Book Review: “Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator”

Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator
By Jung H. Pak. Ballantine Books, April 28, 2020. 336 pp.

As Jung Pak makes clear in her new book Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator, besides being a target of ridicule on late-night television shows, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a legitimate focus of attention for anyone concerned about US policy toward the DPRK. A serious book about Kim is a welcome addition. In this case, the title implies the views Pak expresses are in large part a reflection of CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) analysis of North Korea. As a former deputy national intelligence officer at the National Intelligence Council where she led the US intelligence community’s (IC) production of strategic analysis on Korean Peninsula issues, the author promises to present the sort of “cool and objective” approach she credits her former IC colleagues with displaying.

Delving into Kim’s personality and style, and then applying those observations to policy recommendations—which Pak does at the end of her book—is an admirable exercise and not an easy one. It’s the sort of work that needs a lot imagination, something the author deploys to good effect. It also requires close attention to the facts. More on that below.

Apart from the broader story of Kim Jong Un’s personality and leadership, the book ends up illuminating uncomfortable examples of why the US has been stuck in the same swamp after so many years—decades, actually—of contact with the North. Since in several places Pak stops to comment on the work, findings and success of the intelligence community in dealing with North Korea, perhaps we ought to pause a moment to do likewise. Political analysis is not the CIA’s strongest point, though that varies from office to office and, not surprisingly, from individual to individual. The problem is not a lack of smart people in the organization, but where they sit and how they must view the world. The CIA leadership has long fretted with the weaknesses of Agency analysis and tried various ways to improve it. Basically, these have revolved around the idea that better analysis can result from better training classes and, in some cases, a more systematic review of the output.

It hasn’t worked.

One difficulty is that CIA analysts—especially those dealing with denied areas—can have little real experience outside the walls of the Agency. That’s baked into the requirements and to some extent the culture of the job. Over the years, sitting in daily morning meetings with senior US Department of State officials, I was often amused by their comments about some piece of CIA analysis they’d just read, analysis about people and events with which these diplomats were often much more familiar than the analysts at Langley.

In an effort to make its analysis more useful to policymakers, one approach the CIA has adopted in dealing with often difficult questions on which there are no definite answers is what I call the “maybe-possibly-could also be” approach. It is used very frequently in the book. One could argue that in the face of uncertainty, such an approach is intellectually honest. If you don’t know the answer, then isn’t it better just to lay out the “a”, “b,” and “c” of alternatives? But if “a” and “c” are opposites, then it isn’t really helpful to list them all. For example, Pak says at one point, “Kim almost certainly saw the ousting of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state,” and the replacement of H.R. McMaster by John Bolton as signs of “tumult and policy dysfunction” (213-214). But then she says, “at the same time, [Kim] might have interpreted Trump’s actions as those of a tough, confident leader” (214). Well, it can’t be both.

For a study focused on Kim Jong Un, the book spends an inordinate amount of space criticizing President Trump. If, as Pak contends, the outside world (and especially the US) has helped shape the young North Korean leader’s perceptions and policy choices, then one would think it’s valid and very necessary to examine the approach of the Obama administration, which was in office during Kim’s first—presumably formative—five years as leader. According to Pak’s logic, shouldn’t a reader wonder why the tremendous growth of the North’s nuclear and missile programs from 2012-2016 isn’t seen at least in part as a result of the Obama administration’s policy failures—and not incidentally, the failures of IC analysis about the North? Wouldn’t previous US policies be every bit as important in understanding Kim Jong Un, and the larger story of why we are where we are today vis-à-vis Pyongyang?

Despite the bright red thread of criticism running through the chapters, believe it or not, US policy isn’t our immediate concern here, nor even are Pak’s views on policy. She clearly states her conclusions and recommendations. Readers can take them or not as they wish. What should be of more concern, and is certainly of concern to me, are the core beliefs that are the undergirding of the book’s conclusions, core beliefs the CIA has held for decades.

The most serious of these beliefs, held with almost religious fervor, is that the North Koreans have never been, and will never be, “sincere” in dealing with the United States. In their hearts—I heard this argument going back at least 35 years—the North Koreans don’t mean what they say, or rather, they only mean what they say when it is something negative, but not when it is positive. Indeed, the argument goes, they have only a single goal (pick one: coercive reunification, developing a nuclear program, driving a wedge between the US and the ROK). Everything else is smoke and mirrors to distract and confuse, to keep us busy while they proceed with their ugly business. And their business must be ugly because the North Korean regime is morally repugnant. Anyone who doesn’t put that front and center in their analysis is…well…suspect. In a not so subtle slash of the saber, Pak says, “Magnifying [Kim’s] power is the insidious way in which the regime’s repressive measures seep into the consciousness of both the North Korean people and foreign visitors and journalists, who self-censor either to ensure that they do not run afoul of North Korean authorities or to maintain access” (143-144).

