Little Rocket Man.” Kim responded by calling him a mentally deranged dotard. Did you start to seriously worry about an actual military conflict at that time?
Pak: I was less scared because I didn’t think that the North Koreans were looking for a military conflict, but what got me a little bit more nervous was thinking that maybe the U.S. wanted a military conflict, or at least was discussing military strikes. And seriously discussing military strikes, which I think is a dangerous proposition given what little we know about North Korea’s leader, but I do think that given—that because Kim Jong-un is so invested in his nuclear weapons program, and he wants to make sure that his people and the outside world know that he’s strong, that he’s likely to respond to a military strike.
Glasser: So, you weren’t so worried in August. How worried are you now?
Pak: I also have to say that in August I was on the beach.
Glasser: That does tend to improve one’s outlook.
Pak: Right. But there’s been an ongoing—there’s been a steady drumbeat from senior administration officials about limited strikes, and lots of articles—
Glasser: The “bloody nose.”
Pak: The “bloody nose,” the fact that there seems to be an assumption that North Korea will not respond to any military strike. To this day, I don’t see what the goal of a military strike would be, because I don’t think it’ll lead to denuclearization, and that’s our primary goal. Even if Kim feels that this is real, and that he—or if there is a strike, he can literally just come back and say, “Okay, I want to talk.” And what does that—where does that get us?
So, we’ll get some dialogue, but then he can still covertly develop other—and advance his weapons program. So, and I also don’t see or have not heard any credible arguments about how we’re going to contain the North Korean response. He’s got chemical weapons, he’s got biological weapons, he’s got thousands of artillery along the border, just 35 miles away from Seoul, which has 25 million people.
Glasser: But look, we’ve been talking about this for months, and yet the reports have persisted, credible reporting from inside the Trump administration that they’ve continued to contemplate this. It’s not like that’s new information about Kim’s chemical or biological weapons; it’s not new information about the artillery poised against Seoul, and yet, as recently as December, there appears to have been an internal discussion in which the would-be Trump ambassador to South Korea Victor Cha disagreed with the active contemplation of this “bloody nose” strike. Now he’s no longer their ambassador designate. That’s caused Washington over the last week to really sit up and take notice. Did that mean something significant to you?
Pak: I’ve always wondered why we haven’t seen a strike yet. And that suggests to me that there are processes or individuals who are slow-rolling or doing something. I don’t know exactly what is going on, but we have to answer the question, why haven’t we seen anything yet? As you say, the administration has been talking about this for months, and yet, nothing.
So, I think with the inter-Korean engagement and what happens after the Olympics, I think that’s when the hard work is going to begin.
Glasser: So, okay. Back to your fear level, though; if you were at a five in August, where are you now?
Pak: I’m probably at a seven. And there are lots of people in Washington and elsewhere trying to educate the public and trying to shape the administration’s debate about the ramifications of a military strike. I think that maximum pressure is good policy. I think there’s still time to teach Kim lessons—not a bloody nose lesson, but lessons that he has to make a strategic decision about does he fear the U.S. more? Or does he fear his people more?
If he doesn’t deliver on the economy at a time of rising expectations in North Korea, I think that’s going to make it very difficult for him to continue with his byungjin track.
Glasser: Jung Pak, amazing reporting here about Kim Jong-un, the ten-foot-tall baby. If you could know one thing that you don’t know now about Kim Jong-un, what would it be?
Pak: I would say what next? I’m not sure that he has a strategic end goal. I’m not sure that he has—his strategic vision has shaped or formed yet. He’s young—he’s still youngish, and he’s got many, many decades, so he’s barreling toward this capability to hit the United States, but then what? I’d like to ask him what do you want to do next? Disney World? What is his end goal? How does he see his relationship with the U.S. and with South Korea, at the end of all this?
Glasser: And last question, if you had an Oval Office meeting after this conversation, what’s the one thing you would tell Donald Trump about Kim Jong-un?
Pak: I think that they might actually get along. I think that these are two very strong individuals who have a certain way of leading, and that perhaps The Art of the Deal can work for the two of them. I think fundamentally, Kim is looking—has a deep yearning for respect, and I think that’s what all this modernization of North Korea is about, that he wants to be seen as normal, upscale, and modern.
Glasser: Wow, what a fascinating conversation. I have to say, I think this is one of the most interesting and in a way, important episodes of The Global POLITICO we’ve done, and I’m delighted to have been joined by Jung Pak from the Brookings Institution. She spent nine years analyzing North Korea and its ten-foot-tall baby of a leader Kim Jong-un. Thank you so much for joining us.
Pak: Thank you so much for having me.
Glasser: Thanks again to all of our listeners at The Global POLITICO. We’re here in year two, and I want to thank all of you for joining us. You can email me any time at SGlasser@Politico.com, and keep your thoughts and comments coming. Thank you.
via POLITICO Magazine
February 12, 2018 at 08:41PM