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The Psychology of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: The Measure of a Man

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Trans-Pacific View

The Psychology of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: The Measure of a Man

Insight from Kenneth Dekleva.

The Psychology of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: The Measure of a Man

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hosts a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang (March 6, 2018).

Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

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 during 2002-2016; and author of published political psychology/leadership profiles of Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Kim Jong-il –  is the 131st in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series”.  The views expressed in this paper are entirely his own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Assess Kim Jong-un’s diplomacy skills.

The past several months have brought dramatic developments in North Korea’s relations with South Korea, and in potential diplomatic initiatives related to peace in the Korean Peninsula and a reduction in threat levels raised by North Korea’s extensive nuclear tests during 2017.  Appreciating the context of such developments requires a keen understanding of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and his personality. Kim has recently shown remarkable savvy, as he has successfully projected himself and his nation onto the world stage, in ways not seen before.  The signals sent by Kim, while often opaque, may become clearer in hindsight. It would be easy to understand Kim’s recent overtures according to commonly held stereotypes, seeing Kim as responding to a combination of international sanctions and [military] threats by U.S. President Trump. But to do so is to miss a beat. Kim has rather – somewhat unexpectedly – shown himself to be a masterful diplomat, and has composed an intricate set of diplomatic moves and gestures, where each note is precise and laden with meaning. To understand Kim’s psyche and leadership psychology, we must “hear” each note — and it’s worthwhile to understand his score, where he is both the composer and conductor.

Identify Kim’s strategic messaging signals to China and the United States. 

The introductory signals began following China’s 19th CCP [Chinese Communist Party] Congress in October 2017. Kim (who has never met Xi Jinping) sent Xi a personal congratulatory telegram shortly thereafter, wishing him “great success,” using laudatory language not seen in the context of recent cooler relations between China and North Korea. Importantly, North Korea has also not tested any nuclear devices since September 2017, and clearly did not wish to embarrass China prior to, during, or after its monumental 19th CCP Congress, or prior to the state visit to China in November 2017 by President Trump.

Following Xi’s summit with President Trump, China dispatched a senior envoy, Ambassador Song Tao, to North Korea for a high-level visit, in which he met with senior North Korean officials, with Chinese and North Korean media highlighting the visit and the importance of friendship between the two countries as “a source of valuable wealth.” While Song’s visit did not appear to go well according to media reports, both countries — somewhat oddly — remained ambiguous as to whether or not Ambassador Song met with Kim, and it’s worth noting that both countries opaquely neither confirmed nor denied that such a meeting may have indeed occurred. It is intriguing to think that it did, and several of Kim’s later diplomatic overtures and initiatives might be suggestive in this regard.

The next movement in Kim’s score was his 2018 New Year’s speech, in which he spoke of North Korea’s successful development of nuclear weapons. What many observers missed were his comments stating that he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul, and his willingness to send a delegation to the February 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Kim further highlighted that “we wish the Games will be a success,” a far cry from his father’s role in a deadly terrorist attack prior to the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea.

How did Kim leverage the Winter Olympics in achieving his diplomatic objectives?

The Winter Olympics provided a worldwide stage for Kim’s bravura performance, as he dispatched his sister Kim Yo-jong (an alternate member of the DPRK’s Politburo) to the opening ceremonies, who captivated the media with her grace, charm, and élan.  She met with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, bringing Kim’s invitation to host President Moon (whom he has de facto recognized as a legitimate interlocutor) at a summit in North Korea (the first such high-level meeting since 2007).

At the closing ceremonies, North Korea’s delegate General Kim Yong-chol expressed North Korea’s “willingness” to talk to the U.S. And just this month, Kim hosted a trip to Pyongyang of a high-level South Korean delegation in preparation for an April 2018 summit between President Moon and Kim. Photos and media reports highlighted a charming and energetic Kim, hosting the delegation during an intimate dinner. Subsequent media reports stated that Kim had also spoken of North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize if appropriate security conditions were met. And later this week, Kim dramatically offered to meet with President Trump in a summit meeting later this year, which President Trump immediately accepted.

What do Kim’s action reveal about his greater ambitions?

Kim’s coda reveals much about his intentions, his psyche, and next steps. It is tempting – given past “failures” involving the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Six Party Talks – to assume that Kim is borrowing a page from his father’s playbook. But Kim’s projection onto the world stage may suggest loftier ambitions. In this sense, he is more like his grandfather [Kim Il-sung] than his father. Kim Il-sung was the master of grand gestures, having started the Korean War, and later, playing a large role in the Non-Aligned Movement. Kim too has his grandfather’s style, panache, and gravitas, and has now shown the ability to project confidence, savoir faire, and elegance on the world stage.

What U.S. symbolism has had an impact on Kim’s overtures toward Washington?

It is easy to forget that in his waning years, plagued by ill health, Kim Il-sung also sought a “grand bargain” with the U.S. In 1992 and 1994 (just prior to his death), he hosted the late American evangelist Reverend Billy Graham (who in 1992 brought a personal message to Kim Il-sung from U.S. President George H.W. Bush), seeking improved relations with the U.S. Graham’s wife Ruth had spent part of her childhood in Pyongyang, and she spoke fondly of “the beauty of the two rivers that flow through the city of Pyongyang and the warmth and hospitality of the people.” The North Korean government and its leadership – including Kim – are exquisitely attuned to such nuance and symbols. Is Kim’s current peace overture – towards not only South Korea but towards the U.S. – a mere coincidence, coming during the week of Reverend Billy Graham’s funeral?  Perhaps not.

And Kim believes that he can do more. In doing so, he can build a more lasting 21st century legacy, as not only his father’s son, but more appropriately, as Kim Il-sung’s grandson. If Kim can pull off his grandfather’s grand bargain, and help bring peace to the Koreas and legitimacy to his regime, it would be quite a coda. For Kim Il-sung and Reverend Billy Graham are surely watching from above, and smiling down on him. It’s his score now, and he is at last, the composer and conductor, legacy and psyche fatefully united, his to gain – or to lose.