A theme the author falls back on several times is that there is “playbook” the North Korean leadership uses, a normal cycle of North Korean behavior that swings from pressure to extract concessions, to “charm offensives” in order to squeeze out economic benefits and buy time to complete its nuclear or missile programs, and then back to pressure or provocation. Pak says that under Kim Jong Il there was a “relatively predictable pattern of provocation followed by a charm offensive to extract political and economic benefits.” (82) Obviously there are limits to the detail an author can include, but this assertion of Kim Jong Il’s “pattern” is simply a repetition of what has become accepted almost as divine truth, without reference to any evidence and without consideration anything to the contrary. As it happens, there was no such “pattern,” predictable or otherwise, from when Kim Jong Il took power in July 1994 until 2003.

If Pyongyang had been merely trying to buy time in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Agreed Framework at the end of December 2002, how would one explain the North’s several invitations to the former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Dr. Siegfried Hecker, to see firsthand and discuss in detail the North’s plutonium production program at Yongbyon starting in January 2004? This was decidedly not to hide or deceive; just the opposite, it was a North Korean effort to demonstrate its progress in its nuclear program not to a gullible group but to an expert intimately familiar with nuclear weapons technology.

One of the most serious problems in the book is the way all of the North’s words are thrown into a pot and then taken out as convenient in order to weave a colorful analysis. That opens the trap door to a seemingly coherent story, but it doesn’t lend itself to cogent analysis. And it doesn’t nudge the reader into a better grasp of North Korea. Why? First and foremost because all words coming out of Pyongyang are not equally important. Some are propaganda, nothing more. By contrast, some are meant to convey policy or to signal decisions. The distinction is crucial, as North Korean officials recognize. In a long-since abolished office in what was then known as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, I was trained to read North Korean statements carefully, systematically, methodically. How carefully that needed to be done hit me vividly in the early 1990s after official contact guidance and visa restrictions were eased to allow visits to the US by DPRK officials. In a private conversation, I had a chance to ask a senior DPRK official about what looked to me to be a highly discordant note appearing in North Korean media just at a time when inter-Korean dialogue was emerging. This naiveté was met with a sigh of resignation. “That’s not policy,” my interlocutor said, “that’s propaganda.”

The dots. It isn’t uncommon for a couple of facts in any book to be wrong, just simple goofs. In that case, for a reviewer to point them out is churlish. In this case, though, for anyone who wants to understand North Korea, I worry there are too many loose boards—some factual errors, some woefully weak interpretations—throughout this book. On too many levels, on too many pages, the facts are wrong, or the analysis is weak.

To be sure, some of the factual problems in the book are minor, and if there were only a few, they would be less notable. But there are too many of them, and some are too important for the pattern to be overlooked. What follows is a sample of what I think definitely needs fixing or at least a second hard look:

In 1974, former ROK President Park Geun-hye’s mother was “assassinated by North Korean commandos” (81). Actually, she was struck by stray bullets fired by one quickly recruited and barely trained pro-Korean from Japan who shot himself in the leg before firing wildly and missing his target, ROK President Park Chung-hee—hardly a “commando.”

In 1998, “the regime tested its first long-range ballistic missile over Japan…and built a massive underground covert nuclear weapons site—in part to extract additional concessions from the Clinton administration” (65). Presumably, “underground site” is a reference to Kumchang-ri, a suspect underground facility which was the subject of US-DPRK negotiations for many months beginning in late 1998. But after getting access and carefully examining the site for two days in May 1999, US government inspectors concluded there was no evidence that the site, as currently configured, was connected with the nuclear weapons program. As for US “concessions,” the DPRK extracted none for either the attempt to launch a satellite (which failed) or the underground site. In fact, Washington included reference to the final resolution of the Kumchang-ri issue in the October 2000 US-DPRK Joint Communiqué in order to lay the groundwork for future inspections, i.e., to turn the episode to US advantage.

“Kim Jong Il downplayed the prospects for economic development and exhorted people to tighten their belts; Kim Jong Un created a socialist fairyland and told his people they can have both nuclear weapons and prosperity” (227-228). Actually, beginning in 2002, Kim Jong Il launched major changes in economic policy. Prices and wages were adjusted to encourage rational economic choices; Pyongyang sent teams overseas to study how markets operate, even down to questions of the numbers of stalls a market should have; the pages of the North Korean economic journal were filled with lively debates over extremely serious issues, including whether military spending should be considered a drain on economic growth. These policies lost ground a few years later. Internal conservative pushback got traction as US-DPRK confrontation heated up.

