The commander of U.S. Pacific Command said Feb. 14, 2018 he believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is pursuing nuclear weapons to eventually reunify the Korean Peninsula under his brutal communist regime.
The U.S. should take that long view into account when dealing with Kim's quest for nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. cities, Adm. Harry Harris said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.
"I do think that there is a prevailing view that KJU [Kim Jong Un] is doing the things that he is doing to safeguard his regime. I don't ascribe to that view," Harris said. "I do think that he is after reunification under a single communist system, so he is after what his grandfather failed to do and his father failed to do."
North Korea conducted ICBM and nuclear tests in 2017 and has defiantly continued to pursue the weapons despite U.S. and international condemnation and economic sanctions. Recent testing and U.S. intelligence estimates show the regime is close to completing the missiles.
"It puts him in a position to blackmail the South and other countries in the region and us," as Kim pursues what he sees as the regime's "natural place" controlling the entire Korean Peninsula, Harris said.
Kim Jong Un with North Koreans just after the test fire of a surface to surface medium long range missile. (image KCNA)
"I think we are self-limiting if we view North Korea's nuclear ambitions as solely as a means to safeguard his regime."
An armistice between the North and the United States has been in place since the Korean War ended in stalemate more than six decades ago. Since then, three generations of Kims have ruled the North and turned it into one of the most isolated and repressive regimes in the world.
The Trump administration is now struggling with the youngest Kim's nuclear aspirations, which have put the regime on the verge of becoming the world's latest nuclear power to acquire ICBMs.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the House Armed Services chairman, cited an article by former Ambassador James Jeffrey and speculated that current thinking on the North may be wrong.
"The dominant view is he wants missiles and nuclear weapons in order to safeguard his regime," Thornberry said. "To think anything else is so unpleasant that we don't let ourselves think that maybe he wants these nuclear weapons to hold U.S. cities hostage so that he can have his way and finish what his grandfather started on the peninsula."
But North Korea is notoriously insular and U.S. intelligence is scant on its internal workings.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, questioned whether Harris could be so certain about Kim's motivations.
"I think the real answer is there is no way to know. We can guess what he is trying to do," Smith said. "I think anyone who confidently asserts that all Kim Jong Un wants to do is protect his regime is just as wrong as anyone who confidently asserts that he definitely wants to unify the peninsula."