Diplomacy with North Korea must factor in an understanding of the Kim regime’s fears and insecurity. Pyongyang’s military actions and negotiating gambits jeopardize the United States, South Korea, and other nations’ vital interests and policy goals. Accordingly, the study of North Korean threat perceptions—how Kim Jong-un thinks about the utility of force and about threats to his regime—is essential for averting strategic surprise and buttressing diplomacy. National security strategy should be systematic, a deliberate calculation about national capabilities to achieve crucial objectives. It should be infused with an understanding of other actors, both friend and foe.
A coherent national security strategy begins with clear and realistic written objectives. If aims are vague, it will be difficult to concentrate resources and mobilize others around a common cause. Similarly, if a nation’s goals are too ambitious and surpass the prospects or means for success, then the national security strategy represents wishful thinking and will likewise be difficult to carry out. What is needed is a serious attempt to grapple with the world as it exists and to harmonize a nation’s crucial ends with existing means.
Because war and peace involve international relations between two or more actors, national goals must consider other actors’ core interests, concerns, and aspirations. Preventing conflict and securing peace may depend on considering other countries’ interests, especially when dealing with an adversary like North Korea. Consider the Trump administration’s “desired end state” for North Korea as a country that “no longer poses a threat to the US homeland or our allies,” with a Korean Peninsula “free of nuclear, chemical, cyber, and biological weapons.”1 Putting aside the fantastical vision of a North Korea that poses no threats to the United States or its allies, the Trump administration’s objective was to exert “maximum pressure” to “convince the Kim regime that the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons.”2 The likelihood of attaining that goal—a multi-decade aim of convincing North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons—hinges on the value the regime attaches to nuclear weapons.
There should be no doubt at this point that the Kim family treasures its nuclear weapons. But awareness of this point is not enough. US policy must rest on the most accurate and complete view of North Korean threat perceptions possible. As the Biden administration conducts a policy review to devise a new approach, in consultation with South Korea, Japan, and other allies, one enduring challenge remains to have a sound grasp of North Korea’s thinking.3
Conventional wisdom holds that regime survival is the ruling Kim family’s paramount goal. If that is so, it is almost inconceivable that Kim Jong-un would peacefully relinquish nuclear weapons to deter foreign military intervention. In the judgment of North Korean observer Andrei Lankov, the Kim family has never “let go of its long-cherished goal—to be able to nuke any American city, and at any time.”4 But Kim’s other significant interests, such as economic power and North Korean modernization, suggest there is diplomatic opportunity to reduce the risk of war on the peninsula, if not necessarily eliminate nuclear weapons anytime soon. A combination of security guarantees, finance and development assistance, and political measures could lead to diplomatic progress with Pyongyang, perhaps even to what might in retrospect be seen as a breakthrough.
Finding the Goldilocks solution—not too hot, not too cold, but just right—requires understanding, not just the fears but also the dreams of Kim Jong-un. Even if Kim Jong-un refuses meaningful restraints on his nuclear and missile programs in exchange for diplomatic normalization steps, delving into Kim’s thinking about threats can inform policy. If the status quo is the best that can be achieved, then knowledge of how North Korean elites perceive threats can help allied officials exert pressure to preserve deterrence and stability.
Knowledge of how the Kim family perceives threats can also inform conflict prevention and crisis management. While it may be impossible to placate Kim, a solid grasp of North Korean threat perceptions can avert the crossing of red lines that would trigger unnecessary or catastrophic use of force. The danger of escalation must also consider geography, history, and the state of international relations—raising questions about the role of China, Japan, Russia, and other actors.
This report addresses North Korean threat perceptions by examining the ruling elite’s basic instincts of fear and insecurity and puts forth constructive ideas for diplomacy, crisis management, and security policy. It aims at a bare minimum to contribute to maintaining peace and security on the Korean peninsula. It also seeks to stimulate creative policy options to help Washington and Seoul decision-makers manage one of Asia’s significant flashpoints.
Building an accurate picture of North Korean threat perceptions is challenging but doable. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (also referred to as DPRK, and North Korea) is a totalitarian society with tight control over information. Yet advances in technology and decades of US experience with North Korea, including high-level diplomacy with leaders and members of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and Korean People’s Army (KPA), have demystified the Hermit Kingdom. Addressing DPRK threat perceptions requires gathering reliable information, sifting through a range of suppositions, and enumerating probabilities. There is more than a seven-decade record of war and cold war on the Korean peninsula on which to draw.
But humility is needed when it comes to separating North Korean fact from fiction. After all, North Korea appears as determined as ever to deploy and modernize a military arsenal that includes nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can strike the United States. Accepting the new title of General Secretary, Kim Jong-un told the Eighth Party Congress in January that he planned to build both “small and light” and “super-large” nuclear weapons.5 Kim’s rationale for his nuclear program is undoubtedly to promote political objectives—such as preventing regime change from either within or without—so that he can unlock economic development and retain power for years. But just because Kim focuses on political goals doesn’t mean that he lacks grander military plans or other ambitions.
Even if the Kim regime were entirely transparent, it is not easy to view a traditional enemy without prejudice. Assessing an adversary requires overcoming cognitive bias based on emotion, entrenched views, and experience.6 Neither the Kim family and its cadre of elite advisors nor decision-makers within the United States and South Korea are impervious to the profound dynamics—political and psychological, explicit and implicit—that produce confirmation bias.7 Further, judging another actor’s threat perceptions requires possessing an objective sense of oneself—an elementary axiom of strategy. The requirement harkens back to the classical Chinese aphorism of Sun Tzu: “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”8
This report draws on the considerable body of open-source material about interactions with North Korea. It emphasizes sources from the United States and the Republic of Korea (also referred to as ROK, and South Korea), but it incorporates written and verbal analysis by other officials and experts, including some who participated in relevant research workshops. Classified sources available to government officials would undoubtedly provide a higher-definition portrait of North Korean threat perceptions. But even an unclassified report on North Korean threat perceptions should help clarify decisions regarding negotiations, deterrence, crisis prevention, and de-escalation and should highlight ideas for a forward-looking US-ROK alliance vision for talks with North Korea.
This study centers on six questions about North Korean threat perceptions and their implications for the US-ROK alliance.
- Kim’s fears: How does North Korea’s ruling elite think about threats to the regime?
- Kim’s threats: How does North Korea’s ruling elite think about the challenges and threats it poses to the ROK-US alliance and other external actors?
- Deterrence: What are the implications of North Korean threat perceptions for maintaining deterrence?
- Diplomacy: What are the implications of North Korean threat perceptions for diplomacy?
- Crisis management: What are the implications of North Korean threat perceptions for escalating and de-escalating a crisis?
- Security assurances: What security assurances and other measures are most useful for addressing the Kim regime’s insecurities without creating greater insecurity for the US-ROK alliance?
This report includes five chapters organized around these questions. Following the first chapter’s introduction of threat perceptions and North Korea, Chapter 2 focuses on the question of the Kim family’s fears, including both internal and external threats. Chapter 3 focuses on the question of Kim’s threats, analyzing various threats through the prism of seven campaigns pursued by Pyongyang since the Korean War. Chapter 4 focuses on the remaining four questions and explores how the United States, South Korea, and others can maintain deterrence, advance diplomacy, avoid crisis escalation, and provide security assurances that help North Korea walk back its nuclear programs. Chapter 5 offers a brief conclusion by returning to the current moment, in which the Biden administration, working with the South Korean government led by President Moon Jae-in, attempts to discover a path for creating durable peace on the peninsula.