U.S. Commander: North Korean Leader May Not Be Consistently ‘Rational’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the command of the Korean People's Army in this undated picture, released earlier this month by official state media. The head of U.S. military forces in the Pacific said Kim does not appear to consistently make decisions in a rational manner.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
Jan. 23, 2014, 9:15 a.m.

The head of U.S. mil­it­ary forces in the Pa­cific on Thursday ques­tioned wheth­er North Korea’s Kim Jong Un con­sist­ently makes lu­cid and lo­gic­al de­cisions.

Kim’s “be­ha­vi­or” — or at least what has been re­por­ted out of the no­tori­ously isol­ated coun­try — “would make me won­der wheth­er “¦ he is al­ways in the ra­tion­al de­cision-mak­ing mode, and this is a prob­lem,” U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand head Navy Adm. Samuel Lock­lear said at a Pentagon press brief­ing.

Since com­ing to power in late 2011, Kim has presided over a num­ber of start­ling events in North Korea, in­clud­ing last month’s ex­e­cu­tion of Jang Song Thaek, his uncle and former ad­viser. Last spring, the her­mit na­tion en­gaged in nuc­le­ar saber-rat­tling against South Korea and the United States. Kim also has over­seen long-range mis­sile and nuc­le­ar-device tests, as well as ex­pan­sion of the coun­try’s fis­sile ma­ter­i­al-pro­duc­tion cap­ab­il­it­ies.

These ac­tions have puzzled and un­nerved seni­or U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials, some of whom now worry that the Kim re­gime may not be as stable as was once thought. Were the gov­ern­ment to col­lapse, North Korea could be faced with a power va­cu­um that might jeop­ard­ize the se­cur­ity of the coun­try’s weapons of mass de­struc­tion or sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­als.

“The way ahead with the new lead­er is not clear to me,” said Lock­lear, adding that Kim’s ac­tions have con­trib­uted to mak­ing the re­gion a “very dan­ger­ous place.”

North Korea watch­ers sim­il­arly have said they are un­cer­tain why Py­ongy­ang risked such po­ten­tially re­gime-destabil­iz­ing activ­it­ies as last spring’s brink­man­ship tac­tics with the United States and the more re­cent purge of Jang.

The lat­ter event is par­tic­u­larly mys­ti­fy­ing to some is­sue ex­perts who won­der why Kim al­lowed state-run me­dia to re­port Jang was ex­ecuted for plot­ting to seize power from him. Such an ad­mis­sion would seem to tar­nish the care­fully craf­ted Kim dyn­asty brand of be­ing be­loved by all in North Korea.

More re­cently, Py­ongy­ang has de­man­ded that the U.S. and South Korean mil­it­ar­ies can­cel their an­nu­al joint ex­er­cises, Key Re­solve and Foal Eagle, or risk what North Korea has termed “un­ima­gin­able holo­caust.”

However, Lock­lear said there is no chance of a can­cela­tion.

“We don’t to plan to stop the ex­er­cises; the ex­er­cises are part of the al­li­ance, the corner­stone of how we train and main­tain the al­li­ance,” he said.

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