Motives of North Korea’s leader baffle Americans and allies

The New York Times reports: 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.” [Continue reading…]

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