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.


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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