When he wakes up every morning, what do you suppose Kim Jong-un thinks about? Maybe he thinks only of the glorious North Korean people and how to perpetuate their happiness. Maybe he remembers the day he first realized that his father was a despot, his grandfather had been a despot, and he, too, was fated to be a despot. Maybe he evaluates strategies for further perfecting his hairstyle.
But that’s just my idle speculation. Some not-so-idle speculation is available in a new Politico Magazine piece by Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former high-ranking arms control official in the Obama administration and a current member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. Wolfsthal quickly dispenses with the tired idea that Kim is the insane leader of an insane nation. To the contrary, Wolfsthal writes, Kim is careful, methodical, and fully aware that nuclear war with the United States would be a bad idea. That makes him Washington’s “deterrence partner.” But since Washington relies on deterrence to keep the peace on the Korean Peninsula, wouldn’t it be nice to understand what North Korea thinks about the United States?
What Kim thinks, as near as Wolfsthal can figure, is that the United States isn’t going to start a war on the Korean Peninsula—unless Pyongyang denuclearizes, in which case the regime is “toast.” That Washington overestimates the degree of Pyongyang’s economic isolation. That US influence in Asia is slipping, which only favors North Korea in the long run.
These are not implausible suppositions—not on Kim’s part and not on Wolfsthal’s. Kim “actually seems to have read us pretty well,” Wolfsthal concludes. “[P]erhaps better than the current [US] government realizes.”