You can buy “Becoming Kim Jong Un” by Jung Pak here.
As the subtitle of “Becoming Kim Jong Un” says, Jung Pak’s new book is “A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator.” With that pedigree, it should stand out from the crush.
It is indeed good, and often better than other recent writings on Pyongyang and the peninsula. The bar is low, though — it’s the best of a bunch rather than an outlier.
The book does have explanatory power: we now know why the U.S. is so serially duplicitous and cack-handed in its dealings with North Korea.
This is all further complicated by the fact that Pyongyang regularly pretends to its capabilities and Washington pretends to believe them.
What the intelligence services are feeding the State Department and the White House is not so much myopic — although it frequently is — but tunnel-visioned.
For the CIA, the truth was discovered in 1950: that the North Koreans are mendacious liars constantly re-running the same crooked playbook.
This isn’t the case, though. North Korea is a brutal enigmatic regime, yet perplexing becomes unfathomable if you look in the wrong direction.
Pyongyang has to take its share of the blame, and more, for the state of relations. But “Becoming Kim Jong Un” shows that there have been at least two reasonable opportunities to denuclearize the North.
The first with Bill Clinton was the Agreed Framework in 1994. Here the North agreed to freeze its plutonium production in exchange for the U.S. procuring two light water reactors, with the plutonium stockpiles surrendered as the reactors went online.
Not everyone in Washington intended to make it work, though. The eight-year construction program was running nine years late when it was manifestly murdered by John Bolton in 2002.
The deal had slowed the North’s climb to nuclear weapons by a short decade. The U.S.’s bill for the program — the bulk of which was forced on South Korea, Japan, and the EU — was rather less than the $400 million per annum it spends on military bands.
The next sighting, the fabulous ‘Leap Day’ Agreement of 2012, was a figment of fevered imaginations in Washington.
Apparently — as Pak reports — the North agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, allow international inspections, and impose a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid.
To believe the North had agreed to such a countertrade with its more advanced nuclear program for less than one percent of the $4.5 billion offered in the Agreed Framework just beggars belief. Yet another nail in the coffin.
The next followed in the wake of the Trump-Kim Singapore summit. The summit itself was short on detail, longer on promise.
Kim knows his best security guarantee is a nuclear deterrent. Nevertheless, if the exchange rate was sufficiently high, he was prepared to trade away his nuclear weapons program over the course of a decade for multilateral security guarantees and a growing state capitalist economy catalyzed by the financial inducements in attendance.
In exchange for some mitigation of his external security, the internal threat to the regime would vanish. He would have delivered for the people who matter in Pyongyang, with growth a proxy for repression.
The North’s leadership became increasingly skeptical after Pompeo’s post-Singapore visit to Pyongyang. Trump, for them, was willing but unable. Subverted by his subalterns he struggled to deliver.
Pompeo was meant to be delivering the End of War Declaration promised to Kim in his one-on-one with the President. It was this failure that saw him labeled as a “gangster.”
Yet Kim Jong Un, for his part, continued to play the game. Singapore came off the back of his 2018 New Year’s Address where he stated the North now had its nuclear deterrent and, with no further need for testing, they were going into mass production of bombs and ICBMs. This was all downplayed in the euphoria over its offer to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
In the 2019 New Year’s Address, Kim was fully engaged. He spoke of defense conversion, non-proliferation, and no-first-use of nuclear weapons.
The North would neither make, test, use, nor proliferate nuclear weapons any longer. The country’s military-industrial complex would be making tractors, construction products, and consumer goods rather than tanks. It was game on.
Seemingly to avoid any missteps in the run-up to Hanoi, the endgame’s choreography was laid out by Trump’s chief negotiator with North Korea — and now Deputy Secretary of State — Stephen Biegun in a speech at Stanford University.
Pyongyang dutifully learned the lines. What neither North nor South anticipated, however, was the wrecking role John Bolton was to play. A last-minute appeal to the vanity of a man whose name is on “The Art of the Deal” had Trump gamble everything on a big win.
Pyongyang offered what had been asked of it, but it was no longer enough. Everyone lost.
Even the South Koreans’ soothing intelligence feed to Kim’s train en route to Hanoi was seen by Pyongyang as deliberately luring him into the trap. A third opportunity now seems wishful thinking.
North Korea is a theocracy with communist characteristics. But even so, that doesn’t quash the reality that Kim, his father, and grandfather were all surrounded by senior advisors evaluating, recommending, and charting options.
These people have absconded from Pak’s book. The Kim of “Becoming Kim Jong Un” lives alone in solipsist isolation.
Kang Suk Ju, the North’s Chief Negotiator in the Six-Party Talks; Ri Yong Ho, Foreign Minister during Singapore and Hanoi; Ri Su Yong, Member of the Executive of the Politburo, Vice-Chairman responsible for the International Department of the Party, and the man in the room during Kim’s Summits with Xi; Moon Jae-in; Trump: none of them get a single mention between them in the index.
The CIA should get out more. When Pak complains of “the never-ending cycles of purges, demotions and promotions,” it’s not immediately obvious whether she’s writing about Pyongyang or Washington.
Pak’s fact-checking was perfunctory, partial, or both. Some things are plain wrong. There is no evidence — in fact there is evidence to the contrary — that American student Otto Warmbier was tortured in North Korea. His arrest and detention were criminal, but he was never brutalized.
The “massive underground covert nuclear weapons site” at Kumchang-ri was inspected by the U.S. back at the time and proved to be no such thing.
No-one from outside Pyongyang can visit. So why can the Mirim Guesthouse take 17,000 people?
Pak’s edifice erected on the North’s claimed hacking of Sony Pictures over “The Interview” also rests on shallow foundations.
These are just a few examples.
It all rather reminds me of the time I took a British journalist to Pyongyang. When her piece was published, the lead was “when I landed they took my mobile phone away.” I contacted her and said, “I was there. That wasn’t true.”
“Well,” she said, “I was told they normally do.”
The most worrisome part is Pak’s “maximum pressure plus.” She’s not alone in her proposed solution, but in her case, to what end?
If Pyongyang is too perfidious to parley with, then it comes down to John Bolton’s policy of regime change that dares not speak its name. Seoul and Tokyo must hope Joe Biden doesn’t have too many friends like this.
Edited by James Fretwell
You can buy “Becoming Kim Jong Un” by Jung Pak here.
As the subtitle of "Becoming Kim Jong Un" says, Jung Pak's new book is "A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator." With that pedigree, it should stand out from the crush.