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Book: 'The Hermit King'


We turn now to a national security topic that's back in the news - North Korea. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, North Korea fired two short-range missiles, the latest escalation in an already tense relationship with the U.S. But a new book takes a step back from such headlines and provides more context about the country and its leader. It's called "The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game Of Kim Jong Un." It's by Chung Min Lee, South Korea's former ambassador for national security affairs and an expert on Korean affairs. He began our conversation by urging me to think visually to help me understand how the dictatorship works.

CHUNG MIN LEE: North Korea can be best, I think, imagined if you have five concentric circles. In the middle, you have the Kim dynasty and Kim Jong Un. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founded the DPRK back in 1948. His father ran it until he died in 2011. And so the most important goal of the state is not the North Korean people or the army. It is the survival of the Kim regime.

And to do that, you need a vast army, 1.2 million forces. You need nuclear weapons. You need hard currency-making machines. You need gulags and a police surveillance state. All of that is enmeshed into Kim Jong Un. And he was only born in 1983, so he's a very young leader. And although he really wants to emulate Deng Xiaoping, or maybe even Park Chung-hee of South Korea in the '60s and '70s, he cannot because he is constrained by the very system that created it.

GONYEA: And a lot of people see him as kind of a cartoon character - a very dangerous one. But you stress that he is not deranged, which is one word that's often used to describe him - that in reality, it's quite the opposite.

LEE: You're absolutely right. I think the worst characterization is to have - or to make Kim Jong Un look like a buffoon. He may have a funny haircut, and he doesn't fit the bill of a normal dictator, but he is savvy, he is smart, and he's ruthless. And he has shown this by killing his uncle, by assassinating his older half-brother. He has purged hundreds of generals and other intelligence officials in the party and in the government. And he has basically ruled North Korea with an iron fist since the summer of 2011. So this guy is a very smart guy.

GONYEA: So you provide this history and this context, but you also write about something much more current - the relationship between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. It's really an unprecedented relationship between leaders of these two countries. They've met at the DMZ. President Trump set foot in North Korea in the process - the first U.S. president to do so.

But you also write - and this is a quote - "Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons. But he's tempting Trump with denuclearization, playing to Trump's ego and his desire for political victories. Ultimately, Kim knows that time is on his side."

LEE: President Trump, I think, has a penchant for autocratic leaders, whether it's Vladimir Putin, the Saudi crown prince or North Korea's Kim Jong Un. And part of the reason is because he is fascinated - Trump is fascinated by absolute power, which he doesn't have in a democracy.

And so what he did with Kim Jong Un on the positive side is he did break the ice. He was the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. And yet, Trump's bromance with Kim Jong Un is not going to lead towards denuclearization. Why? Because what the North Koreans say about denuclearization is fundamentally different from what the Americans want.

The Americans want the North Koreans to abolish and dismantle all nuclear weapons. And the North Koreans say, basically, no. Why? Because they look at Libya's Gadhafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. And their argument is if those two dictators had nuclear weapons, America and NATO would have never attacked those countries. So as long as Kim Jong Un is alive, my point is he will never give up nuclear weapons.

GONYEA: What do you want people to take away from this - your story about North Korea?

LEE: The fight for freedom on the Korean peninsula continues. There's a very famous satellite picture of the Korean peninsula where the northern half is totally dark, and the southern half is ablaze in light. That signals what South Korea has done together with our American ally for the last 60, 70 years. The 38,000 Americans who died in the Korean War and many thousands of who were wounded or missing in action did not die in vain. They really did die for defending freedom in South Korea.

But look what has - look what we have done together for the last 70 years - the world's 11th largest economy, Asia's most vibrant democracy and, despite Mr. Trump, a very, very strong alliance between South Korea and the United States. And I think this is the lesson that I think most Americans simply don't understand - that they are a force for good, that they have transformed South Korea. And I hope, God willing, with America's help, we will be able to have a free Korea throughout the Korean Peninsula.

GONYEA: That's Chung Min Lee. His book "The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game Of Kim Jong Un" is out now.

Thanks for talking with us today.

LEE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.