What does Kim Jong Un want?

The dictator’s endgame is hard to predict

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un at a ceremony in Pyongyang in 2012, shortly after he came to power
(Image credit: Ed Jones / Getty Images)

As news broke overnight that North Korea has fired a second ballistic missile across Japan, tensions in the Far East approached boiling point - with Kim Jong Un showing no signs of slowing down his military aggression.

The missile “flew higher and further than one fired over Japan late last month”, says the BBC. The launch follows a large nuclear bomb test just over two weeks ago.

Yet for a regime with such active military operations, North Korea’s motives often seem unclear. With the escalation of rhetoric and action in recent months, many are trying to understand Kim’s final goal. What does North Korea's leader want?

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Stronger negotiating hand

A common theory among analysts is that, sooner or later, Kim’s regime will be so crippled by the West’s economic sanctions that it will need to return to diplomatic bargaining, rather than making shows of military power.

As a result, some view North Korea’s missle tests as a means of strengthening Kim’s hand before negotiations, reports The Washington Post.

“The further they advance ­towards having an operational ­arsenal, the more they can get from outside powers just for a freeze [of operations] when they return to the negotiating table,” Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator with the North, told the newspaper.

“With more and more sanctions being piled on North Korea, it is just a matter of time until the pressure becomes unbearable.”

Direct talks with the US

Rather than negotiating with the UN, South Korea or Japan, claims Singapore’s The Straits Times, Kim may be attempting to “pressure Washington to the negotiating table” for direct talks between North Korea and the US.

“North Korea thinks that by exhibiting their capability, the path to dialogue will open,” Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan’s Keio University, told Reuters. “That logic, however, is not understood by the rest of the world, so it’s not easy.”

But CNN reports that a number of US lawmakers have indeed come out in support of direct talks with Pyongyang. Democrat representative Ted Lieu told the news network: “If the choice is between military conflict or talking, I would support talking.”

A popular “misconception” , says the Foreign Policy In Focus website, is that “Kim Jong Un is fundamentally irrational”. In reality, it says, diplomacy is probably his target. The Washington Post, however, says such a result “still seems a long way off”.


North Korea - a relatively small nation with a ferociously nationalistic streak that has been governed by the Kim dynasty since 1948 - may need to show off its military strength to avoid the risk of its annihilation at the hands of superpowers, according to The Straits Times.

“The Kims have seen the recent history of Iraq and Libya and must surely glean the lesson: give up your nuclear weapons programme and your regime does not survive.”

Aside from claiming that the North will “never” give up its nuclear weapons, nor scale back its military programs, The Straits Times says Kim Jong Un also “seeks a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty”.

Removal of US troops from the South

“From the North Korean perspective, their propaganda calls for reunifying the country,” says New York magazine. “Their ideology is built around getting US troops off Korean soil. They are told to see South Koreans as enslaved by the US.”

However, the likelihood of the US withdrawing its troops from the Korean Peninsula is extremely low. The Washington Post describes the US presence as an “essential stabilising force” in the region.

Writing for the Lowy Institute, Thomas Wright suggests that “containing North Korea will be a crucial part of America’s Asia strategy for many years”, but that a continuation of the status quo is “better than the alternative of American withdrawal that puts Northeast Asia on the brink of a new Korean War”.

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