Kim Jung Un’s legitimacy issue

April 5, 2017
'He was born out of wedlock, complicating his case as the only rightful heir'


At the secret CIA training facility called “The Farm,” aspiring case-officers learn how to recruit spies and steal secrets. As a former CIA officer, this is where I was taught that in order to successfully recruit an asset, I must first understand what would motivate an individual to cooperate with the CIA in the first place. This is a lesson that could help us examine what our responses should be to many of our foreign policy challenges around the world, like North Korea. 

In the past year the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Dictator Kim Jung Un (KJU) has conducted more than twenty ballistic missile tests, killed his uncle, and risked further international condemnation by using VX nerve agent (a substance considered a weapon of mass destruction by the UN) to kill his half-brother. Understanding motivations, like we learned in the CIA, is a technique we should be using to examine KJU’s erratic behavior and to prevent future acts of violence.

In an article titled, “Four questions that must be answered to fix the North Korea mess,” I’ve previously outlined why KJU’s unsuccessful missile tests should be taken seriously, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to the Republic of Korea (ROK) with the House Intelligence Committee, that I fully grasped how KJU’s assassinations of his family members are directly related to his desire to acquire Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). During the trip, I visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which divides the Korean Peninsula into North and South, and debriefed the recent North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho who provided insights into how many North Koreans view KJU.

KJU is motivated by what every dictator is motivated by – staying in power.

It’s helpful to think of the DPRK like a monarchy where the leader of the country receives his authority to rule from being a descendant of the first leader. In the case of the DPRK, the founder of the country was the Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, the paternal grandfather of KJU. The Supreme Leader had many legitimate and illegitimate children, the eldest being Kim Jong-il who became the second ruler of the DPRK and KJU’s father. 

The problem for KJU is that he was born out of wedlock, complicating his case as the only rightful heir to the Supreme Leader. While this may sound like a telenovela plot or an episode of “Game of Thrones,” it provides context for why KJU seeks to cement his legitimacy as the rightful ruler of the DPRK. He murdered his family members to eliminate other potential claimants to the proverbial throne.

As KJU desperately seeks legitimacy in his own country, he searches for ways to achieve it internationally. This is precisely why he will stop at nothing to obtain an ICBM. 

Most Americans do not understand the magnitude of danger that we would be in if KJU acquired one. North Korea is more than a 14-hour plane ride away from the United States, resulting in a general lack of American exposure to the country’s culture and politics. Many Americans associate it as the weird place that NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman visited or the country that conducted a cyber-attack on Sony pictures for producing a Seth Rogan movie poking fun at the Dictator.

Americans should know that the DPRK already has the ability to utilize its thousands of long-range artillery pieces to fire over an estimated half a million shells into Seoul in less than one hour. North Korea can kill millions of people with tactical missiles or an ICBM topped with a nuclear warhead. KJU has executed more than 340 people during his six-year reign and an estimated 1,382 have been executed since 2000. Yet this pales in comparison to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, killed under the oppressive economic and social policies implemented by the Kim regime since the division of the peninsula. KJU has demonstrated he will not hesitate to kill large amounts of people in his way nor use a weapon of mass destruction in a public place to achieve legitimacy.  

It’s time we start taking this threat more seriously.

Originally published in The Hill on 4/4/2017