America no longer sees Kim Jong Un as a joke

A TV screen in South Korea shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with superimposed letters that read: “North Korea’s nuclear warhead” during a news program at Seoul Railway Station on March 9, 2016. North Korea claimed last year the pictured orb was a miniaturized nuclear weapon, a claim that was widely mocked. U.S. intelligence officials have now concluded North Korea has successfully miniaturized such a warhead, according to a report in the Washington Post. Ahn Young-joon AP

 

WASHINGTON Commentators laughed last year when a photograph emerged of Kim Jong Un standing next to an orb, which a North Korean newspaper stated was a miniaturized nuclear weapon. “That’s a weird looking disco ball,” joked one intelligence contractor on Twitter.

Not many are laughing anymore.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that a U.S. intelligence assessment concluded North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead, a disclosure that rapidly intensified an already tense standoff with the rogue nation. Soon after the report, President Donald Trump warned Kim against making further threats, saying North Korea “will be met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen.”

Whether Kim truly possesses the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead — and successfully launch it on an intercontinental missile — is unknown and remains hotly debated. Yet there is no doubt now that Kim has scored one major achievement: He is finally being taken seriously by the foreign policy establishment and intelligence agencies, evidenced by the latest assessment on his nuclear capabilities.

Kim came to power in 2011, and was immediately mocked for his funny haircut and pudgy appearance. Some Korea hands questioned if, at the age of 27, he could maintain his hold on power, speculating he would be dominated or pushed out by senior officials in the military.

But Kim has proven his skeptics wrong. He has eliminated potential rivals, including his uncle, whom he executed in 2013. He’s improved North Korea’s economy, in spite of international sanctions. And he’s steadily advanced North Korea’s nuclear and missile technologies, including the successful test of an ICBM on July 28 that showed a capability to travel as far as New York or Washington D.C.

Jonathan D. Pollack, a Korea specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recalled how Sen. John McCain of Arizona this year labeled Kim Jong Un as a “crazy fat kid.” He said seeing North Korea’s leader this way is risky.

“I treat it seriously,” said Pollack of North Korea. “It’s not a cartoon because of its increasing capabilities.”

If North Korea can now claim successful miniaturization of a nuclear weapon, it would bring it a step closer to credibly threatening the United States with nuclear attack, and by the same token, being able to credibly deter any attack on its territory and the Kim regime. Yet analysts warn against exaggerating North Korea’s capabilities, noting the country’s mixed success in missile launches, and the fact that it has yet to demonstrate it can pass a missile through the upper atmosphere without damaging one of its warheads.

For many in the West, Kim’s development of nuclear weapons is the work of a deranged dictator, an image reinforced by North Korea’s bellicose messages. On Sunday, for instance, Pyongyang’s state-run KCNA news agency warned the United States against “believing that its land is safe across the ocean” with North Korea’s steady missile advances.

Full article: America no longer sees Kim Jong Un as a joke (DCMcClatchy)

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