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Kim Jong-un’s Political Psychology Profile

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Trans-Pacific View

Kim Jong-un’s Political Psychology Profile

Insights from Ken Dekleva.

Kim Jong-un’s Political Psychology Profile

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves at parade participants at the Kim Il-sung Square on May 10, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Kenneth Dekleva – Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas; formerly Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist with the U.S. Dept. of State from 2002-2016; and author of published political psychology/leadership profiles of Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Il – is the 111th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” The views expressed in this interview are entirely Dr. Dekleva’s own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Government, U.S. Dept. of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Briefly explain the methodology behind political psychology profiling.

Political psychology/leadership profiling relies upon a psycho-biographical approach of the leader’s political behavior, cognitive style, and decision-making, with the goal of understanding what makes the leader tick, especially during negotiations and crises. Such an approach relies upon qualitative assessments for an audience of policymakers, whereas quantitative approaches have more relevance in academic settings. Both approaches desire to offer predictive power in terms of a leader’s future actions.

My approach relies upon a psycho-biographical tradition first developed by Dr. Walter Langer in his 1943 Office of Strategic Services [predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency] report of Adolf Hitler’s leadership, and later furthered by Dr. Jerrold Post during his tenure at the CIA and George Washington University. A critical point of such profiles lies in their ability to empathize with, and to humanize, the leader in order to create a deeper understanding, which requires not only individual empathy, but also an understanding of the culture in which the leader operates.

What is your assessment of Kim Jong-un’s political psychology?

Kim Jong-un has shown a degree of savvy, ambition, and ruthlessness which has shocked outside observers. He has shown such patterns over time, starting with the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, his purges of hundreds of senior personnel, the murder of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, and the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam. But Kim has also shown the ability to co-opt military and security elites with his ambitious development of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, defying predictions of the international community. He has also shown a more public persona, élan, style – aided by his wife Ri Sol-ju – and visibility, akin to that of Kim Il-sung, thereby building upon his grandfather’s heroic legacy. Kim, while not an economic reformer per se, has tolerated some degree of internal market-based activity, allowing the DPRK’s economy to grow (2.9 percent in 2016) and creating visible accomplishments. In this sense, Kim has demonstrated an aspirational style of leadership, recognizing that real tangibles – including nuclear weapons – are required in order to sustain his power.

How would you describe Kim Jong-un’s worldview?

Kim sees himself and the DPRK as under existential threat from the United States. Such a view is not new, but has likely solidified due to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Kim has drawn the conclusion – supported by the fates of Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine – that nuclear weapons are the only logical course of development regarding both his and the regime’s survival. Kim, while educated briefly in the West, has never traveled abroad since assuming power in 2012. But it would be false to assume that he is thereby poorly informed. Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s experienced diplomats are known for their expertise and worldliness, and one gets the sense that their work is valued by Kim Jong-un.

Lastly, the decline in close relations between the DPRK and China (Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping have never met) has likely hardened Kim’s sense of isolation and desire to “go it alone.” The other striking thing about the DPRK’s worldview – as compared to that of other nuclear powers – is that Kim has never exhibited any degree of opacity regarding the DPRK’s nuclear weapons. This may reflect both his sense of being under threat as well as his unique personality make-up, and subsequent need to portray himself and the DPRK in a position of strength.

What factors – events, behavior, rhetoric, symbols – could trigger adverse reaction in such a leader?

The recent derogatory rhetoric between Kim Jong-un and President Trump is extremely dangerous, more so than even sanctions, and poses a heightened risk of accidental misunderstanding, potentially leading to a pre-emptive first-strike with devastating consequences. The DPRK’s leadership has long relied upon a variety of highly-nuanced signals in terms of gauging the United States’ intentions and strategic posture. The current lack of clarity; mixed messages between President Trump, particularly his tweets, and his national security team; and shameful, humiliating, and very public – e.g. at UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] – name-calling (“Little Rocket Man”) has the potential to sow both confusion and anger among the DPRK’s leadership, who have carefully studied President Trump’s actions and writings – The Art of the Deal – as well as his tweets.

That being said, enough confusion exists on the part of the DPRK that it has reached out to former U.S. government experts – Bruce Klingner, Evans Revere, Ralph Cossa, and Douglas Paal – in order to better understand U.S. motives. More ominously, the risk exists, that if cornered and psychologically humiliated, Kim Jong-un could militarily lash out at Japan, South Korea, or Guam, especially if he feared a first strike. While the U.S. and international community could theoretically react in terms of more concrete actions such as sanctions, military exercises, or the deployment of THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] missile defenses, words and actions that personally attack Kim may carry higher risk of triggering an adverse reaction on his part, because his personal leadership and psyche are more directly called into question.

What might be a prudent approach for U.S. leaders to understand this type of personality?

Kim Jong-un and the DPRK’s ruling elite are sensitive to nuance and to loss of face. They are also rational, political actors. Words and gestures matter. Given the “heightened temperature” in the region, face-saving gestures on both sides can be critical. Such diplomatic moves have precedent, as noted by Tong Kim, the U.S. State Department’s former Korean language interpreter. In 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a statement of “sympathy for the North Korean people” when Kim Il-sung died in the middle of U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000, she made a brief, quiet visit to the elder Kim’s mausoleum, for which Kim Jong-il profusely thanked her, both for that gesture and for President Clinton’s earlier 1994 message of sympathy.

Perhaps Kim Jong-un is more similar to his father and grandfather than many observers realize. To understand him, U.S. policy-makers can begin by dusting off old-fashioned concepts such as national pride, filial piety, and tradition, and embracing diplomatic gestures which can both decrease tensions and positively highlight the United States’ leadership role in Asia.