Motives of North Korea’s Leader Baffle Americans and Allies

By MOTOKO RICH and DAVID E. SANGER  - The New Yor Times

TOKYO — What does Kim Jong-un want?

That remains far harder to answer than the technical questions about Mr. Kim’s bombs and the reach of his missiles that have preoccupied American, Japanese and South Korean intelligence officials for years.

After North Korea’s underground test on Sunday, more is now known about the power of his nuclear arsenal, even if mystery remains about the veracity of the North’s claim that it detonated a hydrogen bomb.

Yet six years after Mr. Kim took power and began executing those who challenged his rule — sometimes with an antiaircraft gun — there is no issue that confounds analysts more than the motives of a 33-year-old dictator whose every move seems one part canny strategy, one part self-preservation, and one part nuclear narcissism.

The conventional wisdom has always been that Mr. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, is mostly motivated by a deep desire to preserve the family business — a small country that is an improbable, walled-off survivor of Cold War.

But inside the Trump administration, many have begun to question the long-held assumption that his nuclear buildup is essentially defensive, an effort to keep the United States and its allies from finding the right moment to try to overthrow him.

Mr. Kim’s real goal may be blackmail, they argue — the sort that would be possible as soon as North Korea can put Los Angeles or Chicago or New York at risk.

It may be splitting the United States away from two allies — Japan and South Korea — who wonder whether the United States would really protect them, and half-expect Mr. Trump to make good on his campaign threat that he might pull American troops from the Pacific.

Or it may be about making Mr. Kim a power broker, a man Mr. Trump and Xi Jinping — leaders of the two superpowers Mr. Kim is fixated on — must treat as an equal.

Maybe it is about all three.

Very few people outside of North Korea have met Mr. Kim, including his supposed protectors, the Chinese.

Defectors periodically appear in London or Seoul, and offer insights, but few are true insiders. Documents revealed by Edward J. Snowden show that American intelligence agencies broke into the computer systems of the Reconnaissance General Bureau — the North Korean C.I.A. — but they learned more about operations than intentions.

“Anybody who tells you what North Korea wants is lying, or they’re guessing,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “We don’t know what Kim Jong-un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his real end game is? We just don’t have great intelligence into his personal thinking.”

In public statements, the country has made clear that it wants to be accepted as a full member of the international community and that it wants to develop its economy alongside its nuclear program. It has also maintained as a longtime goal the desire to reunify with South Korea — on the North’s terms. Although Mr. Kim makes repeated bellicose threats against the United States and South Korea, such statements are always conditioned on the Americans or South Koreans continuing their “hostile policy’’ against the North.

But none of that explains the pace at which Mr. Kim — more technically savvy and more brutal than his father — has raced in the past year to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can hit multiple targets in the continental United States.

“He wants to demonstrate his ability to put a U.S. city at risk of nuclear attack,’’ Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., said on “Face the Nation” on CBS on Sunday. “That is where he is driving.’’

He has nearly achieved that goal.

The most commonly heard explanation is that Mr. Kim believes that once he can hit Los Angeles, or maybe New York and Washington, the United States would never risk doing to him what it helped do to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the now-deceased Libyan leader.

Mr. Qaddafi gave up all the elements of his nascent nuclear weapons program in 2003, in return for promises of economic integration with the West. That never fully materialized. And as soon as there was an uprising against him, the United States, European allies and some Arab states bombed him. He was found by rebel forces and executed.

But perhaps more than a self-preservation strategy is at work here. Mr. Kim, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers and outside experts believe, thinks he may be able to force the United States to withdraw sanctions and pull back its troops from South Korea, where they are a perennial irritant to Pyongyang.

Where analysts diverge is what he might do if the United States really did withdraw some or all of its forces, as Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, suggested that Washington consider doing. One fear is that it could use its nuclear arsenal as a shield for a military invasion of South Korea in an attempt to reunify the peninsula by force.

The worry, say those who fear the North is considering that option, is that its ability to strike the United States with nuclear missiles could undermine Americans’ ability to guarantee that it would protect South Korea, as well as Japan, from attack.

“If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

In Tokyo, the news of the latest bomb test raised concern. Credit Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Based on that calculation, Mr. Lankov said, North Korea “can provoke a conflict in South Korea and then they can just basically put an ultimatum to the United States telling the Americans that if they get involved, they are going to basically get a North Korean retaliation strike.”

Such a conflict would be catastrophic for Asia, and could lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. But it would also undercut every assurance the United States has made to other allies, from NATO to New Zealand, about coming to their defense.

The probability that the North intends to use force to reunify the peninsula, Mr. Lankov said, is “low, but real.”

It is also one of the regime’s stated goals, though one that — in the absence of nuclear weapons — it has never had a realistic hope of achieving. Many believe it is a fantasy, with or without a nuclear arsenal.

