North Korean Intentions

The Korean Peninsula is at a possible inflection point at the beginning of 2018, defined by the growing nuclear capabilities of North Korea on one hand and the outreach of the North Korean leadership to South Korea on the other. In January 2018 US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Mike Pompeo declared North Korea only “a handful of months” from being able to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.1 Yet only a few weeks later, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, watched as a combined Korean Olympic team marched in opening ceremonies at Pyeongchang.2 In defining national security policy in these changing circumstances, South Korean leaders thus confront both danger and opportunity. Much will depend on how the they assess the North’s intentions. Is diplomatic outreach just a means to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States? What are the ultimate objectives of North Korea’s nuclear policy?

In order to help sharpen debate on these critical issues, this article proceeds in three parts. First, it frames two versions of North Korean intentions, presenting a very benign and then a very malign interpretation. Second, it presents two policy options responding to those versions. These options are framed in the starkest terms in order to define the spectrum of actual policy options. It then concludes by exploring how and where elements of these policy options can be combined and also what aspects of them are inevitably in tension.

North Korean Intentions: Is KJU Nikita Khrushchev or Saddam Hussein?

The intentions of the other side are always uncertain but crucial to formulating national security policy. A mismatch between the other side’s intentions and the chosen policy can make things worse rather than better. A national security policy chosen to bolster deterrence of another state can be perceived as undermining that state’s legitimate security interests. Even if that state has relatively benign intentions or accepts the status quo, it may nonetheless feel compelled to respond with military measures, which can then provoke new responses. The result is a spiral of confrontation can tragically emerge despite neither side wanting it—a reality captured in the term “security dilemma.” Yet, a national security policy chosen to reassure the other side and avoid such a spiral can limit the effectiveness of deterrence. The other side may believe reassurance is actually appeasement and seize the opportunity to change the status quo. An effort to avoid a spiral to war can thus actually produce war if the other side’s intentions are malign or revisionist.3

What are we to make of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership’s intentions? There is evidence to support two contending interpretations, one benign and the other malign. The benign interpretation is that Kim is essentially a version of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who followed Stalin, well-known for being willing to take risks and cause crises, most notably in Berlin and Cuba, to advance Soviet policy. He was also given to vehement outbursts on occasion such as the infamous shoe-banging incident at the United Nations in 1960.4

Yet Khrushchev was also cognizant of the need to break with some of the policies of his predecessor, giving a speech to the Soviet Communist Party leadership on the need for “peaceful co-existence” with the West. The foundation of peaceful coexistence was a powerful Soviet nuclear deterrent and economic reform. The former was important as it would allow Khrushchev to shrink the massive Soviet military and reinvest defense spending elsewhere in the economy.  He proclaimed that the Soviet nuclear arsenal meant Soviet tanks and other conventional forces were just “old junk, scrap metal, which hangs like pounds of weight on the necks of the people, distracting millions of working hands from creative labor.”5 In short, Khrushchev was often intemperate and willing to run risks but believed co-existence was possible and that nuclear weapons would allow economic reforms.

Kim Jong-un, in this interpretation, is much the same. Like Khrushchev, he is cognizant of the need to break with some policies of his predecessor yet he must also ensure he is not ousted (as happened to Khrushchev). His so-called “byungjin” line, announced in March 2013 and calling for simultaneous economic development and the strengthening of the nuclear program, is in this interpretation analogous to Khrushchev’s policies.6

While the extent of North Korea’s economic reforms is still opaque, it nonetheless seems meaningful. Kim Jong-un rehabilitated Pak Pong-ju, a reform minded technocrat, making him prime minister in 2013, even as he executed Pak’s ally Jang Song-thaek. Overall, economic policy has focused on consumers and the toleration of private enterprise. According to one observer, “[t]he results are striking. Street vendors, once rare, are now a common site in Pyongyang. Some neighborhoods have new luxury high-rises, modern supermarkets, fashionable shops, and streets busy with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs.”7 While this level of prosperity probably does not extend very far, there is nonetheless an effort to improve the lot of common folk. At the Supreme People’s Assembly in April 2017 “…Pak promised an increase in the production of meat, milk, fruits, mushroom and vegetables. This can be seen as an indicator that the supply of staple food is secure and that the focus of the government is now on improving the diet of its population.”8 Khrushchev, a peasant at heart, would be proud.

