Kim Jong Un – We have no clue what motivates/deters him…. | Charles Duelfer

Kim Jong Un – We have no clue what motivates/deters him….

The September 18, 2017 New Yorker had a very good article about Kim Jong Un by Evan Osnos.  He made the point that we really have no idea what motivates him (or perhaps more importantly, would deter him).  And, or course Kim Jong Un will have the same problem viewing Washington.  We experienced similar ignorance about Saddam in 2002-3.  Only afterwards did we learn a great deal about his incentives, goals, etc.  Wisdom can come late and at great cost.  It’s important to recognize that we are very ignorant about what Kim sees as a plus or a minus–and vice versa. Below is a letter I sent regarding this article and published in the New Yorker of October 16, 2017.


I directed the Iraq Survey Group, which detailed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, more important, the internal dynamics of Saddam Hussein’s regime (“On the Brink,” September 18th). Reading Evan Osnos’s report about Kim Jong Un and North Korea, I noticed some striking parallels. Saddam made assumptions about President Bush and Washington that were wildly off the mark; he did not know what motivated Washington, and Washington did not know what motivated him. So it is now with Kim and Donald Trump. Osnos notes that there is no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang. Similarly, the U.S. closed its Embassy in Iraq in 1990 and reopened it only after the invasion of 2003. This dramatically limited the number of Americans who had any contact with Iraqis inside Iraq. The quality of U.S. decisions—and the understanding of the public—suffered from that. The same will be true of North Korea.

Charles Duelfer

Fairfax, Va.

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One Response to Kim Jong Un – We have no clue what motivates/deters him….

  1. Eric says:

    Mr. Duelfer,

    Your equivalence of US decisions regarding Iraq’s Saddam and north Korea’s Kim is inapposite in that US policy on Saddam was based on the longstanding, well established, clearly spelled out UNSCR 660-series compliance enforcement whose “measures acting under Chapter VII of the Charter” (UNSCR 687) composed the purpose-designed “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) which the “Government of Iraq”, eg, the Saddam regime, was mandated to fulfill in order to satisfy “the need to be assured of Iraq’s peaceful intentions in the light of its unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait” (UNSCR 687).

    As such, the operative context for US decisions regarding Saddam was founded on “Recognizing the threat Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security” (UNSCR 1441). The set condition meant Saddam’s threat, including his WMD-related threat, was measured by Iraq’s “continued violations of its obligations” (UNSCR 1441) per the manifold ceasefire terms purpose-designed to resolve Saddam’s Gulf War-established manifold threat. The continuing “threat [of] Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions” (UNSCR 1441) related to aggression (UNSCR 949), WMD and conventional armament (UNSCR 687), terrorism (UNSCR 687), and repression (UNSCR 688). At the decision point for OIF, the WMD-related “threat [of] Iraq’s non-compliance” (UNSCR 1441) was confirmed by UNMOVIC’s measurement of “about 100 unresolved disarmament issues” for casus belli. Today, with corroboration of Iraq’s noncompliance piled high from the UNSCR 1441 inspections and post-war ISG, IPP, IIC, and UNCHR investigations – eg, “[i]n addition to preserved capability, we have clear evidence of his [Saddam’s] intent to resume WMD” (ISG), “the Saddam regime regarded inspiring, sponsoring, directing, and executing acts of terrorism as an element of state power” (IPP), and “[t]he new evidence, particularly that of eyewitnesses, added another dimension to the systematic crimes of the former regime, revealing unparalleled cruelty” (UNCHR) – Saddam’s threatening breach of the Gulf War ceasefire can now be seen as categorical.

    The UNSCR 660-series compliance enforcement since 1990 meant US leaders were not positioned to guess at Saddam’s motivations via diplomacy near or far. Making decisions regarding Saddam as you would have had US leaders make them would have been remiss since Saddam’s “intentions” (UNSCR 687) were objectively assessed according to the fact measurement of Iraq’s mandated compliance in the operative context of “the threat Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions … poses to international peace and security” (UNSCR 1441). As such, President Bush’s decision on Iraq responded to the mandated measurement of Saddam’s “material breach” (UNSCR 1441) in good faith with the decade+ controlling law, policy, and precedent that defined the operative enforcement procedure for the Gulf War ceasefire mandates.

    When a recidivist convicted manifold felon, who for some reason has been allowed to fester in society, continually, categorically, and flagrantly violates his terms of probation, including in his “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441), with escalating intransigence, threat, and harm until lesser enforcement measures have been exhausted and the compliance enforcement is on the verge of defeat, there’s no burden on the compliance enforcement authority to guess at the felon’s motivations on top of the felon’s evidential “material breach” (UNSCR 1441) in order to impose the originally suspended sentence. President HW Bush, 27FEB91: “Iraq must comply fully with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. … If Iraq violates these terms, coalition forces will be free to resume military operations.”

    As far as I know, there isn’t a clear-cut compliance test for Kim’s motivations comparable to the Gulf War ceasefire mandates “Determined to secure full compliance with its [UNSC] decisions, Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations” (UNSCR 1441) by which US leaders objectively measured Saddam’s “intentions” (UNSCR 687). There ought to be a comparable compliance test that can ensure the US decision on north Korea’s Kim will be as plainly correct as the US decision on Iraq’s Saddam. Perhaps if the Iraq intervention is de-stigmatized and publicly upheld, while Saddam’s accomplices who’ve obfuscated the actual why of the Iraq intervention are publicly discredited, then a comparable compliance test can be effectuated for north Korea’s Kim.

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