Dissecting a Dictator

Spring 2020

Jung Pak ’96 provides expert analysis of Kim Jong Un

Becoming Kim Jong Un book cover

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il had just suffered a stroke when Jung Pak ’96 joined the CIA as a political analyst specializing in Korea issues. “The stroke spurred the succession process,” Pak explains, “and that’s when [Kim Jong Il’s son] Kim Jong Un started to appear.”

Pak has been analyzing Kim Jong Un since his rise to power following his father’s death in December 2011. She later led the U.S. intelligence community’s strategic analysis as the deputy national intelligence officer for Korea at the National Intelligence Council. Based on her experience, Pak wrote the recent book Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights Into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator (Ballantine Books).

“I wanted to provide a fuller version of this leader who’s often caricatured in the media,” says Pak, who is now a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution. “I also wanted to put flesh and bones into this man who has such a huge impact on geopolitical dynamics.”

How would you describe Kim Jong Un?

Kim is prone to caricature, as was his father, because there’s little reliable information on the North Korean regime. There are few things that we can corroborate with confidence.

There is this tendency to look at him in this binary way: defensive or offensive, crazy or not crazy.

He is young, and he wants to be modern. But while he embraces technology and all of the accoutrements of modernity (such as amusement parks, restaurants, and smartphones), he, like his father and grandfather before him, wants to ensure that he alone controls the information that flows to his people. He’s also ambitious, but he’s constrained to a large extent by his history and what he inherited — a dictatorship and the infrastructure of repression that goes along with it. And he wants to ensure that he doesn’t squander his inheritance: the Kim family dynastic rule of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Do you think he is unpredictable?

Kim’s strategic approach is predictable in that he is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons, so his actions will reflect that goal. But he is unpredictable in a tactical sense. Is he going to do a ballistic missile test today or tomorrow, a week or three months from now? Is he going to engage in negotiations with the U.S. or South Korea, and if so, what would be on the negotiating table and why? These are very tactical moves, but in the big picture, he is more predictable than most people realize.

At the start of this year, you told The Hill: “Kim is poised to increase his tough talk and belligerence in 2020.” Tell us more.

I would say Kim is going to be conducting additional missile tests and weapons demonstrations. He’s already said he is not bound by his self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile testing or nuclear testing. He is laying the groundwork for additional provocative actions that the North is willing to take and lay the blame on Washington for whatever bad things North Korea is going to do.

What are your thoughts on the U.S.’s current relationship with North Korea?

President Trump rushed into a decision to meet with Kim and has touted his personal relationship with him since 2018. So, this very difficult, complicated national security issue has been boiled down to how much the two men like or dislike each other.

Meanwhile, Kim has used summits to chip away at the sanctions that are in place to prevent proliferation of North Korean weapons of mass destruction technologies and to strangle the regime’s ability to generate hard currency to fund its illicit programs. The North is almost certainly improving its nuclear weapons capabilities, despite Kim’s relationship with Trump. In addition to producing more fissile materials for nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles are now more reliable, more mobile, and more dangerous.

Considering what you’ve told us, is there a positive endnote?

Having worked in the national security world, I’ve seen a lot of the national security infrastructure that we have built, the U.S. government’s expertise, the partnerships that we have with our allies, and how our diplomatic, military, and economic power contribute to stability and prosperity.