The strengthening of the North Korean nuclear program is likewise proceeding apace. Indeed, Kim Jong-un proclaimed in November 2017 that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”9 This is generally taken to mean that all of the key missile and warhead technologies have been mastered and now mass production can take place. In this benign interpretation it may also open the door for eventual reduction in conventional forces—the “old junk” Khrushchev spoke of—to further enable consumer focused economic development.

In short, the benign version of Kim Jong-un’s intentions is that he is focused on preserving his regime. The twin pillars of his plans for regime survival are economic reform and nuclear weapons. As a senior defector has remarked, “once he [Kim Jong Un] has assumed control of usable nuclear weapons, he has more room to allocate resources more flexibly, and allocate the military forces for civilian construction…”10 While willing to risk a crisis, he is fundamentally interested in preserving the divided status quo on the Korean Peninsula. This benign view of Kim’s intentions is not starry-eyed—it does not mistake Kim for a humanitarian or political liberal. Yet it does believe he is not seeking anything more than survival and will be risk averse in pursuing change to the status quo through force or coercion.

In contrast, the malign interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s intentions is that he is a version of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was not a psychotic, but he suffered from a host of personality quirks and biases. He was effective in surviving the chaotic and ruthless world of Iraqi revolutionary politics but was a poor judge of risk and reward in the international politics. Two of his most dangerous views were his chronic misperception of the United States and its allies along with his view that nuclear weapons would enable him to effectively change the status quo.11

In terms of the United States (and other great powers), Saddam often viewed restraint as a sign of weakness. As a landmark study of Saddam’s regime after the invasion of Iraq noted, he viewed the United States’ measured but serious response to his 1994 mobilization of forces on the border as “…contemptible. He was prepared to launch a war and all the world could do was send him a ‘memo.’”12 The study concludes: “[n]othing that occurred in the decade after DESERT STORM did anything to change Saddam’s view that the United States remained irresolute.”13

Saddam’s views of both Iraqi and US intentions and capabilities were further distorted by the fact that he had a penchant for shooting the bearer of bad tidings so information and intelligence was often tailored to please. The US intelligence community’s Iraq Survey Group (ISG) interviewed the infamous “Chemical Ali,” one of Saddam’s chief lieutenants, after the war: “Asked how Saddam treated people who brought him bad news, ‘Ali Hasan Al Majid replied, “I don’t know.” ISG assesses that ‘Ali Hasan Al Majid has never known any instance of anybody bringing bad news to Saddam.”14

Beyond this distorted perspective, Saddam also viewed nuclear weapons as a means not just to defend Iraq but also to achieve his regional ambitions to change the status quo. He particularly articulated a logic regarding taking offensive action against Israel. Iraqi nuclear weapons would counter Israeli nuclear threats, allowing Iraq and its Arab allies to fight a war of attrition on its own terms. He remarked:
“When the Arabs start the deployment, Israel is going to say, ‘We will hit you with the atomic bomb.’ So should the Arabs stop or not? If they do not have the atom, they will stop. For that reason they should have the atom. If we were to have the atom, we would make the conventional armies fight without using the atom. If the international conditions were not prepared and they said, ‘We will hit you with the atom,’ we would say, ‘We will hit you with the atom too. The Arab atom will finish you off, but the Israeli atom will not end the Arabs.”15

