US experts building dossiers on Kim to give Trump an edge

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting the Pyongyang Railway Station on Wednesday to see off a special-purpose train carrying the bodies of Chinese tourists killed in a bus accident in North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting the Pyongyang Railway Station on Wednesday to see off a special-purpose train carrying the bodies of Chinese tourists killed in a bus accident in North Korea.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • US intelligence experts are trying to build a profile of Mr Kim Jong Un to give President Donald Trump a competitive edge in one of the most consequential summits since the Cold War, but they face a huge challenge - figuring out a secretive North Korean ruler few people know much about.

Following a long tradition of arming United States presidents with political and psychological dossiers of foreign leaders ahead of critical negotiations, government analysts are gathering every new bit of information they can glean about Mr Kim and making adjustments to earlier assessments of what makes him tick, US officials said.

They will rely, in part, on the impressions drawn by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Mike Pompeo, who just weeks ago became the first Trump administration official to meet Mr Kim.

Mr Pompeo privately described the North Korean leader as "a smart guy who is doing his homework". The profile will also include intelligence gathered in past debriefings of others who have interacted with Mr Kim, including former National Basketball Association star Dennis Rodman, Mr Kim's former classmates at a Swiss boarding school and South Korean envoys.

All this is being used to update the US government's classified file on Mr Kim's behaviour, motives, personality and leadership style to help Mr Trump and his aides develop a strategy for dealing with him at the expected first-ever meeting of US and North Korean leaders.

Despite that, direct knowledge of Mr Kim remains limited, especially given the scarcity of informants on the ground and the difficulties of cyber espionage in a country where Internet usage is minimal.

When Mr Kim first came to power, the CIA predicted that his rule might be short-lived. Seven years later, that prediction has been dropped and he is now seen as a shrewd and ruthless leader.

More recently, many US experts were caught off guard by how nimbly he shifted from his sabre-rattling drive to build a nuclear missile arsenal to diplomatic outreach.

The emerging US consensus on Mr Kim is similar to what many outside experts have publicly concluded. He is seen as a "rational actor" - not the "total nut job" that Mr Trump once branded him.

He craves international stature but his main aim is "regime survival" and perpetuating his family dynasty, suggesting it will be hard for him to agree to full nuclear disarmament, the officials said.

He is ruthless enough to have had relatives executed but now feels secure enough in power to gamble on Mr Trump, they said.

His dispatch of his sister to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February and a rare appearance by his wife when the South's envoys visited in March demonstrate an effort to humanise his leadership abroad. US experts will be closely studying both Mr Kim's words and body language at his historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae In today, officials said.

Another challenge for them was determining how much information to give Mr Trump - known to have little patience for detailed briefings - and then persuading him not to act purely on gut instinct, as he often does with foreign leaders.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2018, with the headline 'US experts building dossiers on Kim to give Trump an edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe