“The explanation could be that this is linked to trying to give this third-generation camp a little more of a profile,” Hill said. “I don’t think he has really connected with the North Korean people. They could be looking to show he’s a tough guy.”
The senior official agreed that Kim’s style is sharply different from his father’s, “including putting himself out in front of the cameras. He’s got a sort of assertive, outgoing and more egocentric character. His father was very reclusive and preferred to shove other people out into the limelight.”
But “fundamentally, the patter is eerily the same,” the official said. “It’s a very familiar North Korean playbook that some of us who have worked on North Korea have seen repeatedly. Right around now, during the winter training cycle, the leadership injects a huge dose of urgency. . . to mobilize the population. It’s invariably a counterpoint to the U.S.-South Korean exercises.”
Behind the sudden decision to strengthen mainland American defenses against North Korean missiles is a fear that Pyongyang’s biggest benefactor, China, may no longer be able to act as a guarantor of baseline stability on the Korean Peninsula.
In the past month, North Korea has ignored Chinese warnings by threatening a nuclear strike on the United States and renouncing the 60-year armistice with South Korea. The rhetorical escalation followed advances in missile technology and a nuclear weapons test that China had opposed.
North Korea also appears to be paying less heed to the possibility of South Korean or U.S. retaliation for any provocation. Top military officials said North Korea probably can’t make good on its most extreme threats but suggested that the old rubric of deterrence might be crumbling.
Deterrence involves both prevention and punishment, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said when the Pentagon announced the new missile defense plans.
“We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred,” Winnefeld said, referring to Kim. “And if he’s not, we’ll be ready.”
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.