Kim Jong-un's Fears Could Be Exploited

North Korea's Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un's Fears Could Be Exploited

Kim Jong-un's regime poses a significant threat to South Korea and global stability, but understanding his fears could benefit the ROK-U.S. alliance.

Summary: Kim Jong-un's regime poses a significant threat to South Korea and global stability, but understanding his fears could benefit the ROK-U.S. alliance. Kim's primary fears include assassination or coup by close aides, preemptive strikes on his nuclear capabilities, the influx of outside information, exposure of his and his family's faults, the impact of reform and opening up, and the ultimate collapse of his regime.

North Korea

-These fears can be exploited through psychological warfare to instill doubt among North Korean elites and military officers, spread information highlighting the disparity between North and South Korea, and emphasize the disgraceful ends of other dictators.

-A concerted information campaign could weaken Kim's grip on power, ultimately leading to regime change and a unified Korea.

Exploiting Kim Jong-un's Fears: A Strategy for ROK-U.S. Alliance

The Kim family regime and its military are an existential threat to the Republic of Korea (ROK). The regional powers fear the actions of North Korea. Many in the United States fear a North Korean nuclear attack. Whatever happens on the Korean peninsula, whether war or internal instability and regime collapse, will have global effects. However, rarely, if ever, do researchers consider what makes Kim Jong-un afraid. What keeps him awake at night? If that can be identified and understood, can those fears be exploited to the benefit of the ROK-U.S. alliance? The following are Kim Jong-un’s six major fears.

First, Kim Jong-un fears assassination and a coup executed by his close aides and the military. He is an absolute ruler but is always anxious that his aides and military officers could undermine his authority and later harm him. That’s why he continues the frequent execution and purging of officials and officers. The Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party keeps high-ranking officials under strict control by monitoring them on an hourly basis every day. However, this reign of terror is causing resentment among the elites.

Second, Kim Jong-un greatly fears a preemptive strike against his nuclear capabilities and himself and the use of words such as assassination and decapitation. If he continues his human rights atrocities against the Korean people and threatens regional stability and world peace with nuclear weapons, he knows he will be at risk. As the marshal of the North Korean People’s Army, he will always be a legitimate military target. 

Third, Kim fears the influx of outside information that reveals the highly developed reality of South Korea and the free, prosperous daily lives of its people. This is especially dangerous because South Korea uses the same language, and the people are ethnic brethren who have lived together for thousands of years. Kim fears that if Koreans in the North come to admire the South Korean system, his power will collapse. That’s why he has designated South Korea as the principal enemy, banned words like “ethnic brethren” and “reunification,” and completely blocked outside information. This is also the reason he sent 260 balloons carrying trash to South Korea. He believes the implied aerial threat would create friction within the South and make the government demand that escapees halt sending information into the North. Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, nearly admitted this in her May 29 KCNA statement while saying these balloons are a form of freedom of expression. Information is an existential threat to the regime.

Fourth, Kim Jong-un fears his subjects learning about his own faults and those of his family. In the current North Korean system, Kim and his family are deified as perfect beings, with their personal lives shrouded in secrecy. If it were revealed that Kim’s mother, Ko Young-hee, was an ethnic Korean born in Japan and that his father, Kim Jong-il, had four wives, North Koreans would be outraged at being deceived. The North Korean system doesn’t even allow ethnic Koreans born in Japan to join the Workers’ Party. That’s why Kim fears the revelation of his and his family’s faults as much as a nuclear attack. This is precisely why he still hasn’t publicly acknowledged his mother, Ko Young-hee. 

Fifth, Kim Jong-un fears reform and opening up. He believes this will bring down the personality cult and deification of his family that is built on lies and deception, making it impossible to maintain his hereditary absolute power. He also fears that if opened, the Kim regime’s seventy years of crimes against humanity will be exposed, landing him at the International Criminal Court. If Koreans in the north experience the freedom of an open society, they will compare it to their impoverished system, and their power will inevitably collapse. 