Kim Jong-un, in this interpretation, is much like Saddam. He is not totally irrational, but he may have personality quirks and biases that cause him to systematically underestimate the risks of crisis with South Korea and the United States. This may be especially true now that he believes he can strike the United States with nuclear weapons. Like Saddam, he has also ruthlessly purged those who might threaten his control of North Korea, and so his subordinates may be reluctant to bring him bad news. Pompeo assesses this to be the case, noting in January 2018, “[i]t is not a healthy thing to be a senior leader and bring bad news to Kim Jong Un… Tell someone you are going to do that and then try to get a life insurance policy…”16 According to South Korean intelligence reports, Kim Jong-un is sufficiently concerned about his subordinates’ loyalty that he is binge drinking and eating to cope while also suffering from insomnia.17 This is hardly an environment conducive to honest assessment.

Kim Jong-un has also shown willingness to run risks with provocation and crisis, seemingly discounting the potential for a South Korean and US response. As one senior US intelligence official remarked in October 2017, “North Korea is clearly testing the patience of the US and international community… With each increasing escalation, they’re raising the threshold for the United States and others to accept or press back against that.”18 While at present this has not led to a major proximate crisis, there is a real possibility of future miscalculation. Like Saddam, he may read US and South Korean restraint in response to events such as the 2014 Sony hack as signs of irresolution and weakness.

This possibility of miscalculation will be compounded if, like Saddam, Kim Jong-un believes nuclear weapons can shield him from severe consequences, allowing him to coerce South Korea and the United States on favorable terms. Pompeo has supported this view, noting at his agency, “[w]e do believe he would use these tool sets beyond self-preservation” with a goal of reunification on his terms.19 A former senior CIA analyst of North Korea argues that even if Kim Jong-un does not seek to use nuclear weapons for coercion today, the United States and its allies “…must be clear-eyed about the potential for Kim to shift his stated defensive position to a more aspirational one.”20

In short, the malign version of Kim’s intentions is that he is not crazy but may be willing to run serious risks in seeking to shape the future of the Korean Peninsula and change the long-standing status quo. Information he receives from subordinates will be tailored to fit his views. He may be predisposed to view South Korea and the United States as weak and vulnerable to coercion. Nuclear weapons may be the lynchpin of his coercive efforts, which go far beyond mere regime survival.

The Extremes of Security Policy Options: Nordpolitik Redux or Comprehensive Deterrence?

These two opposing views of Kim’s intentions lead to two opposing “ideal type” national security policy options. The benign version of Kim’s intentions leads to a policy intended to avoid a spiral of confrontation driven by the security dilemma. If neither the North nor the South seeks anything other than (relatively) peaceful co-existence, reassurance and confidence building measures should be the core of South Korean national security policy. Efforts to significantly bolster deterrence may actually backfire, as Kim Jong-un may conclude the United States and South Korea are actually implacably focused on ending his regime.

This national security policy option is essentially a version of prior policies such as the Nordpolitik of former President Roh Tae-woo and the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-jung.21 Politically, it calls for embracing, albeit cautiously, the recent North Korean outreach. The ultimate political objective would be a mutually acceptable peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, with both sides embracing the principle that reunification will not take place through force or coercion. This policy is consonant with President Moon Jae-in’s policy as articulated by the South Korean Ministry of Unification to “conclude a Korean Peninsula peace treaty that brings together all nations concerned” while at the same time articulating his “three noes.” These are: “no desire for the North’s collapse, no pursuit of unification by absorption, and no pursuit of unification through artificial means.”22

This national security policy would tacitly (though not officially) accept North Korea’s nuclear program for the foreseeable future. This would mean talks on the program could continue, but there would be no expectation of a near-term breakthrough and perhaps not even a near term freeze on the program. This would emphasize the dialogue component of Moon Jae-in’s two-track policy on the North Korean nuclear policy while deemphasizing (but not eliminating) the sanctions component.23 Carrots rather than sticks would be at the fore.

