Former CIA analyst Jung Pak just left the intelligence world in August for the Brookings Institute, and now she’s warning that the government has been getting things all wrong on Kim Jon-Un.
In an interview with Politico Global, Pak recalled the CIA getting Kim wrong from the start of his regime. When he took over in 2011, she said most in the agency believed that the young leader would be overthrown within a few years. Six years later, their certainty has proved to be a serious miscalculation.
She cited her former CIA colleague Bruce Klingner, who noted, “trying to understand North Korea is like working on a jigsaw puzzle where you have a mere handful of pieces, and your opponent is purposefully throwing pieces from other puzzles into the box.”
When it comes to Trump’s assessment and tweets on North Korea, she said that they’re not only misleading but dangerous. All of her assessments were included in the CIA analyses given to Trump, but what was actually heard is anyone’s guess.
“Despite all the chest-thumping and bad behavior, Kim is not looking for a military confrontation with the United States,” Pak explained. She even argued Kim is “rational, not suicidal,” and knowledgable about military strategy, including the fact that he’s outnumbered in a war against the U.S. and South Korea. While he may be “aggressive, he is not reckless or a ‘madman.’”
Yet, Trump continues to treat him that way. So, while arguments about such topics were normally confined to the halls of intelligence agencies, now they’ve become a public conversation. Arguments over Kim’s sanity have taken a front seat in the Trump presidency.
Before Trump, a “bloody nose” attack to Kim was “unthinkable,” according to Pak. There was a risk of retaliation to Seoul.
Two former senior U.S. officials told Politico that they “listened in dismay to national security adviser H.R. McMaster speak seriously about a ‘military option’ against North Korea.” They had their own opinions about what McMaster would actually do, but were shocked the conversation was even had.
“They view it as a moment in history,” one former official said. “If people have to die it may be better to let them die now.”
“Military planners privately acknowledge, and have told the White House,” Stanford lecturer Daniel Sneider wrote after a trip to the region to speak with State Department and military sources. “That there is no way to carry out such a strike without carrying a significant risk of North Korean escalatory response. But it is far from clear if those warnings have been considered seriously, or accepted, by the president and his closest advisors.”
Pak noted that the White House might be attempting to label Kimg Jon Un a madman to justify a preemptive strike.
“It’s an important discussion,” she said, “because if he’s not a rational actor, that means he’s not deterrable.” That might be the point of the White House to begin with.
Pak’s has spent six-plus years focusing on the mind and behavior of the North Korea leader.
“He knows how to step back,” Pak said. “He goes right up to the edge, and he steps back.” Indeed, the entire “Olympic outreach” of recent days, she says, may well be because of the Trump White House’s talk of war, a threat Kim took “seriously enough that they thought a no-cost outreach towards South Korea was warranted.”
“I don’t think he wants to start a nuclear war,” she continued. “Because I think he knows that that would just mean the annihilation of his regime and his family.”