Sixth, Kim fears the collapse of the regime most of all. The collapse could result from two conditions. First is the loss of the ability of the Korean Workers Party to govern the entire territory in the North from Pyongyang. The second is the loss of support from the military and security services. All the situations and circumstances described above could contribute to these conditions. When both occur simultaneously, it would be a most precarious position for Kim Jong-un, especially if there has been an effective information campaign that has targeted potential emerging leaders. 

In 2020, Kim enacted the “Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act” (and amended it in 2022) to completely block outside information from South Korea, the United States, etc., blinding and deafening the people. The act prohibited all TV and radio channels from broadcasting South Korean and foreign programming. Anyone caught watching, listening to, keeping, or distributing South Korean or American movies, recordings, publications, songs, pictures, or photos faces five to ten years of labor re-education, an indefinite prison term, or even execution.

So how can Kim’s greatest fears be employed against him to liberate the oppressed Korean people in the North and achieve denuclearization? The fundamental solution to the North Korean problem must focus on Kim Jong-un, the ultimate decisionmaker within the regime.

First, the ROK-U.S. alliance must wage psychological warfare to give North Korean elites and military officers a firm belief in their future security if they break away from the brutal dictator. This could lead to forces emerging from the Workers’ Party, guard command, and state security agencies to remove the oppressive dictator and drive systemic change.

Second, the alliance could wage psychological warfare by continuously dropping leaflets and USB drives and using all communications channels into the North with information about the miserable ends of long-ruling brutal dictators like Romania’s Ceausescu, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. This will show North Korean officials and military elites the disgraceful fate of dictators, making them realize that they, too, could meet the same end by staying close to Kim Jong-un, driving them to lead the regime transition.

Third, the alliance could send video footage comparing the development of North and South Korea to make Koreans in the North realize they are poor and unfree because of Kim Jong-un. This could be accompanied by videos showing the gap in weapons systems between the North Korean military and ROK and U.S. forces, which could change the perceptions of North Korean officers and soldiers and break their will to attack the South. K-dramas are already having some effect, but much more could be done in this area.

Fourth, based on the universal human rights of North Koreans trapped in an enclosed space to access information, the U.S. Congress should pass a “North Korea Information Enhancement Act” to strengthen psychological warfare against the North. Our most powerful weapon to win without bloodshed is psychological warfare against North Korea (leafleting, radio broadcasts, mobile phone access, etc.). If Kim Jong-un continues his provocations with nuclear threats, we must counter with an offensive through an information campaign. This is the best defense and offense we can take against the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who tramples on international peace and human rights and commits crimes against humanity. The U.S. forces in South Korea and the South Korean military itself must also strengthen psychological warfare to drive the Korean people in the North to change Kim Jong-un’s system.

North Korea

There is only one way to put an end to the nuclear and military threats, as well as the human rights abuses. That way is through the unification and establishment of a free and unified Korea based on the principles of individual freedom, the rule of law, and human rights as determined by the Korean people.

About the Authors

Ri Jong Ho is a former senior North Korean economic official who served under all three leaders of the Kim family regime. His most recent role was based in Dalian, China, where he headed the Korea Daehung Trading Corporation, overseen by the clandestine Office 39 under the direct control of the ruling Kim family. Before his assignment in Dalian, Jong Ho held pivotal positions, including President of the Daehung Shipping Company and Executive Director of the Daehung General Bureau of the North Korean Workers’ Party, a role equivalent to Vice-Minister rank in the North Korean party state. Subsequently, he was appointed Chairman of the Korea Kumgang Economic Development Group (KKG) under the North Korean Defense Committee by Kim Jong-il. Jong Ho is a recipient of the Hero of Labor Award, the highest civilian honor in North Korea. Following a series of brutal purges by Kim Jong-un, he defected with his family to South Korea in late 2014. Currently, Jong Ho resides in the greater Washington D.C. area.