[Viewpoint] The Kim Jong-un factor

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[Viewpoint] The Kim Jong-un factor

When Kim Jong-il died suddenly last December, there was great speculation about whether his son would take North Korea in a new direction: perhaps engaging in dangerous provocations to prove himself, or faltering and allowing the country to collapse or even opening the North to more reforms.

At the time, I argued in these pages, the Washington Post and other venues that Kim Jong-un was likely to stick with the plan put in place by his father, and this would involve a missile and/or nuclear test in the first half of 2012. I felt that we would learn more about the young Kim as we observed him handling the turbulence and stress of this new confrontation with the international community.

North Korea did test a missile, of course, and may conduct a nuclear test soon, as it did after missile tests in 2006 and 2009. We have also seen more of how Kim Jong-un handles himself in these situations. The initial impressions are worrying.

First, it is becoming clear that the young Kim has a very different psychological makeup than his father. At a young age Kim Jong-il was abandoned and neglected by his father, Kim Il Sung, and suffered numerous slights and emotional wounds before the lavish cult of personality was put in place around him in the late 1970s. Numerous party elders opposed his promotions until they were purged by Kim Il Sung. As a result, Kim Jong-il was insecure and uncertain of himself. He was also old enough to understand the consequences of war, even as he deliberately threatened to take his country to the brink of war as part of his strategic approach to the South and the United States.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un appears to be supremely confident in himself. He suffered little as a boy, enjoying a pampered life at home and in Switzerland. In his public appearances, he struts around like a teenager with a new video game, pointing excitedly at tanks and asking what they do. He is giddy with power and seemingly ignorant of the realities of war. It is likely that before his promotion to “Great General,” he was given nominal command of the units that attacked the Cheonan warship and subsequently bombed Yeonpyeong Island. How easy war is, he must have thought.

Second, Kim Jong-un demonstrates all of the emotional immaturity of young men in their 20s. There is a reason that young men are more ready to go to war than older men are — they are more easily convinced they are invincible. Psychological studies over the years have suggested that there tends to be a significant difference in emotional quotient between men in their 20s and men who are middle-aged. While it may be that these studies reflect the envy of middle-aged scholars, the social and cognitive psychological evidence backing up this theory is well established. Wisdom and contextual intelligence — even for authoritarian dictators — are not achieved overnight.

Finally, there is the vicious and threatening propaganda campaign escalated under Kim Jong-un against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Part of this may be a calculated effort to direct invective at President Lee in order to curry favor with the progressive camp in the South and to avoid boxing with Park Geun-hye; in other words, to heighten tensions in a way that increases the progressives’ chances of winning and leaving room for de-escalation after the December election. Yet the specific nature of the threats against President Lee suggests a deeper and more personal animosity and sophomoric competition than one might ever have seen coming from Kim Jong-il.

All of these elements point to a leadership style under Kim Jong-un that is more dangerous and unpredictable than we ever experienced under Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong-il. The essential North Korean strategy has not changed: confront the international community with nuclear and missile tests, offer a return to talks to dissipate any sanctions or pressure and then use the new military capabilities as leverage to force step-by-step de facto recognition of the North as a nuclear weapons state.

However, Kim Jong-il usually knew how far to go in confrontations, exactly when to pull back, and how to bide his time until the next provocation. Kim Jong-un may not. His overconfidence, youth and direct mano-a-mano confrontation with President Lee all point to the possibility of miscalculating, overreaching or overreacting in a crisis.

The United States and South Korea will have to consider carefully how we influence the calculations of such a leader. Dissuasion, deterrence and interdiction will be more critical than ever to thwart the North’s obvious push for full nuclear weapons status. It will be tempting to argue that the nature of Kim Jong-un’s personality also requires direct engagement with him, but this could only be achieved through high-level U.S.-North Korea or North-South summits that would send exactly the wrong signal so soon after the North’s dangerous nuclear and missile provocations. Perhaps this would be a useful time for a responsible third party, such as Sweden, to begin a process of direct contact with Kim Jong-un.

Leadership matters somewhat less in democratic countries with well-established political institutions and civil societies. In a Stalinist cult-of-personality system like North Korea, however, leaders exert a disproportionate influence on state behavior. And that is why the Kim Jong-un factor is so important and potentially dangerous.

* The author is a senior advisor and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green
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