In 2002, “things went from bad to worse…following revelations of both [the North’s] uranium enrichment program and its ability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons” (65). Actually, by 2002 the US already knew (and had known in great detail for a decade) about the North’s ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. There is no way of knowing what is meant here by “revelations.” There was a new intelligence assessment in the spring of 2002 that the North had procured or attempted to procure over the past several years sufficient material and machinery for a large-scale uranium enrichment program, but at that point, the CIA made clear it was not possible to know if the pieces had been assembled or if anything was actually operating, i.e., whether or not there was yet any ability to use this route to produce fissile material. Later that year, the CIA assessed that the North could have a centrifuge facility fully operational and producing bomb fuel “as soon as mid-decade”—an estimate that now looks to have been off by several years. If by “revelations” is meant wide-spread reports that the North Koreans admitted to such a uranium enrichment program at the October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, they didn’t.

The North’s act in 2010 of revealing to US visitors (again, including Dr. Siegfried Hecker) a large uranium enrichment plant, “triggered suspicion about the regime’s intention to make highly enriched uranium bomb fuel” (70). This may look like a quibble over one word (“triggered”), which may be no more than just an effort to infuse some drama into the story. Actually, in plain language, the visit to the enrichment plant didn’t “trigger” suspicion. It confirmed in vivid detail what the US had long suspected and been gathering evidence on since at least the late 1990s.

In July 2017, “in response to [US] condemnations and to a U.S.-South Korean show of force, which included launching a ‘deep strike’ missile drill, Kim Jong Un immediately declared that North Korea will ‘demonstrate its mettle to the U.S.’ and that he would never put up his nuclear weapons program up for negotiation” (165). Actually, the North Korean missile launch came on July 4, before the US-ROK “deep strike” drill. If anything, the US and ROK were reacting to the North rather than the other way around. More importantly, this passage overlooks the key part of Kim’s remarks. Kim didn’t say the North would “never” put up its nuclear program for negotiation. What he actually said, in a major shift from previous DPRK formulations about nuclear weapons, was that the North “would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations…unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated.” The insertion of the phrase “on the table of negotiations” was a new, extremely important addition to the North’s position. In effect, it created a doorway for Kim, a policy opening that several months later let him declare the “completion” of the nuclear program and shortly thereafter, in January 2018, begin a pivot to diplomacy.

In January 2018, when Kim moved to negotiations, it was “viewed as an astonishing turn of events that Kim, who had rejected engagement for his entire tenure, would do a 180” (186). Actually, Kim hadn’t rejected engagement throughout his tenure. In January 2015, for example, the DPRK formally proposed the US temporarily suspend joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity that year, and that the DPRK would respond by “temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned.”[1] At that point, the North had conducted three nuclear tests, only one of those (in February 2013) under Kim Jong Un. This idea for the mutual “suspension” of activity had been under consideration in Pyongyang for many months. There is no way of knowing where it might have led, because Washington rejected it within 24 hours, before there could have been any serious examination. A few months later, the North Koreans invited the new Obama administration special envoy on Korea to Pyongyang. Again Washington turned them down.

As for being an “astonishing turn of events,” it may have seemed sudden to outside observers, but it was by no means sudden any more than a ballet move is sudden. The final steps in the diplomatic minuet were roughly choreographed in December, as a result of a visit to Pyongyang by United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who met with then-DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. Kim’s subsequent conversations in Pyongyang with a group of senior South Korean envoys on March 5 was the next move. A few days later, when he heard from some South Korean envoys about their meeting with Kim, the president’s response was not out of the blue but in the context of a dance that had begun three months earlier.

March/April 2018, the North “did not publicly acknowledge the possibility of a Kim-Trump meeting until a month later,” after news that President Trump had told South Korean envoys on March 8 that he was willing to meet with Kim, a “delay” that “suggests that Kim, surprised by Trump’s first move, was calculating his response” (211). Actually, there was strong evidence of a positive response from Pyongyang almost immediately after Trump’s position became public. On March 10, Choson Sinbo, the newspaper of pro-DPRK Koreans in Japan, ran a commentary by an extremely well-connected reporter noting the president’s remarks and then, without elaboration, saying that Kim Jong Un had made a “big, resolute, decisive decision.” And on March 20, a KCNA commentary noted “there has been a sign of change…in the DPRK-U.S. relations.”[2] In an obvious reference to the possibility of talks, it criticized “small-mindedness” of efforts to “spoil the atmosphere and say this or that even before the parties concerned are given a chance to study the inner thoughts of the other side and are seated at a negotiating table.” This is the time, the commentary emphasized, for “all to approach everything with prudence with self-control and patience.”

— “Two decades after initiating these programs, Kim Il Sung declared that the country had ‘succeeded in producing poisonous gas and bacterial weapons through our own efforts supported by Soviet scientists in the field’” (151). Kim crediting Soviet assistance? This was worth looking at the footnotes. It turns out that there is a footnote for that quotation, pointing us to a source that makes the same claim, but which in turn cites two other sources, which in turn cite yet another source, which in turn cites another source. Did Kim actually say that? Or do we just end up with swamp gas and a convoluted trail of sourcing?

