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Dr. Jung H. Pak discusses the making of Kim Jong Un

Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator

On September 14, 2020, The Institute of World Politics hosted the webinar, Becoming Kim Jong Un. This event was sponsored by the Global Impact Discussion Series and moderated by IWP alumna Patricia Schouker. The webinar featured Dr. Jung H. Pak, who spoke to the external and internal factors that gave rise to one of the world’s most infamous dictators: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

About the Panelist

Dr. Jung H. Pak is currently a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution. Before Brookings, she held senior positions at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where she led the U.S. Intelligence Community’s strategic analysis of North Korea as the Deputy National Intelligence Officer. Dr. Pak is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Colgate University, where she served as a trustee from 2009-2015. She received her Ph.D. in United States history from Columbia University and studied in South Korea as a Fulbright scholar.

Dr. Pak is the author of Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator (April 2020), which is a groundbreaking account that traces and explains Kim Jong Un’s ascent to becoming North Korea’s leader. Additionally, she has written essays and contributed to numerous high-profile news outlets both within the United States and abroad.

The Book: Becoming Kim Jong Un

Ms. Patricia Schouker began the lecture by expressing her admiration and fondness for Dr. Pak’s new book. She stated that history and geography are often lauded as the most important aspects when studying geopolitical actions and relations, but that personality and character are of equal importance in such discussions.

After Ms. Schouker introduced Dr. Pak to the audience, she asked what prompted her to write such a compelling book. Dr. Pak responded that she began tracking Kim’s movements while he was in his mid-twenties and while there was a lot of information concerning tensions between North and South Korea, and she felt there was not a comprehensive overview of how Kim became North Korea’s leader. She saw that studies about the new leader were being produced by experts in fields concerning arms control, political science, and history, but she did not see any information on Kim’s personality, and, more specifically, his motivations, preferences, and how history could burden or empower him.

In her book, Dr. Pak examines North Korean culture and human rights violations to demonstrate how these policies and practices have shaped Kim Jong Un’s ideology. Initially, she was looking for signals of instability within the country during the transition of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un; however, she discovered the opposite to be true.

Bigger, Badder, Bolder       

Ms. Schouker then asked for Dr. Pak’s opinion on how Kim has remained in power and how his international interactions have shaped his ideology and practices. Dr. Pak responded that, due to his relatively young age, she was shocked at the level of confidence Kim Jong Un possessed when he became North Korea’s leader. While North Korea’s economy is fragile in comparison to other countries with similar technological knowledge, Dr. Pak believes that the fear Kim emits on a national level is the source of his power.

For example, during the funeral of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un was surrounded by seven high commanding military officers that were close confidants of the late leader. However, in the following years, all seven of these men were either replaced or died under mysterious circumstances.

Dr. Pak then offered her explanation of where Kim draws his confidence. Both of North Korea’s previous leaders, Kim’s father and grandfather, experienced a variety of hardships that greatly impacted their rule. Kim Il Sung experienced famine and fought Japanese guerillas, while Kim Jong Il ruled through another famine, the Cold War, and saw the decline of North Korea’s economy. On the contrary, Kim Jong Un has only known relative economic prosperity and nuclear success, which can be identified as a source of his confidence.

Dr. Pak stated that the young leader has never known struggle or dissent within his administration. Although, the downfall is that Kim’s unwarranted confidence has led him to believe that his “leash” is longer than it is. Dr. Pak concluded that these factors have played a role in Kim becoming “bigger, badder, and bolder” than those before him.

North Korea’s Relationship with China and the U.S.

Ms. Schouker then asked Dr. Pak how North Korea’s relationship with China has evolved under the current regime and how North Korea’s economic engagements have progressed. Dr. Pak responded that, while Kim has a better relationship with China than his father, there is still a great amount of distrust between the two countries.

An example Dr. Pak provided is how Kim has expressed his desire to continue in North Korea’s nuclear program against the wishes of Beijing. However, China has seemingly attempted to mend the relationship between the two in recent years. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has increased summits between North Korea and China in response to North Korea’s summits with the United States. Dr. Pak sees this development as an opportunity for Kim to further his policies and place a hedge between China and the United States.

Dr. Pak believes that Kim favors China’s administration over the United States’, as Kim has insulted various American leaders but has refrained from making negative comments about China’s leaders. North Korea even went as far as to applaud China’s response to the coronavirus earlier this year. In concluding this segment, Dr. Pak stated that Kim’s focus appears to be on demonstrating his autonomy to China and the U.S., even though he is also dependent on both nations.

Nuclear Capabilities and Cyber Attacks

Ms. Schouker then asked Dr. Pak what her thoughts were surrounding the amount of power North Korea wields in both nuclear and cyber capabilities. More specifically, Ms. Schouker asked about North Korea’s cyber-attacks, such as those committed against Sony Pictures in 2014.

Dr. Pak admitted her disbelief that North Korea was able to carry out such a large-scale attack, as many believed the country was incapable of such actions. To the American public, this attack demonstrated that North Korea had the capability and means to disrupt U.S. life. The attack was mostly in response to the impending release of the movie, The Interview, which depicts the assassination of Kim Jong Un by American personnel. Dr. Pak stated that the attack was meant to incite fear of North Korea and its growing technological capabilities.

The next topic discussed was North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Dr. Pak believes the recent summits with the United States were monumental failures for North Korea and left Kim feeling deeply embarrassed after President Trump refused to lift sanctions. These summits, according to Dr. Pak, reinforced Kim’s belief that he could only trust himself.

However, Dr. Pak stated that the events of 2017 demonstrated to Kim that the U.S. would avoid war at all costs, which consequently led him to believe that his “leash” was longer than it was. A key aspect that Dr. Pak made sure to emphasize was the fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons do not make Kim safer and that he needs to internalize this. She continued stating that the U.S. has begun to put pressure on Kim Jong Un to make him choose between the regime’s survival and his nuclear weapons.

Looking Forward                 

Ms. Schouker then asked Dr. Pak’s opinion on Kim Jong Un’s health, to which Dr. Pak responded that she did not claim to know details surrounding Kim’s disappearance in April 2020. However, she did state that during the summits between the U.S. and North Korea in 2018 and 2019, Kim’s health had visibly declined.

Continuing this topic, Dr. Pak commented on Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. Dr. Pak explained that Kim Yo-jong has become a constant beside her brother. This was visible during the summits between North Korea and both China and the U.S. Kim Yo-jong appears to be almost equally experienced as her brother. Dr. Pak believes that the North Korean army would follow her if anything were to happen to Kim Jong Un.

In closing, Dr. Pak stated that North Korea is currently in a precarious position. Kim is trying to demonstrate his dominance while simultaneously needing to ensure that economic stability and weapons advancement continue without foreign intervention from external actors, such as the U.S. and China. Dr. Pak caveated this statement by saying that U.S. sanctions are attempting to demonstrate that Kim must choose between the two. China should be mindful to keep Kim’s regime afloat; however, China must also convey to Kim that their support has limits and that China will not blindly back North Korea regardless of their actions.

Ms. Schouker concluded the webinar by thanking Dr. Pak again for participating in the discussion and recommending that the audience read Dr. Pak’s book, Becoming Kim Jong Un.

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