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Enigmatic Kim holds key to launch

SEOUL — If North Korea goes ahead with its threat to fire ballistic missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam, the order will come from Kim Jong Un himself.

The officials in charge of North Korea's missile program could complete their preparations by next week and would then wait for the 33-year-old leader to decide what to do next.

Will Kim give the order to fire, potentially inviting retaliation from an American president who has his military "locked and loaded"?

This is not a question of technical capability. North Korea has already demonstrated that it has made great advances in its missile program and can theoretically now hit the U.S. mainland.

No, this is a question of strategy.

"The North Koreans have been very clear that they need his authorization. This is a moment for Kim Jong Un," said Michael Madden, who runs the North Korean Leadership Watch website and closely studies Kim. "He may take it as an opportunity to prove himself, or as an opportunity to let cooler heads prevail."

The Kim regime has a history of making bellicose threats that it cannot or does not make good on. This may well be one of those cases.

Or it might not. For starters, North Korea likes to mark important dates, and there are two approaching.

On Tuesday, North Korea will celebrate Liberation Day, marking the end of colonial rule by Japan, over which any Guam-bound missile would fly. Then on Aug. 21, South Korea and the United States will start annual military exercises that always antagonize North Korea.

The problem with trying to figure out what Kim might do in a situation like this is severely complicated by the fact that the outside world knows almost nothing about him.

He was born in North Korea in 1984, the youngest son of Kim Jong Il — who would become the country's leader a decade later — and a Japanese-born ethnic Korean dancer named Ko Yong Hui.

The fact that he was the third son should have disqualified him from contention for the leadership in a society where the firstborn son has primacy.

But thanks in no small part to his mother's ambition, Kim Jong Un soon became heir apparent. He was anointed successor at the age of 8, his aunt, Ko Yong Suk, told the Washington Post last year.

He was given a general's uniform decorated with stars, and real generals with real stars bowed to him from that moment on.

Very little is known about him as a person or as a leader.

He has not traveled abroad or hosted a foreign leader since he was designated successor in 2010, and the only Americans who have met him are retired basketball star Dennis Rodman and his entourage.

"I think people don't see him as . . . a friendly guy," Rodman told ABC after returning from his fifth trip to Pyongyang, in June, although he did not meet Kim this time.

"If you actually talk to him," you see a different side of Kim, Rodman said. "We sing karaoke. It's all fun. Ride horses, everything," said the former Chicago Bull, Kim's favorite team.

Because the previous two North Korean leaders traveled and met outsiders, psychological profilers were able to build a picture of them.

But the lack of human intelligence on Kim means that the CIA hasn't even been able to write a proper profile of him, said Madden of North Korea Leadership Watch.

A South Korean expert who advises the government in Seoul said Kim displays some "narcissistic personality traits."

"He believes that the whole world revolves around him, so he exaggerates and overrates himself," said the expert, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of his work. "His intelligence, power, success — it's all a fantasy."

Enigmatic Kim holds key to launch 08/12/17 [Last modified: Saturday, August 12, 2017 9:58pm]
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