* * *

In the end, Becoming Kim Jong Un lays bare the weaknesses of IC analysis that has tied Washington down in formulating North Korean policy for many years. Essentially, the book contends that everything Kim Jong Un proposes is an attempt to further his goals, which are necessarily antithetical to ours. Dealing with him is thus a trap. The first part of that thesis is undoubtedly true—that’s what leaders do, work to further their goals. But too blind acceptance of the second part leads to doing nothing, or as the final 10 pages of the book lay out, to suggestions for pursuing even more diligently what has been failed US policy for most of the past 20 years, i.e., maximum pressure. Although in the final section there is a small bone is thrown to diplomacy (mostly dismissed as the dream of “peace activists and academics” [231]), in aggregate the default setting advocated by the book appears to be not much more than a slight variation of Maslow’s hammer: when every problem is seen as the same nail, then every solution must be the same hammer.

The author poses some of the important questions which certainly deserve careful study. For instance, even if he is looking for change, is Kim trapped within the walls of a system he inherited and now can’t dismantle? Do Kim’s personality and personal style prevent his advisors from giving him candid advice? The one question missing is crucial—what is Kim’s strategic view on the dealing with the US? Pak says, with good justification, that Kim learned from his country’s history that no one can be trusted—certainly not the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese or the South Koreans. Yet, she doesn’t note Kim also would know that soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, his grandfather Kim Il Sung made a weighty strategic decision that transformed North Korean foreign and security policy. Looking for a buffer against untrustworthy and potentially hostile neighbors, the elder Kim decided to engage and seek to improve relations with the US. That is not surmise. It comes from multiple sources. There is considerable evidence that Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, continued to pursue that goal, at least through the end of 2002, if not beyond.

And what of Kim Jong Un? Does such a strategic realignment remain his goal, and if so, what are the implications? What did Kim’s pivot to diplomacy in 2018, and even his position at the failed Hanoi Summit, tell us about his strategic view of the long-term value of improved relations with the US, beyond an effort to have economic sanctions eased?

Pak rates as “highly unlikely” that Kim Jong Un will ever put “any part” of his nuclear program on the table now that the North has a mature program, speculating with good reason that there was a better chance to achieve that under Kim Jong Il, when the program was still small and relatively unsophisticated (228). Being so sure that Kim won’t put “any part” of the nuclear program on the table ignores what actually went on in Hanoi. Kim did put on the table the Yongbyon complex, a central component of the North’s nuclear program, and not one that can be dismissed—as Pak and other commentators have done—as “aging” (224). In the aftermath of Hanoi, with Kim going home angry and to some extent humiliated at the failure, the opportunity for progress on the nuclear issue has ended for the time being. With each lost opportunity—going back to short-sighted Bush and Obama administration policies—the situation has become worse and the problem that much more difficult to address.

The book’s approach, both in its recitation of the history and its policy prescriptions, is tone-deaf about the possibilities presented by a strong diplomatic initiative as part of a strategy for dealing with the North. It exhibits little understanding of what was possible and what, even now, could be achieved. In fact, it implies nothing is possible on the grounds that the North’s “utterances” over the decades have proved “meaningless, given North’s Korea’s observable actions to the contrary and its history of reneging on previous agreements” (204). This pretty well sums up the CIA’s view on negotiating with the North. In 1994, the CIA was convinced, both from the information it received through its channels and its own analysis, the North would never conclude the Agreed Framework, despite constant evidence emerging in the talks that the agreement was taking shape. In the years I was involved in negotiations with North Korea, I’d go out periodically to Langley to brief CIA analysts to give them more detail than what went into the regular reporting cables. I found little interest, either in understanding the nuances of the slow but steady movement in the North’s positions, in what the side conversations at the talks revealed, or in how listening to the DPRK negotiators shed light on the meaning of North Korea’s public statements.

Undoubtedly, with her experience and skill, Pak will be an important voice on the Korean issue as the situation moves into ever more uncertain waters. On two key points, she is right on the money. She notes that overreacting or underreacting to Kim’s tactics give him space to continue to drive events on the Korean Peninsula. And she observes that the North Koreans know how to move adroitly, often pushing the US and always catching us by surprise.

Perhaps one reason they can do that is we rarely pay close enough attention to what they say. Too often we find ourselves as the policy equivalent of the Spanish Armada, while the North Koreans operate like Francis Drake’s agile ships. Exactly as Pak advises, we should know the enemy. In the final analysis, her book, read critically, may be more helpful with the unspoken other half of that equation: the need to know ourselves.

  1. [1]

    “KCNA Report,” KCNA, January 10, 2015.

  2. [2]

    “KCNA Blasts Dishonest Forces’ Distortion of Truth,” KCNA, March 20, 2018.

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