“North Korea does not have the power to carry out an all-out war that could last a long time for unification by force,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-funded think tank. “There is no way North Korea, while suffering from food shortages, can liberate South Koreans by force.”

Mr. Kim, Mr. Cho said, “has no intention of putting his words into action.”

He may well be right, but given the miserable track record of anticipating Mr. Kim’s intentions, neither American nor South Korean leaders seem eager to make that assumption. (One senior Trump administration official noted that in 1950, everyone assumed the North was too weak to invade the South, and were wrong.)

“It is important to take Pyongyang’s threat seriously,” said Mo Jongryn, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

There is another, less dramatic interpretation of Mr. Kim’s intentions. The combination of his developing nuclear program and his increasingly impressive cyberprogram may allow the North to effectively get away with smaller provocations without fear of military retaliation.

Mr. Kim paid very little price for the cyberattack that took out 70 percent of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems three years ago. There was no retaliation for its attacks on South Korean banks and media companies; its suspected theft of money from the Bangladesh central bank; or its role in a recent attack that hit Britain’s hospitals with ransomware demands. It might try to expand its cyberattacks for profit, or blackmail countries for economic aid.

Another possibility is that the regime will use its nuclear weapons to gain the upper hand in any future negotiations with the United States and its allies.

In the past, negotiators assumed North Korea might be prepared to trade away its nuclear program in exchange for economic support or a peace treaty with the United States, which would mean a final settlement of the seven-decade old conflict on the peninsula. (Under the United Nations armistice that suspended the Korean War in 1953, North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea, and its allies.)

But now the hope that sanctions will lead North Korea to give up an arsenal in which it has invested so heavily seems almost a fantasy. Instead, there is talk of whether, as an interim step, Mr. Kim might consider a freeze of its programs at their current level.

If so, the huge buildup of the past few years may have an easy explanation: Before negotiating a freeze, Mr. Kim may want a nuclear capability too big to dismantle. In short, he wants to be treated like Pakistan, or India, which have made clear they will never trade away their nuclear arsenals. By and large, the world has stopped demanding that they do so.

Domestic politics are also at work. Keeping nuclear weapons is also how the Kim regime can best engender fear and loyalty in the country’s populace.

“In order to justify what they’ve been doing all these years, they need an enemy of the United States to continue to exist,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a director and senior fellow at the New America research group who has been involved in unofficial talks with North Korea. “Once that enemy is gone, then they don’t have the rationale any longer to keep this society in complete isolation.”

That is not to say that the North Koreans don’t have a list of wants if and when they are offered a seat at the negotiating table.

The North has repeatedly called for the suspension of annual war games conducted by the United States and South Korea and an eventual withdrawal of American troops from the peninsula. It is likely to want a guarantee that the United States will never again station tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. It will surely want sanctions lifted, and some economic aid, as well as diplomatic recognition.

Critics of past negotiations with North Korea say it will never be satisfied. “It’s just this endless slippery slope of demands,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korean and Japanese specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Some analysts say that what North Korea most wants is respect.

“There is a certain universality of wanting to be recognized and respected,” said Cameron Munter, former United States ambassador to Pakistan and now president of the EastWest Institute. “And because Americans take this for granted, they don’t see just how deeply motivating that search for respect can be.”

But granting that wish can be difficult for politicians who do not want to appear to be bowing to a dictator. The farthest President Trump went recently was to say at a rally in Phoenix last month that he respected the fact that Kim Jong-un “is starting to respect us.”

If that was ever true, it didn’t last long.

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Annex:

North Korea Nuclear Test Puts Pressure on China and Undercuts Xi

By JANE PERLEZ – The New York Times

BEIJING — It was supposed to be Xi Jinping’s moment to bask in global prestige, as the Chinese president hosted the leaders of some of the world’s most dynamic economies at a summit meeting just weeks before a Communist Party leadership conference.

But just hours before Mr. Xi was set to address the carefully choreographed meeting on Sunday, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, detonated his sixth nuclear bomb.

Mr. Kim has timed his nuclear tests and missile launches with exquisite precision, apparently trying to create maximum embarrassment for China. And on Sunday, a gathering in southeast China of leaders from Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa, members of the so-called BRICS group, was immediately overshadowed by news of the test, which shook dwellings in China and revived fears of nuclear contamination in the country’s northeast region.

This is not the first time Mr. Kim has chosen a provocative moment to flaunt his country’s weapons. In May, he launched a ballistic missile hours before Mr. Xi spoke at a gathering of world leaders in Beijing assembled to discuss China’s signature trillion dollar One Belt, One Road project.

