WASHINGTON, DC – CIA officials assess that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a rational actor who wants to avoid a military conflict with the U.S., they said at an intelligence conference on Wednesday.
“Kim Jong-un is a very rational actor” and is the “last person” who wants conflict on the Korean Peninsula, said CIA Deputy Assistant Director for Korea Yong Suk Lee, speaking on a panel at the joint CIA and George Washington University conference.
Lee said Kim, whose family has ruled North Korea for decades, “wants to rule for a long time” and die peacefully. He is “not suicidal,” Lee added.
The assessment provides some reassurance as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over Pyongyang’s illicit nuclear program continue to climb.
It also provides some insight into how the U.S. intelligence community, and perhaps the Trump administration itself, views Kim.
Trump has responded to North Korea’s verbal threats with equally bellicose language, threatening to “totally destroy” the country if it attacks the U.S. or its allies, perhaps playing to Kim’s rationality.
Other U.S. leaders have tried to make clear that if North Korea attacks, it will respond, to the country’s detriment.
The CIA officials characterized Kim as acting rationally, even when he decided to execute his defense chief using an anti-aircraft missile.
Kim had rationally perceived him to be a serious threat, and decided to execute him, Lee said. He said Kim assassinated his uncle Jang Song-thaek after China said he was the power behind the throne.
But Lee said killing his uncle was “not an emotional whim.”
“That same rationality is … likely to prevent him from nuking L.A.,” he said.
Officials declined to give an assessment on Trump’s tweets calling talks with North Korea a waste of time.
But Ambassador Joseph DeTrani — a former senior intelligence official and special envoy for talks with North Korea who also spoke on the panel — said North Korea probably takes the tweets “seriously,” but added, “they know there is a process.”
At the same time, he and others warned that “stumbling” into a conflict with North Korea is still a risk, for example, if the U.S. attempts to shoots down one of its missiles. North Korea might respond, they said.
DeTrani said Kim ultimately wants nuclear weapons to deter against an attack by the U.S. and recommended sitting down for talks with North Korea. What Kim wants is a security assurance, he said.
“The only way they’re going to stop is if you sit down with them,” he said.