Most Americans think North Korea is a crazy place, led by a crazy man bent on global destruction. This view, of course, is almost completely wrong and explains in part why the current public discussion about what to do with a nuclear North Korea is so unsatisfying. Far from crazy, Kim Jong Un has been methodical and careful enough in advancing his nuclear and missile programs to suggest that he is deterred by America’s overwhelming military capabilities, and at the very least is not eager to spark a military conflict—at least not yet.
But what does Kim think of us? If we are going to continue to rely, as we have for decades, on deterrence to prevent a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula, it helps to know both a little about who we are trying to deter and what our deterrence partner thinks about America. As a senior director in the Obama White House charged with coordinating nonproliferation policy, I thought about this question a lot as we tried to ensure our actions and words intended to influence North Korea would send the right deterrent and diplomatic messages to Pyongyang.