Current Events and the Psychology of Politics

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On December 14 the New York Times reported:

A second test [at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station] of what appeared to be an advanced missile engine, part of what North Korea said on Saturday was part of a “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent,” left little doubt that the country is moving quickly toward resuming the program that led to a crisis with Washington two years ago. … It was the second such test in a week, and came after weeks of increasingly vocal attempts to press the United States into further talks and new concessions. … American analysts and intelligence experts said they believe the ground test … was intended as a signal that the country could soon resume testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Analysts have speculated an ICBM test might occur after the end of December, a deadline Kim Jong-un imposed for the U.S. to resume negotiations and provide sanctions relief.

In its report, the New York Times quotes Pak Jong-chon, chief of the general staff of the North Korean People’s Army, as saying: “We should be ready to cope with political and military provocations of the hostile forces, and be familiar with both dialogue and confrontation” and that the U.S. and its allies would “spend the year-end in peace only when they hold off any words and deeds rattling us” — signaling that amid stalled diplomacy “the voice of North Korea’s hard-line military was rising,” according to Cheong Seong-chang, vice president of research planning at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

In conjunction with the North Korean foreign ministry’s veiled threat in early December that North Korea was preparing a surprise “Christmas gift” for the United States, the latest rhetoric emanating from the DPRK sounds ominous.

Left: Image of King Tongmyong from a North Korean book. Right: Image of Kim Jong-un, courtesy of KCNA. (Photo composite by Jean Lee / The Wilson Center)


Analysis: How should the U.S. respond?

  1. In planning its response, the U.S. should exercise caution in ascertaining the personal policy preferences of Kim Jong-un and distinguishing between that and the intent of hardliners in the DPRK military establishment.
  2. To the extent that Kim is losing ground in his grip on power vis-à-vis the top military leadership, the U.S. could strengthen Kim’s hand by giving due consideration to the resumption of personal diplomacy between the two nations’ leaders as a complement to the continuation of working-level talks.
  3. It would be prudent to delay any significant response or intervention until after evaluating the tone, and learning more about the details, of Kim’s policy options in his annual New Year’s Day speech.
  4. In the context of the central role of personal diplomacy in the US-DPRK nuclear negotiations, consider that with the specter of impeachment and the uncertainty of Donald Trump’s reelection as president, Kim might be reluctant to strike a deal at the present juncture, preferring to adopt a wait-and-see attitude; thus, it would be prudent to exercise patience and avoid any abrupt policy reversals.


One-month follow-up — January 31, 2020

The Many Faces of Chairman Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong-un and wife Ri Sol-ju ride a white horse on Mt. Paektu (Photo: KCNA)

Commentary by Kenneth B. Dekleva, M.D.

January 30, 2020


At the recent December 2019 plenum, Chairman Kim, rather than giving his traditional New Year’s speech, outlined a different strategy toward the US moving forward in 2020. … Kim’s strategic shift portends not only political, military and diplomatic changes, but also offers clues as to his evolving leadership style, intentions and flexibility as he begins his ninth year in power. …

Chairman Kim has shown restraint and patience. He has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or resumed nuclear testing—nor is he likely to do so, although a public “display” of a new ICBM or ballistic missile submarine is not out of the question.

Rather, Kim has carefully allowed his subordinates to give lip service to a “Christmas gift,” and he has substituted strategic ambiguity for his previously demonstrated (during 2018) nuclear opacity. Doing so highlights his strategic sensibility, patience and evolving maturity as a leader. Importantly, while disappointed (and likely humiliated) by his failure to achieve sanctions relief at the 2019 Hanoi Summit with US President Donald Trump, Chairman Kim has refrained from attacking the president personally. …

Kim remains an aspirational leader, even as the DPRK’s diplomacy is likely to shift—given the replacement of Ri Yong Ho and appointment of Ri Son Gwon (a military hardliner and protégé of Kim Yong Chol) as foreign minister—to a more muscular, hard-nosed version. And Kim, rather than acting impulsively to provoke an unpredictable President Trump, has surely taken measure of America’s current impeachment drama, the upcoming American presidential election, and Trump’s recent show of resolve with respect to the killing of Iran’s Quds Force leader General Soleimani, as well as the signing of the China trade deal. Kim is patiently waiting—with a tendency to avoid unnecessary political risks—knowing that, if Trump were to serve another four years, time is on his and the DPRK’s side. …

Full commentary


Related media reports

North Korea promises a Christmas surprise. Here are the options
(Geoff Brumfiel, NPR, Dec. 23, 2019)

Experts worry that North Korea may be about to test an advanced solid-fuel missile. (Photo: Wong Maye-E / AP via NPR)

U.S. on high alert for possible ‘Christmas gift’ missile from North Korea
(Bradford Betz, Fox News, Dec. 23, 2019)

What is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘Christmas gift’ for Donald Trump? (Erin Handley, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dec. 24, 2019)

Related research reports

The Leadership Style of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minn., June 10, 2018. Abstract and link for full-text (17 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons:


The Personality Profile of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minn., April 1, 2018. Abstract and link for full-text (32 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons:

Related links on this site

The Leadership Style of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (June 12, 2018)

Photo credit: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

North Korea Threat Assessment: The Psychological Profile of Kim Jong-un (April 8, 2013)

Click on image for larger view

Related interest

Kim Jong-un’s 2019 New Year’s Message

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