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What Does Kim Jong Un Want?


A TV news shows an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while reporting North Korea's missile test which landed in the waters of Japan's economic zone in Tokyo, July 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader in late 2011 after the death of his father Kim Jong Il.

Many wondered what the young, Swiss-educated leader would do for the poor, isolated country with nuclear weapons. Almost six years later, there are still unanswered questions. But the world has learned some things about Kim.

Kim Jong Un has actually improved North Korea’s economy under his rule. Unlike the father, he seems uninterested in negotiations on its nuclear program. And the world has cause for concern with the latest test firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

What is Kim doing?

His father, who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011, also ordered a series of weapons tests. But the elder Kim was willing to discuss weapons for food exchanges.

No such talks have happened under Kim Jong Un. He has overseen three of the North’s five atomic test explosions and both of its successful satellite launches. Experts view the launches as a test of long-range missile technology.

On July 4, North Korea launched an ICBM that could reach the American state of Alaska. Kim celebrated the successful missile test as a “gift” to the United States on its Independence Day holiday. Kim said that North Korea will not give up its weapons until the U.S. stops its hostile policy against the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14

Why is Kim willing to take risks?

Kim is believed to be 33 years old. As ruler of North Korea, he has not met any foreign leaders or traveled abroad. The best-known foreigner he has met: former NBA player Dennis Rodman.

The North Korean leader may have believed that the U.S. and its allies will not attack his country directly. Experts fear many people in South Korea will be killed if the North chose to retaliate. The capital city of Seoul with its 10 million residents is within the range of North Korea’s artillery along the border.

Kim may also have believed that China, North Korea’s neighbor and ally, does not want a weakened North Korea along its border. Last February, North Korean agents removed a possible rival for power in North Korea. The agents killed Kim Jong Nam, the leader’s half brother, when he was in Malaysia.

North Korea’s economic growth in recent years has also allowed Kim to focus on his nuclear program. His father, by comparison, had to negotiate with other countries for food after a famine in the mid-1990s that killed tens of thousands.

People gather to mark the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the death of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 8, 2017
People gather to mark the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the death of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 8, 2017

What does Kim want?

Kim has seen what happened to Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after they gave up their nuclear weapons programs.

Cheong Seong-Chang is an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. He said, “Kim doesn’t want to resolve issues through diplomacy. He’s just trying to protect himself by reinforcing his country’s military power.”

Kim likely thinks his nuclear bombs will prevent the U.S. from entering a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. “If North Korea demonstrates its ability to strike Washington and New York ... and threatens to turn them into a sea of fire, the U.S. couldn’t easily enter a war,” Cheong said.

It will take more time for North Korea to master the technology for a working ICBM. Once that is accomplished, Kim could push for talks to end U.N. sanctions against North Korea. In the events of such talks, Kim is not likely to give up his country nuclear weapons.

“He cannot give up nukes [nuclear weapons] because they are the core of his power,” said Cho Han Bum, an analyst at South Korea’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

What could stand in Kim’s way?

The North Korean ICBM could be capable of reaching Alaska. But experts say the North still needs to master several more technologies before the missile will work perfectly. When that happens, the U.S. might reconsider military strikes, Cho said.

Aside from a U.S. attack, China could suspend or reduce its oil shipments to the North.

China sends about 500,000 tons of crude oil to North Korea every year. That is nearly 90 percent of the North’s oil supply, according to Cho Bong-hyun of Seoul’s IBK Economic Research Institute.

If China ends its oil shipments, the North’s military cannot fly its warplanes or operate its tanks. That will not help Kim to stay in power, Cheong predicts.

“We can see he’s so far run North Korea in a smarter way than his father,” Cheong said. “But there is a high possibility that his adventurous, uncompromising attitude will eventually make things turn out badly.”

I’m Anne Ball.

People dance in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, July 6, 2017, to celebrate the test launch of North Korea's first intercontinental ballistic missile two days earlier
People dance in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, July 6, 2017, to celebrate the test launch of North Korea's first intercontinental ballistic missile two days earlier

Hai Do adapted this story based on AP, Reuters and VOA News reports. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

Isolated – adj. separate from others

Retaliate – v. make an attack in return for a similar attack

Resident – n. someone who live in a particular place

Rival – n. someone that is almost as good

Famine – n. a situation in which many people do not have enough food to eat

Reinforce – v. to strengthen by adding supplies, support or people

Sanction – n. action taken to force a country to obey international laws by limiting trade or economic aid

Core – n. the central part of something

Adventurous – adj. full of danger and excitement

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