This policy would also have a military component. It would encourage efforts to cut force structure in the South Korean military, as a means to signal a commitment to peace. The Defense Ministry has already announced cuts from 620,000 to 500,000 as well as a decrease in the length of conscription by 2022.24 Similarly, this policy would press harder on the issue of US-ROK operational control of forces. It would also deemphasize the deployment of systems and forces most likely to cause security dilemma-driven spirals—such as ballistic missiles and special operations units targeting North Korea’s leadership.25

Just as the benign view of Kim’s intentions is not starry-eyed, this national security policy would not be so naïve as to believe there would be no friction and even confrontation on the peninsula. Here the outreach of West Germany to East Germany (broadly known as Ostpolitik) in the 1960s and 1970s is instructive. By 1972, after nearly 30 years of separate existence, East and West Germany signed the so-called Basic Treaty recognizing one another. Yet the treaty did not yield a comprehensive reduction in confrontation. Indeed, in 1978, the East German Ministry for State Security (the Stasi) began to provide extensive training and safe haven for the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group seeking to destabilize West Germany. This support, which enabled assassinations and bombings in West Germany, continued in to the last days of East Germany.26 A similar continuation of North Korean low-level confrontation (e.g. cyber operations) with South Korea and especially the United States is likely even in the most benign view. Yet even with such confrontation the goal of this policy would remain avoiding a spiral to serious crisis that could lead to war.

In contrast, the malign version of Kim Jong-un’s intentions leads to a national security policy resolutely focused on comprehensive deterrence of North Korean activity. The risk of war is most acute, in this view, if Kim believes South Korea and the United States lack the stomach for confrontation, particularly now that Kim has “completed” his nuclear arsenal. Politically this policy would support the “maximum pressure” campaign of the Trump administration as a means not only to try to coerce Kim but also as a demonstration of resolve and alliance commitment. Under this policy, negotiations and outreach to North Korea would only be limited and done in close consultation with the United States.

Military readiness would be central to this policy. In particular, the demonstrated ability to hold the regime’s leadership at risk would be valuable. This is in keeping with the most recent South Korean Ministry of Defense White Paper, which calls for improving leadership targeting by “developing a new optimized missile launch system and large-capacity, high-performance warheads and by creating specialized units with select, elite special operations units.”27 Kim Jong- un would know South Korea had the capability to target the one thing he surely cares about—his own survival.

Equally important would be capabilities to neutralize, to the extent possible, North Korea’s nuclear forces. As two nuclear analysts have recently argued, a robust combination of “ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], strike, and missile defense capabilities would make coercive nuclear escalation significantly riskier for Pyongyang.”28 While no set of offensive and defensive capabilities would make South Korea invulnerable to North Korean nuclear weapons, a demonstrated set of such capabilities would help disabuse Kim Jong-un of any idea of using nuclear weapons for anything other than protecting his regime’s survival. These capabilities are again consonant with the Ministry of Defense White Paper, which calls for investments in capabilities for “striking North Korean nuclear and missile operations systems, including missiles, mobile missile launchers and the paths of movement thereof, the command and control system and relevant fixed installations.” It calls for similar investments in air and missile defenses.29 This national security policy would expand these investments and demonstrate them via tests and exercises.

This policy of comprehensive deterrence would also extend to the cyber realm, as unanswered provocations by the North could be misinterpreted by Kim Jong-un as a lack of resolve. According to press reports, “the North’s cyberstrikes have faced almost no pushback or punishment, even as the regime is already using its hacking capabilities for actual attacks against its adversaries in the West.”30 While North Korea lacks the sort of advanced digital infrastructure found in South Korea or the United States it is in the process of expanding its internet connectivity.31 As Kim Jong-un pursues economic development, there may be increasing opportunities for cyber responses to North Korean cyber provocations. This national security policy would pursue the capabilities needed for such responses.