The confluence of North Korea’s nuclear testing and Mr. Xi’s important public appearances is not a coincidence, analysts said. It is intended to show that Mr. Kim, the leader of a small, rogue neighboring state, can diminish Mr. Xi’s power and prestige as president of China, they said. In fact, some analysts contended that the latest test may have been primarily aimed at pressuring Mr. Xi, not President Trump.

“Kim knows that Xi has the real power to affect the calculus in Washington,” said Peter Hayes, the director of the Nautilus Institute, a research group that specializes in North Korea. “He’s putting pressure on China to say to Trump: ‘You have to sit down with Kim Jong-un.’”

What Mr. Kim wants most, Mr. Hayes said, is talks with Washington that the North Korean leader hopes will result in a deal to reduce American troops in South Korea and leave him with nuclear weapons. And in Mr. Kim’s calculation, China has the influence to make that negotiation happen.

While some Chinese analysts say North Korea should be made to pay a price for its contempt of China, the North’s ally and major trading partner, they were not optimistic that Sunday’s test would change Mr. Xi’s determination to remain above the fray and not get his hands sullied trying to force Mr. Kim to change his ways.

Even the North’s claim that the weapon detonated was a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile would probably not sway Mr. Xi, they said.

“This sixth nuclear test should force China to do something radical; this will be a political test,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a nuclear expert at Renmin University. “But the mood is not moving that way.”

China’s Foreign Ministry did express “strong condemnation” of the test. But despite the North’s repeated incitements, the Chinese leadership is likely to stick to its position that a nuclear-armed North Korea is less dangerous to China than the possibility of a political collapse in the North, Mr. Cheng said. That could result in a unified Korean Peninsula under the control of the United States and its ally, South Korea.

China fears such an outcome if it uses its greatest economic leverage: cutting off the crude oil supplies that keep the North’s rudimentary economy running.

“Cutting off oil supplies could severely impact North Korean industries and undermine the regime’s stability, a solution which China and Russia have serious qualms about,” said Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

China has put forward a proposal that hinges on North Korea stopping its nuclear testing in exchange for an end to American military exercises around the Korean Peninsula.

But Mr. Xi is consumed at the moment with domestic matters, Chinese analysts said. The political machinations surrounding the Communist Party’s National Congress that will convene in Beijing in mid-October to select new members of the ruling elite are at the top of his agenda. Mr. Xi will be awarded his second five-year term at the meeting.

China always aims for domestic calm in the period leading up to the secretive congress, and so it is unlikely to do anything before Oct. 19, the start of the conclave, Mr. Zhao said.

The biggest concern for China’s leadership is the possibility of North Korea turning on China, the country’s only ally. “If cornered, North Korea could take military action against China, given the relationship has reached a historic low,” Mr. Zhao said.

China supplies more than 80 percent of the North’s crude oil, and suspending delivery would be the ultimate economic sanction, more far-reaching than those imposed, with China’s support, by the United Nations.

Even The Global Times, the nationalist, state-run newspaper, said several months ago that China should consider cutting off its oil supplies to North Korea if Mr. Kim detonated a sixth nuclear bomb. But with the party congress looming, the paper modified its position Sunday.

“The origin of the North Korean nuclear issue is the sense of uncertainty that is generated by the military actions of the U.S./South Korea military alliance,” the paper said. “China should not be at the front of this sharp and complicated situation.”

There were also some doubts whether severing oil supplies would make much a huge difference to the North Korean regime. “The economic effects will be substantial but not regime crippling,” said Mr. Hayes of the Nautilus Institute, which specializes in the North’s energy needs.

The hardships, he said, would be most felt by ordinary people, with less food getting to market and fewer people able to travel between cities in buses.

The North’s army has oil stockpiles for routine nonwartime use for at least a year, Mr. Hayes said. “They can last for about a month before they run out of fuel in wartime, at best; likely much earlier,” he said.

Another major concern for the Chinese government is the fears of residents in the northeast of the country about nuclear contamination from North Korea’s test site at Punggye-ri, not far from the Chinese border.

Many residents in Yanji in Jilin Province, which borders the North, said they felt their apartments shake after the test. Some posted photos of stocks of food and drinks shattered on the floors of a grocery store. At first residents believed the cause was an earthquake, they said, and only later in the day heard the news from state-run media that North Korea had detonated a nuclear bomb.

“I was in my study when the earthquake began,” said Sun Xingjie, an assistant professor at Jilin University in Changchun about 350 miles from the North Korean test site. Mr. Sun said he checked with friends on social media, and they determined from the location and the depth of the explosion that it was a nuclear test.

Even though there is no evidence of any contamination from the test reaching China, it is a worry of residents, Mr. Sun said.

“We are at the border region, so we have a sense of fear about leakage from the nuclear test,” he said.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Harbin, China.

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