restricted access Edging Toward Hubris
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The Education of Kim Jong-un 19 highlighted for Jong-un the potential consequences of showing any signs of weakness, and reinforced the brutal suppression of dissent practiced by the Kim dynasty. Even without all these warning signs, however, it is unlikely that Kim would have given serious consideration to denuclearizing his country. For him and his generation, people who came of age in a nuclear North Korea, the idea of disarming is probably an alien concept, an artifact of a distant “pre-modern” time that they see no advantage to revisiting, especially given the Trump administration’s hints about “preventive war” and the president’s own tweets threatening “fire and fury” against Kim and “military solutions [that] are now fully in place, locked and loaded.” Edging Toward Hubris North Korea’s highly provocative actions in the summer and fall of 2017—demonstrating ICBMs, conducting a test of a probable thermonuclear device, and threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific—suggest that Kim’s confidence has grown over the past six years. After all, he has outlasted both South Korean president Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama. Perhaps he thinks he can out-bully and out-maneuver President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping as well. Such confidence may be bolstered by the fact that Kim has yet to face a real “crisis” of the kind his father and grandfather had to confront and manage. He has relied on military demonstrations and provocative actions to get his way, and has no experience in the arts of negotiation, compromise, and diplomacy. Given the steady drumbeat of internal purges, the sidelining of North Korea’s diplomats since 2011 because of Kim’s focus on advancing his nuclear weapons program and conventional capabilities, and Kim’s apparent reveling in his recent war of words with President Trump— Kim called Trump “mentally deranged” in response to Trump’s personal attacks against Kim in his tweets and speech to the U.N. 20 Jung H. Pak General Assembly in September—it would take a very brave North Korean official to counsel dialogue and efforts to mollify Washington and Beijing. Instead, Kim’s use of repression and his conferring of financial benefits and special privileges to loyalists has probably encouraged sycophants and groupthink within his inner circle, fueling his preference for violence and aggression. But he may be reaching a critical point where he has to make a strategic choice. While Kim has avidly pursued nuclear weapons, he is also, in accord with his announced policy of byungjin, deeply invested in improving the North Korean economy—certainly a tall order given the gravity of internal changes, the weight of sanctions, and Beijing’s willingness to apply stronger pressure than we have seen before. Trends in North Korea’s internal affairs, such as greater information penetration from the outside world, loosening of state control over resources and markets, the rise of consumerism, and the growth of a moneyed class, will also place severe stresses on the Kim regime. At the same time, international pressure on North Korea has never been greater. A number of recent actions have the potential to squeeze North Korea’s ability to earn hard currency for the regime to fund its economic and military goals, including: recent U.N. Security Council resolutions, such as the latest UNSCR 2397 in response to North Korea’s ICBM test in November; successful U.S. efforts to compel countries—including China—to cut off trade and financial links with North Korea; and President Trump’s September 21, 2017 executive order imposing new sanctions on North Korea (and authorizing broad secondary sanctions). These efforts also have the potential to undermine Kim’s ability to reward elites and suppress their ability to make money for themselves or raise money for loyalty payments to the regime. The combined weight of all these pressures, internal and external, on North Korea, coming precisely at a time of rising expectations within the country, may overwhelm the regime—unless Kim learns to dial back his aggression. That, of course, is a big if. The Education of Kim Jong-un 21 We should be concerned about Kim’s hubris. In 2012, when Kim gave his first public speech, he ended with the line, “Let’s go on for our final victory.” At the time, despite the fact that it was delivered against the backdrop of a military parade featuring the biggest display of Korean weapons ever to have been seen by...


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