Optimum Instability: Crafting Security Policy Under Uncertain Conditions

The foregoing represents the extremes of the spectrum or “ideal types” of both Kim Jong-un’s intentions and South Korean response options. Yet reality is much messier and more uncertain.  Thus, as noted, there is evidence supporting both the benign and the malign versions of Kim’s intentions and little clarity about which elements are dominant. The same is true of current South Korean security policy, which as described has some elements intended to avoid spirals of mistrust captured in Moon’s Ministry of Unification policy, and others intended to bolster deterrence, described in the Ministry of Defense White Paper.

The combination of policy elements is, on one level, prudent hedging, given uncertainty about Kim Jong-un’s intentions. If one believes wrongly he is more like Nikita Khrushchev but he is actually like Saddam Hussein, then a crisis will be likely as he pushes to change the status quo. Having some military ability to respond in this instance, even if it modestly increases the risk of a spiral should one prove right about Kim’s more benign intentions, is surely an important insurance policy. Similarly, if one believes Kim is more like Saddam but he is actually like Khrushchev, then a spiral resulting in crisis may be likely. Creating opportunities for dialogue, even if it modestly risks diluting the deterrent value of military preparation, is worthwhile insurance as well. Yet prudent hedging can rapidly slide into strategic incoherence if the interaction of policy elements is not carefully considered. Which elements are complementary, and which are antithetical? What should be the guiding principle for national security policymakers in striking a balance between avoiding spirals and bolstering deterrence?

Drawing on previous work examining stability during the Cold War, I argue that the guiding principle should be the search for “optimum instability.” In landmark research at the end of the Cold War, RAND analysts argued that, at least theoretically, there was an optimal amount of instability in the nuclear balance between the United States and Soviet Union: “…that is, enough to deter the Soviets from generating a major crisis, say by invading Western Europe, but not enough to allow a major crisis to spiral out of control.”32

This optimum proved elusive in the Cold War: in the 1970s, the Soviet nuclear build-up produced concerns that, like North Korea today, the Soviets could undertake aggressive action. After adjustments in US policy and forces, which included explicitly targeting Soviet leaders, the Soviets became increasingly concerned the United States might have the capability and intention to launch a first strike on them. Essentially, fear of deterrence failure led to policies seeking to bolster deterrence, which produced a spiral culminating in the “war scare” of 1983. Yet, US and allied recognition of Soviet fears, however belated, led to further adjustments in policy, which led to something approximating optimum instability. The Soviets had no illusions about nuclear weapons (if they ever had) but were not fearful of imminent attack. This approach, combined with the changes in Soviet policy under new leader Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed for the winding down of the Cold War in the late 1980s.33

Optimum instability on the Korean Peninsula would require sufficient military capability to convince Kim Jong-un that his nuclear forces are not useful for anything other than deterring major attacks on North Korea. Yet at the same time it would require reassuring Kim that attack was not imminent and peaceful co-existence was possible. There are a variety of ways; elements from both of the previous “ideal type” national security policy options can be combined in pursuit of optimum instability. For example, the effort to seek a peace treaty and the enunciation of the “three noes” could be reinforced by tailoring of the announced cuts to military force structure. Those cuts could be weighted towards the type of forces useful for unification through “artificial means” such as infantry units. Yet, at the same time, savings from this reduction in force structure could be committed to programs intended to limit the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons, such as missile defense.

No option for South Korean national security policy is free from risk. While prudent hedging and the search for optimum instability can help limit risks, ultimately the weight of policy will fall towards one side of the spectrum or the other based on assessments of Kim Jong-un’s intentions. South Korea’s national security community must ultimately decide whether the risk of war is more acute from failing to avoid a spiral or failing to deter.   

