On April 14th, 2021, The Institute of World Politics hosted a virtual webinar titled “Fear and Insecurity: Addressing North Korean Threat Perceptions,” sponsored by the Asia Initiative Lecture Series.
Dr. Patrick Cronin is the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at Hudson Institute, where he analyzes U.S. challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific region. This includes China’s total competition campaign, the future of the Korean peninsula, and strengthening U.S. alliances and partnerships in the region. He previously held the position of Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) and Senior Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University.
Drawing on his March 2021 report published by the Hudson Institute, Dr. Cronin addresses North Korean threat perceptions by examining the ruling elite’s perspectives on the use and threat of military force over the last 70 years.
In an April 2021 report, U.S. intelligence experts in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence asserted the following: “We assess that Kim views nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention and believe that, over time, he will gain international acceptance and respect as a nuclear power.” While the Trump administration implemented “maximum pressure” to convince the Kim regime that its survival rests on the eventual relinquishment of its nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, the likelihood of attaining that goal hinges on the value that the North Korean regime attaches to nuclear weapons.
As we have already seen, the regime prioritizes the continued advancement of nuclear and military capabilities. Beyond deterring foreign attempts at regime change, these programs “enhance North Korea’s status, solidify Kim’s domestic power credibility, provide negotiating leverage, and bolster his military plans.” However, Kim’s interests in economic power and North Korean modernization suggest there is at least an opportunity for diplomatic engagement to reduce the risk of war. As the Biden administration conducts a policy review to assess new approaches towards North Korea, the continuous challenge for the U.S. is obtaining a firm understanding of both the fears and aspirations of North Korea and its ruling elite.
It is Dr. Cronin’s view that building an accurate picture of North Korean threat perceptions will be challenging but not impossible for the United States. This can be done through the collection of reliable information, sifting through a range of suppositions, and enumerating probabilities while maintaining an objective sense of oneself and “overcoming cognitive bias based on emotion, entrenched views, and experience.”