Kim Jong Un – unpredictable, crazy? Or smart, strategic?

Fareed Zakaria / The Daily Star

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to people attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. Towards the end of every parade, it is tradition for the North Korean leader to come to the edge of the balcony from where he watches the proceedings and wave to foreign and local dignitaries sitting on either side of the building. The photographers and cameramen file photos to the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official state news outlet. The photographer on the far right has his hair styled in a similar way to Kim Jong Un, a common refrain amongst his bodyguards, aides and the photographers which surround him.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "PARADE WID" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

I am sometimes asked what world figure I would most want to interview. For me, the answer is obvious: Kim Jong Un. The general impression around the globe continues to be that the North Korean leader is crazy, provocative and unpredictable, but I think that he might well be strategic, smart and utterly rational. Since I am unlikely to get that interview, I have decided to imagine it instead.

Q: Marshal Kim, why do you keep building and testing nuclear weapons, even though they result in massive, crippling economic sanctions?

A: My nation faces a fundamental challenge – survival. The regime is more threatened than ever before. My forefathers had it easy. The Great Leader, my grandfather, ruled with the support of the world’s other superpower at the time, the Soviet Union, as well as our gigantic neighbor, China. Dear leader, my father, still had Beijing’s help for the most part. But today, the Soviet Union is history and China has become more integrated with the Western system. And the sole superpower, the United States, has made it clear that it seeks regime change in my country. And yet, we have survived with our ideology and system intact. How? Because we have built a protection for ourselves in the form of nuclear weapons.

Q: But China still provides you with crucial supplies of food and fuel. Don’t you see it as an ally?

A: China is ruthlessly pragmatic. It supports us for its own selfish interests. It doesn’t want millions of refugees – or a unified Korea on its border that is a larger version of what South Korea is now, with American troops and a treaty alliance.

But I believe that China no longer considers us an ally. It has voted to sanction us in the United Nations Security Council. The current president, Xi Jinping, cultivates close relations with South Korea. He has never met with me, the leader of North Korea, something that the leader of China has always done. Meanwhile, he has had about 10 meetings with the last two presidents of South Korea. At the grand celebrations in Beijing two years ago commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he placed the president of Russia and the president of South Korea at his side. In North Korea, we pay a lot of attention to ceremonies and what they signal.

Q: Is that why you seem to go out of your way to embarrass China and Xi specifically?

A: We will not be pushed around. We heard that senior officials in China and the U.S. were discussing whether to encourage a coup in North Korea to get a more pliable ruler. So I’ve taken steps to ensure that this can’t happen. The man in our government closest to the Chinese, who could have arranged such a coup attempt, was my uncle. The man who would have been my natural replacement was my half-brother. Both have been liquidated, as have more than 100 disloyal high-level officials.

Q: So will you come to the negotiating table? Will you agree to denuclearization in return for the lifting of sanctions?

A: Yes and no. We will readily come to the table. But we will never give up our arsenal. We’re not stupid. It’s all that is keeping us alive. Look at Saddam Hussein – and we never forget that North Korea was named as part of the “axis of evil” a year before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Look what happened to Moammar Gadhafi in Libya after he agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program. Look at what’s happening to Iran right now. After Washington signed a deal and the Iranians have been certified to be adhering to it, President Donald Trump now says he’s going to tear it up anyway. Do you think we would be stupid enough to believe American promises after all this? We are a nuclear power. That is not negotiable. We are willing to talk about limits, test bans, freezes – but we would need to be given something in return, and not just money. We need security, in the form of diplomatic recognition by Washington and guarantees of nonaggression from China, Japan and the U.S.

Q: Many Americans worry that you will soon have the capacity and the intention to launch missiles at the U.S.

A: We will have the capacity. And it serves my purposes to keep you off guard. But why would I strike America and invite a retaliatory counterstrike that would put an end to my regime? Keep in mind, the whole point of this – my entire strategy, all our efforts and the hardships we have borne – is to ensure that my regime and I survive. Why would I risk that? I believe in assassination, not suicide.