1. Clark Mindock, “CIA concerned North Korea could hit US with a missile in a ‘handful of months,’” Independent, January 30, 2018,

2. Choe Sang-hun, “Warm Welcome Home From Olympics for Kim Jong-un’s Sister,” The New York Times, February 12, 2018

3. Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, new ed. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

4. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, "One Hell of a Gamble" Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

5.  Sergey Radchenko and Campbell Craig, “How Kim Jong-un Saved the World from North Korea,” The National Interest, August 22, 2017,

6. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, “North Korea’s ICBM Test, Byungjin, and the Economic Logic,” The Diplomat, July 5, 2017,

7. David Volodzko, “North Korea’s Secret Weapon? Economic Growth,” Bloomberg, September 15, 2017,

8. Ruediger Frank, “The North Korean Parliamentary Session and Budget Report for 2017,” 38 North, April 28, 2017,

9. Uri Friedman, “North Korea Says It Has ‘Completed’ Its Nuclear Program,” The Atlantic, November 29, 2017,

10. Hyonhee Shin and James Pearson, “The thinking behind Kim Jong Un’s ‘madness,’” The Japan Times, December 1, 2017,

11. See Charles A. Duelfer and Stephen Benedict Dyson, “Chronic Misperception and International Conflict: The U.S.-Iraq Experience,” and Hal Brands and David Palkki, “Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmism Justified?” both in International Security 36, no. 1 (Summer 2011).

12. Kevin Woods, et al, Iraqi Perspectives Project: A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership (Norfolk: Joint Center for Operational Analysis, 2006), 14.

13. Ibid, 16.

14. “Regime Strategic Intent,” Central Intelligence Agency,

15. Hal Brands and David Palkki, “Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb,” 149.

16. Zachary Cohen, “CIA warns Kim Jong Un could use nukes as ‘coercive’ tool,” CNN, January 23, 2018

17. Justin McCurry, “Kim Jong-un has gained weight and struggles to sleep, says spy agency ,” The Guardian, July 3, 2016,

18. Zachary Cohen, “CIA: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn’t crazy,” CNN, October 6, 2017,

19. Zachary Cohen, “CIA warns Kim Jong Un could use nukes as ‘coercive’ tool.”

20. Jung H. Pak, “The Education of Kim Jong-un,” Brookings,

21. Aidan Foster-Carter, “A Long & Winding Road: South Korea’s “Nordpolitik” (Part I),” 38 North, March 26, 2014,

22. “Moon Jae In’s Policy on the Korean Peninsula,” n.d. (current as of December 2017), 7 and 28.

23. Ibid, 20.

24. Jun Hyun-suk, “Troops to Be Slashed to 500,000 by 2022,” The Chosun Ilbo, January 22, 2018,

25. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Plans ‘Decapitation Unit’ to Try to Scare North’s Leaders,” The New York Times, September 12, 2017,

26. John Schmeidel, "My Enemy’s Enemy: Twenty Years of Co-operation between West Germany’s Red Army Faction and the GDR Ministry for State Security," Intelligence and National Security 8, no. 4 (October 1993).

27. 2016 Defense White Paper (Seoul: Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), 72,

28. Vince A. Manzo and John K. Warden, “The Least Bad Option: Damage Limitation and U.S. Deterrence Strategy toward North Korea,” In Policy Roundtable: Are There any Good Choices When it Comes to North Korea?,

29. 2016 Defense White Paper, 69-71.

30. David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick and Nicole Perlroth, “The World Once Laughed at North Korean Cyberpower. No More,” The New York Times, October 15, 2017,

31. “Russian firm provides new internet connection to North Korea,” Reuters, October 2, 2017,

32. Glenn Kent and David E. Thaler, First-Strike Stability: A Methodology for Evaluating Strategic Forces (Santa Monica CA: RAND Corporation, 1989): 5,

33. Brendan R. Green and Austin Long, “The MAD Who Wasn’t There: Soviet Reactions to the Late Cold War Nuclear Balance,” Security Studies 26, no. 4 (2017); Marc Ambinder, The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 (New York: Simon and Schuster, forthcoming 2018); and Benjamin Fischer, “Scolding Intelligence: The PFIAB Report on the Soviet War Scare,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 31, no. 1 (2018); and James Graham Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).